Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder closed out their first-round series against James Harden and the Houston Rockets with a 103-94 win in Game 6, but the victory sure didn't come easy Friday night in Houston.
The Rockets battled gamely, getting a double-double from Omer Asik, a brilliant effort from Chandler Parsons, and perhaps most impressive of all, a gutty 43 minutes from an obviously ill Harden. In the end, though, Durant and the Thunder proved to be too much for the upstart Rockets.
Durant led the Thunder with 27 points, displaying the same extra aggression that has been a part of his offensive game since Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus. Fortunately for KD, he finally got a little bit of help from his friends.
Kevin Martin looked much more like himself after a dismal 1-of-10 shooting night in OKC's Game 5 loss. He finished with 25 and provided the second option that the Thunder have so desperately been seeking. The sharpshooting sixth man scored 21 points in the first half alone, helping Oklahoma City weather Houston's early runs.
Filling in for Westbrook, Reggie Jackson played one of his best games as a pro, finishing with 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting. His work in the lane was critical to creating space for OKC's perimeter shooters. Jackson was 6-of-8 in the paint and his kickouts helped him lead the team with seven assists.
The game was in doubt for much of the first three quarters, as the Rockets amassed 15 unanswered points in the first quarter and later put on an 18-4 burst to start the second half. Parsons caught fire during that latter run, drilling threes from all over the place and pushing Houston ahead.
The forward came into his own before our eyes in a breakout series, providing 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting and hitting a number of huge shots to keep the Rockets close when Harden was struggling.
Speaking of which, despite a case of strep throat, Harden gave a monumental effort, barreling into the lane, hoisting threes and generally putting relentless pressure on an OKC defense that opted to go without Perkins in the middle after a rough four minutes to start the game.
He ended up with a team-high 26 points, but needed 22 shots to get his numbers.
The game turned after Houston's big push to open the third quarter, when the Thunder fired back, going on a 37-12 run of their own to salt the game away in the fourth.
The contest was contentious from the opening tip, and tempers flared early, as Francisco Garcia and Perkins got tangled up on a first-quarter screen. The altercation resulted in a double technical and after a few penal pushups by Perkins, both parties went on their way. But it was clear that this was going to be a fight from the word "go."
Houston deserves credit for giving the Thunder a real scare as the eighth seed. Though they've been eliminated this year, the pieces are in place for plenty more playoff runs in the future.
For the Thunder, a series win after losing Westbrook is a major step in the team's development. Durant has proved that he can carry the load himself, and OKC's role players are getting a crash course in "stepping up."
A hero before the game even started, Harden got plenty of praise for even attempting to play.
There were also lots of questions before tipoff, some simpler than others.
Houston's early blitz had some folks concerned that the Thunder were in for a blowout loss.
And things looked particularly dire as the Rockets put on a 15-0 run in the first quarter.
Nick Collison, who had been a huge part of some of OKC's best lineups all year long, was again relegated to a surprisingly limited amount of playing time, prompting many to question Scott Brooks. It should be noted that questioning Scott Brooks is among the top five uses of Twitter.
Of course, if this game had a darling, it was Parsons.
Although, some folks seemed a little more interested in the, um, aesthetics of his game than his actual performance.
In the end, KD was too much, prompting an interesting geographical phenomenon in his honor.
And now it's time to look ahead.
OKC will square off next with the hulking Grizzlies, a team whose style could hardly be more different from the fast-breaking Rockets'. Durant and Co. handled Houston, but endured some bumps along the way. Let's hope they're prepared for a few bruises, too.