HOUSTON - The Houston Rockets erased a 26-point deficit and grabbed an improbable fourth-quarter lead, but the Oklahoma City Thunder rode a heroic effort from Kevin Durant to a 104-101 win Saturday night at Toyota Center in Game 3 of this Western Conference quarterfinal.
Rockets reserve guard Francisco Garcia scored 18 points, including a 3-pointer with 45.2 seconds left that gave Houston its biggest lead since early in the first quarter. But Durant, who logged an indefatigable 47 minutes helping offset the loss of Russell Westbrook, followed with 3 with 36.9 seconds left to help Oklahoma City take a 3-0 series lead.
Durant matched his playoff career high of 41 points and chipped in 14 rebounds to pace the Thunder. Forward Serge Ibaka added a double-double of 17 points and 11 rebounds, contributing a pair of critical baskets in the final moments after Houston clawed back into contention.
Guard James Harden led the Rockets with 30 points and added eight rebounds and six assists while forward Chandler Parsons tallied 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
For Garcia, his night began dubiously. After Thunder center Kendrick Perkins predictably took an early shot at Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, Garcia was whistled for a technical for voicing his displeasure with Perkins from the bench. Beverley, of course, altered the course of the postseason by lunging at Westbrook and sidelining him indefinitely.
Durant filled the void left by Westbrook splendidly in the first half, especially in the first quarter when the Rockets rode an early crest of raucous crowd enthusiasm to a 9-3 lead. He was at the heart of a 13-0 run that allowed the Thunder to surge ahead, and his 3-pointer with 4:31 remaining in the opening period extended the lead to double digits at 23-11. Durant added a dunk before later closing the quarter with a 3 that enabled the Thunder to carry a 39-19 lead into the second period.
Durant scored 17 points in the first on 6-for-9 shooting, and after Kevin Martin sank two free throws at the 8:08 mark of the second, the Thunder led 50-24. That's when Garcia began to make his presence felt.
He buried a 3, converted on a driving layup, and then nailed a jumper that kept the Rockets afloat. His trey with 4:08 left in the half hardly altered the deficit - the Thunder still led 60-38 - but a tone was set.
In cutting the deficit to 66-49 at the half Houston found its spark. Garcia scored just five points in the third quarter but his perimeter shooting became infectious. Harden nailed a pair of treys in the third quarter, including one with 2.8 seconds left that cut the deficit to 80-76. When Parsons drilled a 3 with 5:46 left to play, Houston pulled even at 91.
NOTES: The reflexive response to the Thunder losing All-Star point guard Westbrook (knee) for the remainder of the postseason is to presume that Durant will assume a greater scoring load. Durant is a three-time NBA scoring champion, yet a significant part of his effectiveness is his efficiency. Durant shot 51 percent from the floor this season and took at least 25 shots in a game a surprisingly low seven times. Two of those contests, at the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 11 and at the Dallas Mavericks seven days later, ranked among his top five performances according to the statistic game score. "Kevin can get his shot any time he wants, really," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "So I assume that he'll probably look to be a little bit more aggressive. But he still just plays the game. For him to take 25 shots is a pretty common occurrence. I guess if he takes 40 it'll be a lot." ... While Westbrook qualifies as an elite scorer and an exceptional facilitator, the Thunder have experienced so much collective success that they appear constructed to handle a loss of this significance. "We expect success, and we're driven," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "As an organization we want to do well every night. We always have that philosophy that we have a job to do and we want to do it every night."