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After leading by as many as 13 points late in the second quarter only to once again cough up an early advantage in this series and trail by as many as 13 late in the third quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a chance to force overtime against the fighting-for-their-playoff-lives Houston Rockets ... only to see forward Serge Ibaka's last-chance bid come up juuuust a little short.
The Thunder trailed 105-103 with 12 seconds left, possession of the ball and an opportunity to either tie the game or go for the win and finish off a 4-0 sweep of the young eighth-seeded Rockets. Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant dribbled from the left wing past the top of the key and over to the right side, where he pulled up in hopes of attempting yet another huge late-game 3-pointer, but Rockets defender Francisco Garcia tightly contested the move, forcing KD to turn away from the basket and, since he'd given up his dribble, pass to teammate Reggie Jackson.
The ball went off the sophomore point guard's hand, though, draining precious seconds off the clock and forcing Oklahoma City into a mad-dash scramble. Jackson beat defender Chandler Parsons into the paint (thanks, in part, to flimsy help defense from Houston star James Harden) but as he elevated to either attempt a game-tying layup or look for a passing lane, Jackson was met just outside the restricted area by Rockets center Omer Asik, who walled off Reggie's drive and forced an on-the-way-down flip toward the basket. Jackson's desperation try barely caught rim ... but it landed right in the hands of Ibaka, who had an opportunity to play the hero after being left alone by Asik's rotation (and by Harden failing to help the helper by crashing down into the paint to get a body on Ibaka).
Instead, Ibaka short-armed his point-blank attempted putback, the ball dying on the foot of the rim and descending as the buzzer sounded to signal a 105-103 Rockets win that staved off a sweep and extended the best-of-seven first-round series to a fifth game.
The shot-blocking big man couldn't believe he missed the bunny, falling to the Toyota Center floor and covering his face before teammates Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha helped him up and directed him to the visiting locker room. (Let's be on the lookout for foot holes.) The missed putback capped a sub-stellar night for the Congolese power forward, who finished with eight points on 3 for 8 shooting, five rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two turnovers in 34 mostly quiet minutes.
It also squandered a remarkable performance by Durant, who again shouldered Oklahoma City's scoring and playmaking responsibilities in the absence of injured point guard Russell Westbrook to the tune of 38 points on 12 for 16 shooting from the floor and 13 for 15 from the free-throw line, eight rebounds and six assists (albeit with seven turnovers) in 42 minutes of floor time. Thirty-two of those points came in the first three frames, though; in the fourth quarter, the Rockets' attempts to aggressively double (and, at times, bring even a third or fourth defender) to force the ball out of Durant's hands were more successful, resulting in him taking only three field-goal attempts and two free throws in 9 1/2 final-frame minutes.
Point guard Jackson, on the other hand, took eight shots in the fourth, making just two of them, without getting to the line at all while playing the full 12 minutes. In his second game as Westbrook's starting lineup understudy, Jackson chipped in 18 points, but needed 18 shots to get there, and missed five of his seven 3-point attempts. He showcased his athletic gifts, defensive acumen and penchant for getting to the rim at times, but again looked unequal to the task of replacing Westbrook's productivity and playmaking — this, of course, is to be expected, because there are like five guys in the league who could replace Westbrook's productivity and playmaking — and failed to make the Rockets pay for loading up so heavily on Durant late in the contest.
Reserves Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher did their part offensively, combining for 28 points on 9 for 18 shooting (with Fisher shooting an uncharacteristically scorching 4 for 5 from deep) to help OKC match the scoring punch of Houston's small-ball lineups. But the combined effect of turnovers (22 cough-ups leading to 31 Rockets points) and the Rockets' role players finally found their touch from deep proved to be too much to overcome.
With starting point guard Jeremy Lin again sidelined by the bruised right chest muscle he suffered in Game 2 and Harden struggling mightily with his shot, handle and decision-making all night (15 points on 4 for 12 shooting, 0 for 4 from 3-point land and a whopping 10 turnovers in 35 minutes), Houston needed a huge outing from Parsons, and the second-year swingman delivered. Parsons scored a team-high 27 points on 11 for 21 shooting, including a 3-for-6 mark from downtown, to go with 10 rebounds and eight assists in 41 minutes in the win. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that makes Parsons just the third Rocket ever to put up a 25-10-8 in a playoff game, joining Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. (Pretty nice company.)
Parsons had help from long range, as Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino combined to shoot 8 for 16 from distance, pacing the Rockets to a 12 for 27 (44.4 percent) finish from beyond the arc that far outstripped the 30 for 108 (27.8 percent) mark the team managed through the series' first three games.
Still, even with the key contributions from the Rockets' supporting cast, the game hung in the balance in the final seconds, thanks to five straight Durant points and three straight missed one-on-one, step-back-jumpers by Harden. But after the Thunder's initial final-possession play, a 3-pointer by Durant, got blown up by Garcia — "I was going to try to win it," Durant said after the game, "but he played good defense" — that balance tilted.
“They got into us,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, according to Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman. “At that moment, it was a scramble play. I thought Reggie did as best he could. We had an open tip-in.”
Unfortunately for Thunder fans, with the clock winding down and the game on the line, sometimes those tip-ins don't fall.
Game 5 is scheduled to tip at 9:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, please feel free to check out the miss elsewhere, thanks to SI.com's Ben Golliver.
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