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Wednesday March 14, 2012 0:22 AM

Rockets Lower Boom On Thunder

Rockets mounts stunning rally, storm past Thunder 104-103

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - It’s not often one has the chance to witness a basketball miracle, much less take part in one. So when a player like Goran Dragic – he of the 23-point fourth quarter in a playoff win over the Spurs – calls the Rockets’ astonishing 104-103 victory over the Thunder the best win of his career, you better believe something spectacularly special just took place.

And so it did, on what was shaping up to be just another run of the mill Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. The Rockets – shorthanded and without the services of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin (shoulder) and Jordan Hill – had played wonderfully the vast majority of the evening, hanging tough with the Western Conference leading Thunder thanks to some tremendously inspired play on both ends of the floor. Chandler Parsons had carried the club in the first half with a stat line straight out of the Kevin Durant canon, while the rest of the roster joined in after the break to help Houston take a four-point lead into the final quarter of play.

But then James Harden happened. Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll maestro went to work in the final frame, surgically dissecting the Rockets time and time again off the same angled pick-and-roll. Houston tried trapping him – no dice. He simply split the defenders and created crowd-inciting dunks for Serge Ibaka. By the time he was through, the fans were in full throat, the Thunder led by 11 with 2:29 to go and the Rockets’ fate seemed sealed. A valiant effort would all be for naught; Houston appeared destined for a seventh loss in eight games.

Two factors, however, sparked a twist of fate that absolutely no one could have seen coming: Oklahoma City, inexplicably, stopped feeding the ball to Harden; and the Rockets, quite simply, never gave up, never gave in and never stopped fighting.

Dragic initiated the rally innocently enough, scoring a pair on a reverse layup. Patrick Patterson blocked a shot at one end and slammed home one at the other. Chase Budinger calmly drained a cool, clutch triple. And all the while Russell Westbrook was experiencing a mini meltdown and taking the Oklahoma City offense with him. Suddenly the Rockets had life. Just as importantly, they had belief.

“It’s never over,” said Courtney Lee, who started in place of the injured Martin. “I’ve been in the NBA for four years and seen some crazy stuff happen. We were just all out there telling each other we had to keep fighting and keep competing. It’s not over until the time runs out.”

Lee would know. His layup with 41 seconds left brought the Rockets within two, setting the stage for a furious finish that may well change the course of Houston’s season. Once more, Dragic kick-started the chain reaction with a theft of Westbrook. Without rushing, the Rockets probed the Thunder’s scrambling defense, searching for just the right play to deliver the dagger. And when Dragic found Lee wide-open in the near corner, the fourth-year guard from Western Kentucky manufactured his very own March Madness moment, drilling the jumper to improbably, impossibly, put the Rockets on top 104-103.

“I was open for about ten seconds,” joked Lee, who scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. “Once Dragic saw me – after he did his 15 shot fakes (laughs) – he made a great play by getting his head up and passing it out. It was just a regular shot; I always take it and it went down.”

Oklahoma City still had a chance to spoil the moment, of course. And with weapons like Durant, Westbrook and Harden on the floor, the end result remained very much in doubt. The Thunder attempted to isolate Durant against Parsons, but as he’s done against the league's reigning scoring champ all season long, Houston’s rookie held firm, forcing Durant into a tough 20-footer that rimmed out. With the seconds ticking away, Ibaka came up with the loose ball and appeared to have a clear path for a dunk to win it. But Patterson got just enough of the ball to keep it out of the hoop, allowing the Rockets to euphorically race off the floor with what has to be considered their biggest and best win of the season.

“We talked before the game,” said Dragic. “Nobody is going to help us; we have to stick together and play hard. We lose six games out of seven, it’s been a tough road trip for us, so you just keep fighting.

“It was such a huge game for us. For me it was one of the best wins of my career. We were down eight points and in one minute 45 seconds you come back to win the game – that’s something special and I think we can turn (our season) around. We played one of the best teams in the league; now we have to play like that every night.”

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

We just kept playing. We fought all night. Boy we couldn’t get Harden slowed down on that angle screen and roll; he kept splitting us, we tried pushing him to the middle and he made plays. We’d get the ball out of his hands and then Ibaka is coming in from the baseline – that got us off our game a little bit. But we were able to fight back and just kept battling.

(message to the team at two-minute mark): just keep playing. Let’s get a hoop, get a stop, get some game pressure. Everything changes when game pressure happens. We got some game pressure and made something happen. And big shot by Cort. Our guys played really hard, we fought and it was fun.

