Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook made history again, logging the fastest playoff triple-double in decades and joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to record three consecutive playoff triple-doubles, but it still wasn’t enough to hold off the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets capitalized on a series of Thunder mistakes down the stretch and Nene’s perfect night off the bench (28 points on 12-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds) to steal Sunday’s Game 4 with a 113-109 win that gave them a 3-1 series lead and pushed Oklahoma City to the brink.
Westbrook scored or assisted on 23 of the Thunder’s final 28 points to finish with 35 points (on 10-of-28 shooting), 14 rebounds, 14 assists and three steals. But he also committed three turnovers and missed a trio of 3-pointers in the final 1:28, and OKC could never close the gap.
Meanwhile, the Rockets employed a Hack-An-Andre Roberson strategy, and the Thunder wing made just two of his eight free-throw attempts on four trips to the line, helping Houston turn a one-point edge to a five-point lead with three minutes to play. OKC coach Billy Donovan mercifully benched Roberson, and the Thunder got within one possession five more times — including a 35-foot Westbrook 3-pointer off an intentionally missed Steven Adams free throw that drew them within 108-107 with 18 seconds left — but they just couldn’t get defensive stops.
Rockets star James Harden, who revealed after the game he’d been battling a rolled ankle he suffered in Game 3, shook off some game-long rust to score eight of his 16 points (on 5-of-16 shooting) in the fourth quarter. He added eight assists against seven turnovers, and his 15-foot step-back jumper with 41 seconds remaining was a dagger that gave Houston a 108-103 lead.
And Nene’s last basket delivered the final nail, answering Westbrook’s late three with a three-point play. Oklahoma City inexplicably let Nene get behind the defense, and then compounded that faux pas when Jerami Grant fouled lightly enough to allow him to finish an easy layup. That error gifted Houston an insurmountable two-possession lead, 111-107, with 11 seconds left.
“Terrible,” Harden said of the mistake-heavy final few minutes in an interview with ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters immediately after the game. “I made some bonehead mistakes toward the end of the game, but credit my teammates. They stepped up big. All of us really showed some resilience here on the road in Game 4, so now we’ve got to take care of business at home.”
For the third straight game, the Thunder snared a double-digit lead in the first quarter, using an early 11-0 run keyed by Adams (18 points) and Roberson (13 points) for the cushion. After OKC forced a 24-second violation — just one of several impressive defensive stops in a first quarter that featured eight Thunder blocks and 6-for-22 shooting from Houston — Westbrook stood at midcourt, firing up an already fired up Oklahoma City crowd, and the building was rocking.
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) April 23, 2017
Roberson had four of those first-quarter blocks and put an early clamp on Harden, who missed his first four shots and scored just four points on 1-for-6 shooting in playing the first 12 minutes.
Westbrook might’ve been too hyped, asking for a breather 9:39 into the game. Houston promptly went on a 9-0 run that stretched into the second quarter and closed the gap to 26-24. The teams traded baskets for much of the next 11 minutes, with OKC clinging to a slim lead. Harden continued to struggle, but the Rockets got bench help from Lou Williams and Nene, who scored half of Houston’s 32 second-quarter points to help limit the deficit to 58-54 at the half.
All the while, as ever, the Thunder relied on Westbrook, whose rebound just before the buzzer sounded on the first half gave him a triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) by the break — the NBA’s fastest playoff triple-double in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN.
The first few minutes of the third quarter was much the same as the first. The Thunder came out of halftime on a 12-2 run, and this time it was Westbrook’s strip of Ryan Anderson in the post that had him screaming to the crowd. The MVP candidate’s mantra went from “I can’t hear you” to “give me that s—,” and Oklahoma City was back in business. An Adams dunk in transition off a Taj Gibson steal — one of nine Houston turnovers in the third — gave the Thunder a 14-point lead:
But the second half continued to follow the same script, as the Rockets responded with a 12-0 run, holding OKC scoreless for 4:35 after the Adams dunk. Houston’s shooters were finally finding their footing, even as Harden grew increasingly frustrated with his subpar performance:
“It affected me tonight,” Harden told Salters of the ankle he rolled in Game 3, “but we won, so I don’t care. I’ve just got to get rehab and treatment like I’ve been doing and focus on winning.”
Houston’s run was soon followed by another Westbrook rest. True to form, back-to-back 3-pointers from Anderson and Patrick Beverley tied the game early in the fourth quarter, and Lou Williams followed with a floater to give Houston its first lead since 1:24 into the game.
After the loss, Westbrook was testy with a reporter who asked Adams about the team’s struggles with Westbrook on the bench (OKC was a combined minus-18 in just over nine minutes sans their star):
Russell Westbrook is tired of hearing how Thunder struggle when he goes to the bench: "We're all one team… Don't split us up." pic.twitter.com/QIsfvLbdGq
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 23, 2017
With Oklahoma City trailing 82-79 and staring a 3-1 series deficit in the face, Thunder coach Billy Donovan reinserted Westbrook to save their season with 9:25 remaining. Two possessions later, the six-time All-Star tied the game on a 3-pointer, and his 13th assist (to Grant) gave OKC the lead again. From there, it was Westbrook vs. the Rockets down the stretch.
But Houston’s depth proved to be too much for Westbrook, whose hero ball down the stretch cost Oklahoma City for the second time in three games. The Rockets got 64 points from their three reserves, including 18 apiece from Williams and Eric Gordon, and Nene — the first player to be perfect from the field in a 25-point, 10-rebound performance — outscored OKC’s bench (22 points) all by himself. It was enough to help Harden until his late-game resurgence.
Westbrook went Wilt in 1st half. Nene in 2nd half. He is the 1st player since Chamberlain to make every shot while scoring 20p with 10 reb.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 23, 2017
The Thunder will no doubt regret how this one ended. Donovan hung Roberson — a 42 percent shooter whose shooting woes outweighed his stellar defense in the clutch — out to dry:
This is pretty damn disrespectful from the Rockets bench. I don't care how bad Roberson is at free throws. You are professionals, not kids. pic.twitter.com/haWCgr9NPZ
— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) April 23, 2017
Westbrook forced a few threes in the final minute, trying to draw a foul. He also made two nearly spectacular plays: 1) saving a rebound while falling out of bounds with the Thunder trailing by two, only to have the pass go through Adams’ hands to an awaiting Beverley, and 2) almost stealing an inbounds pass with eight seconds left and Oklahoma City trailing by two again:
Final play madness recap:
1) Harden push off lol
2) Russ somehow not holding steal
3) Gordon throwing ball to Abrines?
wtf going on here pic.twitter.com/ncquHr0eIn
— AGENT OF NBA CHAOS (@World_Wide_Wob) April 23, 2017
Instead, the Thunder blew a double-digit lead for the second time in three games, turning a potential 3-1 series lead into a win-or-go-home situation when the series resumes in Houston.
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