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Hear Me Roar!

Francisco Garcia rises to challenge, helps Houston secure playoff-clinching win over OKC

HOUSTON - There is something to be said for those who don't just accept challenges – they relish them.

Francisco Garcia is eight years older, three inches shorter and nearly 50 pounds lighter than Kevin Durant. He also averages about 26 points fewer per game and has five fewer All-Star appearances to his name. In the NBA universe, Durant is a galaxy unto himself, the sun and stars of Oklahoma City’s celestial hoops solar system. Garcia generates no such ethereal glow; his is but a bit part in relation to KD’s starring role.

But sic the 33-year-old Dominican on Durant and watch the mega-wattage of Garcia’s sly smile exponentially increase by the second. He doesn’t just savor and embrace the challenge – he treats it as if there were nothing in the world he would rather be doing right that very moment. Probably because there isn’t.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Rockets’ reserve swingman was up to his old tricks again on a night when he played a pivotal role in Houston’s thrilling 111-107 win over the Thunder. There he was in the second quarter, getting in the grill of the league’s MVP frontrunner while eliciting a few choice words from Durant in the process. There he was in the final frame, harassing KD into several more misses as the Rockets made the run that put them ahead for good. And there he was in the game’s final minutes, stroking a wide-open corner 3 that at long last gave Houston some much needed breathing room after the club had previously missed multiple free throws and quality looks from all over the court.

“He’s the reason we won the game tonight,” said none other than James Harden, who may well have had just a wee bit to do with the final outcome as well given that he did supply a paltry 39 points, nine boards and seven assists during a – dare we say it? – Durant-esque performance. But Harden’s praise does hammer home the impact Garcia had on the game. His attitude and fearlessness were absolutely vital for a club that has occasionally missed both of those qualities since Patrick Beverley sustained the knee injury that has sidelined him for the Rockets’ last four games. 

Make no mistake, the monumental task of attempting to slow the league’s leading scorer was no one-man show. Chandler Parsons set the tone early with his play at the point of attack, but no matter who had the primary assignment of chasing Durant all over the court, help was available and ready to be unleashed from all angles. The Rockets came at him in waves, aggressively trapping the three-time scoring champion in an effort to force the ball from his hands as often as possible. To that end, Houston’s big men bore a heavy mental and physical burden as well, needing to show hard on pick-and-rolls along the perimeter while scurrying back in enough time to protect the rim and clean the glass. In related news: the Rockets don’t win this game without the master class Omer Asik conducted on that end of the floor.

This was a game Houston had to have against a team that has had its number throughout the season. Forget about the fact both clubs came in significantly shorthanded; the Rockets required a win to help fortify their own mental health and to further their cause in the pursuit of sewing up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Friday’s victory checked both boxes, putting the team in prime position for a strong finish to the regular season. And the resilience on display put a sorely needed smile on their coach’s face as well since it reinforced one of the lessons he has attempted to hammer home to his troops with the postseason right around the corner.

“There's all kinds of adversity in playoff games and playoff runs,” said Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale after the game. “Everybody's ultimate goal is to win a championship. The toughest adversity to get over is to go out and play your butt off for 48 minutes and lose a one-point game and then gear it up two nights later and go out and play the same team again. You've got to be resilient and that's what I've been preaching with the guys and the coaching staff. You've just got to just stay in the fight and keep swinging.”

The sort of mentality McHale is trying to instill isn’t easy and doesn’t come overnight. It’s one thing to want a championship; quite another to be willing to endure the enormity of the amount of work, sacrifice and pain that are inherent within the journey. Some see that sort of challenge and shrink away, wanting no part of it. Others begrudgingly accept the fact that it comes with the territory. Francisco Garcia? In his mind, the bigger the challenge, the better.

“That’s what this league is all about,” he said. “When your name is called against a man like that you have to be ready. If you ain’t ready, he’s going to torch you up. My name was called, and I love the challenge.

“It’s competition. That’s what it’s all about.”