GORAN DRAGIC

We talked before the game: nobody is going to help us; we have to stick together and play hard. We lose six games out of seven, it’s been a tough road trip for us, so you just keep fighting. We were down eight points with two minutes to go and we just fought until the end. We hit some open shots. The last two minute’s defense was great. They turned the ball over and we scored some easy baskets and took advantage. Ibaka got that offensive rebound and luckily Pat was over there to block that shot.

(can this game change the season?): Yeah, I think so because it was such a huge game for us. For me it was one of the best wins of my career. We were down eight points and in one minute 45 seconds you come back to win the game – that’s something special and I think we can turn it around. We played one of the best teams in the league and we have to play like that every night.

CHANDLER PARSONS

(on his monster first half): That was just one of those games where you feel you can make it from anywhere. I was hot and my teammates did a good job of finding me and I had a few mismatches when they put one of their big guys, Perkins or Ibaka, on me. So when they played off me I shot it and if they got up on me I went by them.

COURTNEY LEE

(game-winning shot): You see me? I was open for about ten seconds. Once Dragic saw me, after he did his 15 shot fakes (laughs), he made a great play by getting his head up and passing it out. It was just a regular shot; I always take it and it went down.

(did you feel game was over before comeback began?): No, it’s never over. I’ve been in the NBA for four years and seen some crazy stuff happen. We were just all out there telling each other we had to keep fighting and keep competing. It’s not over until the time runs out.

OKLAHOMA CITY’S HEAD COACH SCOTT BROOKS:

Opening statement:
“That was a tough loss to take. There’s no doubt we did a lot of good things to get back into the game and take the lead, but our late game execution on both ends of the floor wasn’t up to the level that we’ve been all season. One of the strengths of our team is executing down the stretch. We’ve improved in that area and tonight wasn’t good on both ends. Russell (Westbrook) turned it over. We gave up some easy layups. You can look at the offensive end, but I always look at the defensive end. We had a good lead, and they got two layups within like ten seconds off the clock. I thought the game was in hand, but one of the things about Coach Mac’s (Kevin McHale) team is they’re going to play. They play every possession. They’re down all season and they keep fighting. That’s what they do and that’s what we do but unfortunately we didn’t do that down the stretch on both ends of the floor. Defensively, we had major breakdowns giving up drives, giving up opens threes, and transition layups.”

On the Harden, Perkins, Ibaka combo in the fourth quarter:
“I thought James and that group did a good job of playing basketball. James is a very good ball handler and a very good playmaker. We’ve been putting it in his hands more this year than last year and we’re going to continue to do that. He’s one of our good playmakers and they had a nice rhythm. But defensively we weren’t stopping anybody down at the end. They did a good job executing”

On the type of play from the Thunder early in the ball game:
“We didn’t have our rhythm early in the game, but we kept clawing and giving ourselves a chance to stay in the game and then we made a nice run. The NBA is good. There’s good teams, there’s good players on every team. Everybody wants to win and Houston has been playing good all year. They’ve had a tough little stretch. We knew going into this game that it was going to be a tough game. They’re a scrappy bunch of guys. They play every possession. They have Scola down there making plays for his team.”

On Nazr:
“I thought Nazr came in and gave us great minutes. He knows how to play the game. He finds his spots on the floor. He always comes in and does his job and that’s what we want all of our players to do.”

THUNDER FORWARD KEVIN DURANT:

On the end of the game:
“We had it going early in that 4th quarter. We got that big lead. They made some big shots and we didn’t execute. We lost though. It’s tough, especially being up so much in the 4th.”

On Nazr Mohammed and Serge Ibaka:
“They did a tremendous job for us. Serge was really good. Nazr came in and gave us some big minutes. I wish we could have won the game for them.”

THUNDER CENTER NAZR MOHAMMED:

On the end of the game:
“We made a couple turnovers. It wasn’t what we’d like but we’ve made some small strides throughout the year on executing better in the last couple minutes of the game but tonight, it just wasn’t there.”

On the Thunder’s play against the forwards and centers:
“Perk (Kendrick Perkins) always leads that charge being physical. Serge (Ibaka) with his shot-blocking ability and me, Nick (Collison) and Cole (Aldrich) just try to stay right in front and continue to do what we do.”

On the down-low offense against the Rockets:
“Just hit the glass. We’re a product of our guards and our other guys finding us, making lay-ups and open shots and just hitting the glass. Nothing out of the ordinary, we’re just doing our role.”

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