HOUSTON -- The absence of Russell Westbrook affected Kevin Durant so deeply that not only was his virtuoso performance during Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinal series a testament to what Durant was missing, his arrival at the postgame press conference spoke volumes too.
Alongside Durant sat a young boy he met during a preseason game in McAllen, Texas, a readily converted fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Westbrook unavailable to share the dais with Durant, Durant offered the child the role to fill the seat Westbrook typically occupies.
On the court, Durant proved capable of filling that void, pouring in a playoff career-high-tying 41 points in leading the Thunder to a 104-101 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night at Toyota Center and a commanding 3-0 series lead.
"I didn't feel the same without Russell on the court," said Durant, who added 14 rebounds and played 47 minutes. "I knew I had to give it my all no matter what and that's what I'm going to do no matter how many more games we have to play. Hopefully, we do a good job the next game."
The Rockets erased a 26-point, second-quarter deficit and grabbed a 99-97 lead when swingman Francisco Garcia, who scored 18 points off the bench, drilled a 3-pointer with 45.2 seconds left.
But Durant responded with a most fortuitous 3-pointer 3.3 seconds later, a shot that included the ball bouncing high above the rim before two soft bounces resulted in a basket and the final Thunder lead.
Oklahoma City, which made an impressive 28 of 30 free throws, salted away the win as Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson converted late.
Serge Ibaka added a double-double of 17 points and 11 rebounds, including two critical baskets in the final moments after Houston clawed back into contention.
Jackson, starting in place of Westbrook hours after Westbrook underwent season-ending knee surgery, added 14 points in 24 minutes. Kevin Martin scored 12 points off the bench.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks described the aftermath of losing Westbrook as "emotional" and acknowledged the difficulty of allocating responsibilities splitting the load that Westbrook carried. In their first game ever without Westbrook, the Thunder thrived early and held on late, riding that wave of emotion despite clearly losing steam down the stretch.
"We all love what Russell is about. The guy has probably the biggest heart I've ever been around and has done a great job of putting us in this position," Brooks said. "But tonight's game was a great game. We wanted to come in here and get this win. And our guys came in focused and we got the win."
Guard James Harden led the Rockets with 30 points and added eight rebounds and six assists. Forward Chandler Parsons had 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Houston managed its own injury issues as point guard Jeremy Lin, who suffered a bruised chest in Game 2, labored through 18 ineffective minutes and scored two points.
But after blowing a late lead in Game 2, the Rockets lamented their sluggish start and inability to close with another victory in their grasp. Their second-half rally negated any impact of competing without Lin.
"We've got to find a way to win these games," Parsons said. "I think we've learned a lot and we're growing right now, but it's very frustrating. We feel we should be up 2-1 right now and we're down 0-3. We've just got to find a way to not dig ourselves in these deep of holes."
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 in Game 2 and sidelining him.
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 4:30 remaining in the first quarter 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 quarter.
Durant scored 17 points in the first quarter on 6-of-9 shooting from the field, and after Martin sank two free throws with 8:08 left in the second quarter, the Thunder led 50-24. That's when Garcia began to make his presence felt.
He buried a 3-pointer, 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 two 3-pointers 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 in the game, Houston pulled even at 91.
But Houston suffered four turnovers in the fourth quarter, and with the Thunder weakened without Westbrook, the Rockets failed to take advantage.
"We can't dig ourselves in these 26-point deficits and expect to come back," Harden said. "We have to get off to a better start. A better start will put us in a better position to win a games."
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 games, 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," 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."