James Harden saved the Houston Rockets — and himself from criticism — with his defense. It was a fitting end to one of the most bizarre and unpredictable final minutes imaginable in a Game 7 of the NBA playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort, the game’s unlikely leading scorer, squared up for a potential game-winning three-pointer with 4.8 seconds remaining and the season on the line, but Harden blocked the attempt. All that happened before and after was even stranger, but the result was a 104-102 Rockets win.
Houston will now face the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday.
“Offensively, I played like s---,” Harden told the ESPN broadcast. “Excuse my language, but I couldn’t make a shot, turned the ball over, just doing everything that was not supposed to happen, but I just kept sticking with it. My teammates give me confidence throughout the course of games, and defensively I had to make a play. ... Dort had been knocking down some shots tonight, so I wanted to get out to him.”
Harden kept it real after winning Game 7 😅— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 3, 2020
Dort more than knocked down some shots. The undrafted rookie, who had his two-way contract converted to a full-time deal during the hiatus, joined LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as only the third player aged 21 or younger to score 25 points in a Game 7. He scored a career-high 30 points (nearly five times his regular-season average), the last three of which came on a 27-footer that tied the game at 99-99 with 4:38 left.
Harden answered with a layup a minute later, his fourth and final field goal on 15 attempts. It was an abysmal effort from one of the game’s greatest offensive players, one that saw him repeatedly shy from the moment — until the block that altered headlines from another disappearing playoff act by the former MVP.
The final three minutes were a comedy of errors — missed layups, turnovers and countless plays with no clear direction — but a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander three-pointer gave the Thunder a 102-101 lead with 1:42 remaining. P.J. Tucker responded with a floater on the next possession to regain the lead for the Rockets. Oklahoma City had four possessions in the final 1:01 to win the game, but failed to convert a single one.
The sequence that led to Harden’s block was ludicrous. With a full shot clock, Chris Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander both ran into roadblocks, but neither called timeout. Instead, they found Dort along the arc with five seconds remaining. Following the block, Dort regained possession and tried throwing the ball off Harden, only he missed the Houston superstar entirely, giving the ball to Houston with 0.5 seconds left.
However, a replay review revealed that Dort was out of bounds when he regained possession, so officiating crew chief Scott Foster put 2.7 seconds back on the clock. Oklahoma City had a foul to give, so they twice mugged Houston’s inbound recipient, sending Robert Covington to the line with 1.4 seconds left. He made the first free throw and missed the second, and the Thunder called a timeout on the rebound 0.3 ticks later.
HARDEN STRAPS WITH THE GAME ON THE LINE pic.twitter.com/hJpINlvapk— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 3, 2020
OKC tried to call another timeout when their inbound play went nowhere, but Foster had already whistled Harden for a foul. That resulted in a Danilo Gallinari free throw, which he missed, and possession. The Thunder set up for another inbound, only to successfully call their final timeout. A third try at inbounding the ball was comically bad, bouncing off Adams’ hand into Houston’s possession. Game, 104-102. Series, 4-3.
THE ROCKETS HOLD ON TO WIN GAME 7. pic.twitter.com/Gd0hSKGo6z— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 3, 2020
The wild ending and OKC’s loss spoiled Dort’s career night and a memorable one from Paul, whose 19 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds made the 35-year-old the oldest player ever to record a triple-double in a Game 7. He came within a whisper of sending the team that traded him last summer packing. Why Gallinari shot the free throw with 1.1 seconds left is a mystery, but not getting Paul a good look in the final 25.9 seconds of a series he had owned in the clutch is an indictment on Thunder coach Billy Donovan.
But Paul took the blame. “They deserved to win,” the future Hall of Famer told reporters after a crushing playoff defeat in a career full of them. They did everything they were supposed to do. That’s on me.”
It would have been a bigger indictment on Harden, had teammates Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington and Eric Gordon not each scored 20 points to keep him in a Game 7 long enough to win it with a block.
Their reward? A second-round meeting with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the top-seeded Lakers.
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