Russell Westbrook and James Harden turned in another remarkable duel on Friday night, as the two Most Valuable Player candidates again went toe-to-toe down the stretch of a hard-fought Game 3. This time, though, Harden and his Houston Rockets couldn’t come up with the answer they needed to put Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder on the brink of elimination.
After Westbrook missed the second of a set of free throws with 8.4 seconds remaining — the third time in the final 66 seconds of the game that he’d split a pair of freebies — Rockets swingman Trevor Ariza rebounded the ball and kicked it over to Harden with Houston trailing 115-113. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni elected not to use a timeout, attacking an unsettled Oklahoma City defense in transition.
Harden dribbled at nightly nemesis Andre Roberson, hit him with a quick jab step and raised up to fire a 3-point with three seconds remaining. It came up just short, bouncing off the front of the rim and back off the glass before falling to the deck harmlessly as the buzzer sounded, sealing a 115-113 Thunder win that gets OKC on the board in its best-of-seven series, and cuts Houston’s lead to 2-1.
The Rockets only needed two to tie. But with Roberson in front of him, Westbrook to his right should he try to crossover and burst to the paint, Thunder center Steven Adams parked there should he make it and only three ticks left on the clock, Harden — who had missed seven of his 11 3-point tries to that point — decided pulling up was his best bet.
“We were down two, so I just wanted to get the best shot available, honestly,” he told reporters after the game. “I didn’t try to overthink it or whatnot. I just dribbled up the basketball court and I see the paint kind of close in once I passed half-court. I gave [Roberson] a little jab, and he bit for it, and I just shot the ball. I shot it with confidence. It was a little bit short.”
And, as a result, so too were the Rockets.
D'Antoni on Harden's final two 3-pointers. "I thought they were great looks. They were just a little bit off."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 22, 2017
After undercutting his historic 51-point triple-double in Game 2 with a dismal 4-for-18 showing in the fourth quarter that allowed Houston to come back from a 15-point deficit for the win, Westbrook maintained an even keel throughout Game 3. The result was another brilliant performance — and, this time, the win:
Westbrook scored 32 points on 11-for-24 shooting to go with 13 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals and five turnovers in 38 1/2 minutes for his second straight triple-double. That makes him the first player to put up consecutive triple-doubles in a playoff series since Jason Kidd in 2002, and the first to log two straight 30-plus-point triple-doubles in the postseason since Oscar Robertson in 1963.
In Game 2, Westbrook seemed to feel compelled to seize control of the proceedings in the fourth quarter because Oklahoma City got outscored by 15 points in the 7 1/2 minutes he sat, with the Thunder allowing a double-digit lead to almost completely evaporate in just two minutes of Russ rest at the end of the third quarter. After the Rockets pulled off the come-from-behind win, Westbrook said during his postgame press conference — among other things — that he needed to do a better job of trusting his teammates, and that he needed to make a more concerted effort to do so for the full 48 minutes of the game.
He managed that on Friday, nearly halving his Game 2 shot total and attempting only one 3-pointer: a pull-up from the right wing in a tie game with 10 seconds left on the shot clock and 38 seconds left in the game (you can’t totally take the Westbrook out of Westbrook, after all) that came up empty, but that Adams muscled his way to the rim to tip in for a 113-111 edge:
Fewer erratic drives and jacked shots created more space for Westbrook’s teammates to thrive. This time, they rewarded him.
Taj Gibson feasted on Ryan Anderson, knocking down pick-and-pop jumpers and throwing down dunks off face-up drives on his way to 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Roberson and Victor Oladipo each chipped in 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting, making two of three 3-point tries and grabbing six rebounds. Roberson, in particular, was strong, adding four dimes, three blocks and two steals while spending most of his 38 1/2 minutes shadowing Harden.
Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott combined to make four 3-pointers and Jerami Grant flashed some playmaking juice, as Thunder coach Billy Donovan looked for more lineups that could surround Westbrook with shooting when he was on the court and generate some semblance of offensive punch during his brief breathers. Veteran point guard Norris Cole, elevated in the rotation over deactivated non-threat Semaj Christon, hit two of his three shots for five points with one assist in 9 1/2 minutes.
Oklahoma City shot 55.4 percent from the field as a team and survived the brief stretches at the starts of the second and fourth quarters during which Russ sat down. Westbrook’s supporting cast-members got their chances, and they supported.
Westbrook, for his part, doesn’t care for that term.
“Well, for one, we all one team,” he said after the game. “I don’t have a cast, or other guys. We’re all in this together.”
Whatever you call them, they did their job and Westbrook did his. To stave off an 0-3 deficit, they had to, because despite missing the potential game-winner, as well as another 3-point try launched with just over 17 seconds left and Houston trailing 113-111, Harden was sensational enough to nearly burn Chesapeake Energy Arena down by himself:
The Rockets All-Star scored a game-high 44 points on 11-for-21 shooting, balancing a tough long-range shooting night (just 4-for-12 from deep) by bulldozing his way to a 7-for-8 mark in the paint and generating (some OKC fans would surely take issue if I used the verb “earning”) 18 free throws, all of which he knocked down. Harden added six rebounds, six assists and a block in his 38 minutes, but did commit seven turnovers, including five live-ball give-ups that led to six OKC points. The Thunder scored 25 points off 16 Rocket giveaways in Game 3, running out in transition to a 19-4 edge in fast-break points.
Despite Harden’s best efforts, though, Oklahoma City controlled the action for most of the game, starting things off with an 11-2 run and building a 15-point lead early in the second quarter. The Rockets made runs — three straight buckets here, a 10-4 burst there — and took a 67-65 lead on a Harden triple less than two minutes into the third. OKC would move back on top, though, riding Westbrook’s attacking and the supplemental shooting of Roberson, Abrines and McDermott to push the lead back to double digits.
A similar push-and-pull took place in the fourth. Houston reduced a 10-point deficit after three quarters to a one-possession game on an Eric Gordon and-one just two minutes into the frame, only to see the Thunder push it back to double-digits with some bruising interior play from maligned mauler Enes Kanter.
The Rockets still had a run in them, though, ripping off a 15-5 jolt behind a damn-the-torpedoes lineup — an off-the-schneid Anderson (18 points on 8-for-14 shooting) at small-ball center and Ariza at the four alongside Harden, Gordon and an electric Lou Williams (22 points in 30 minutes off the bench in Game 3) — that tied the game on a Harden 3-ball with 52 seconds left:
From there, though, Adams redeemed Westbrook’s missed 3, and Harden’s two chances to answer came up empty. If one of those two clean looks goes down, Houston might be heading into the weekend with a chance to finish off a sweep. Instead, Oklahoma City’s officially back in the series. Make-or-miss league, and all that.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –