HOUSTON -- For the Oklahoma City Thunder, this first step without Russell Westbrook was the toughest, the most trying, the most taxing.
On the fly, the Thunder had to readjust and completely alter what they were all while fending off the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets, whose burgeoning confidence swelled with each passing quarter of each game.
Down the stretch of Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinal series, the Thunder evolved a step further, discovered a little more about how they will proceed moving forward. And the manner in which they closed out their 103-94 victory on Friday night at Toyota Center offered the truest glimpse of these newly reconfigured Thunder.
Oklahoma City claimed a 4-2 series victory by blending late suffocating defense with a balanced scoring attack in support of All-Star forward Kevin Durant, whose 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists carried the Thunder into the second round, where the Memphis Grizzlies await.
"It was very important just to build on what we've been preaching the last four or five years, which is togetherness, being positive but also policing each other, and also playing hard every minute we're on the floor," Durant said. "I think tonight we did that.
"That fourth quarter is where we really locked in, held them to 17 points. We just did a great job of staying together through tough times."
Clinging to a 78-77 lead entering the fourth quarter, the Thunder grabbed their first double-digit lead, 94-84, midway through the quarter. Durant fittingly struck the devastating blows, scoring twice in transition while adding a 3-pointer that sucked the life out of the tenacious Rockets. But so much of what the Thunder accomplished came defensively, an area where they had struggled in Games 4 and 5.
The Rockets shot just 31.6 percent from the field in the fourth quarter and the Thunder turned four Houston turnovers into eight points. Perhaps the Rockets, short-handed themselves, had finally worn down with Carlos Delfino (broken right foot) unavailable and Jeremy Lin (chest) severely limited.
"I thought the biggest thing was that every pass was contested," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Every shot was contested. Our guys got into them. I told them during a third quarter break that if your man doesn't feel you you're not doing your job and you're disappointing your teammates. I thought the guys made each player feel them. You knew that you were being guarded by one of our players."
Durant did his part fighting the Rockets' contributors as Houston grabbed series momentum, but in the clincher he received plenty of help.
Kevin Martin, who was 1 of 10 from the field in Game 5, scored 21 of his 25 points in the first half as Durant struggled. Reggie Jackson, charged with filling the void left by Westbrook, added 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Veterans Nick Collison and Derek Fisher combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds and four assists off the Oklahoma City bench.
The Rockets rebounded from a 3-0 series deficit but failed to shift the series back to Oklahoma City for a decisive Game 7.
James Harden paced Houston with 26 points and added seven assists and six rebounds, and Chandler Parsons added 25 points and seven rebounds. Houston center Omer Asik produced a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Houston managed one spirited run to open the third quarter, but with their bench compromised the Rockets seemed to run out of steam late. So much of their rally back into series contention was based on emotion, but down the stretch the Rockets were gassed physically and mentally.
"Every game it's tough to keep it up like that on a consistent level, but we showed that we can do it throughout the series, throughout the year," Parsons said. "We just can't get bogged down on offense; we've got to keep running our stuff. We've got to get stops so that we can get out in transition and do what we do best. They made some big plays."
It was Parsons who served as the linchpin for the Rockets' run to the lead in Game 4, and while his hot hand in the third reignited the raucous crowd, it also sparked Durant, who hit a 3, scored on a putback, and then added a baseline jumper that lifted the Thunder to a 78-75 lead.
Those dueling runs were par for the course. The Rockets reeled off 15 consecutive points in the first quarter to open an 11-point lead only for the Thunder to close the quarter with a 9-3 surge that cut the deficit to 29-26 entering the second. Harden, battling strep throat, looked sluggish yet the Rockets' starters offered plenty of offensive support.
The Thunder answered each Rockets run with one of their own until Houston fell silent. Without Westbrook they persevered, leaving the Rockets relishing their modest accomplishments even in defeat.
"This is definitely a great learning experience," Harden said. "This is something we can't hold our heads for. In the summertime we can get better.
"We've got a lot of young guys that work hard that want to win. We're on the same page, and that's what matters. The sky is the limit for us."
NOTES: The Rockets announced Friday that a CT scan performed on Delfino revealed a bone fracture in his right foot and he will miss the remainder of the postseason. He averaged 10.6 points and 3.3 rebounds over 67 games this season and provided a steadying, veteran influence on the youngest, most inexperienced roster in the league. Additionally, Delfino was integral to the Rockets' small lineups, often surrendering inches and pounds guarding power forwards. He was forced to leave midway through the second quarter of Game 5. "I feel bad for Carlos, I really do," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "He had bone spurs for a long time and we all knew. He didn't tell anybody, he never made excuses. He's a competitive guy and we're going to miss his big-shot ability." ... After allowing the Rockets to shoot just 30.6 percent from 3-point range during close victories in Games 2 and 3, the Thunder have surrendered 41.9 percent shooting from behind the arc in dropping Games 4 and 5. Houston deserves some credit for making contested treys, but the Thunder could stand to improve defensively, too. "It's a combination (of both). They definitely are shooting the ball better," Brooks said. "But that's part of an NBA team; you're going to have a good shooting night, and then some nights you're not going to shoot the ball so well."