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Thursday January 13, 2011 1:26 AM

Durant Leaves Rockets Thunderstruck

Oklahoma City snaps losing streak in Houston, holds on for 118-112 victory

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - The story felt as familiar as it did frustrating.

Once again the Rockets found themselves running neck and neck with one of the NBA’s upper echelon teams. And once more they ended up on the wrong side of the ledger at the end, in part because of a fourth quarter scoreless stretch that left them in a hole too deep to overcome.

But to blame this particular defeat, a 118-112 loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, on Houston’s 4-minute scoreless drought in the final frame is at best too simplistic and at worst misses the point entirely. No question, a few buckets during that stretch would have come in handy. But so, too, would a few more stops.

The fact of the matter is that 112 points in this league will get you a win far more often than not. But that sort of offensive output still requires at least a modicum of defense to send the fans home happy. And Wednesday night the Rockets’ inexperience, injuries and defensive limitations simply caught up to them in the second half, allowing the Thunder to snap their 11-game losing streak at Toyota Center.

“It was a lack of defense that did us in,” said Shane Battier, bluntly summing up the reason behind Houston’s 6th loss in seven games.

That the Rockets struggle on the defensive end is not a newsflash, of course – without a defensive presence in the middle Houston lacks rim protection and often allows too many offensive rebounds to opponents. Playing without the injured Chuck Hayes for the last eight games certainly hasn’t helped matters on that front either. His absence – and that of Brad Miller’s, who’s missed the past two contests with a sore left knee – has placed part of the burden of responsibility on talented but inexperienced players like Jordan Hill and Patrick Patterson.

And with leading scorer Kevin Martin missing his second straight game, Houston’s best option was to once again go with a starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks who both measure in at an even 6-feet tall, making an already undersized team even smaller and the club’s already slim margin of error razor thin. In short, Houston’s prolific offense needed to be nearly perfect – as it was Monday night in Boston – lest it face the reality that any sort of scoreless stretch during crunch time of a close game could become lethal.

“You can say it’s inexperience but we have to grow up and we have to grow up fast,” said Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman. “Because we’re losing games like this at home where we have a chance to win and it’s hurting us.”

To be sure, take nothing away from an Oklahoma City team which now stands at 26-13 after picking up the franchise’s first ever win at Toyota Center. Kevin Durant was sublime, repeatedly draining shots with a hand in his face to register a team-high 30 points, while Russell Westbrook brushed aside a poor shooting night to still stuff the box score with 23 points, 13 assists and 8 rebounds. The pair put pressure on the Rockets’ defense all night long and played no small role in the Thunder scoring 66 second half points – the most against the Rockets this season – and shooting 12-of-20 (60 percent) from the field in the fourth quarter.

“(Durant) is a great player and Shane works his tail off and tries to make him work as hard as he can,” said Adelman. “But I did not think we did a good job on Westbrook all night long. He got into the middle too much, he got deep into the paint and that’s when you really get into trouble. That really put us at a disadvantage so we have to do a better job containing him and we didn’t do it. They’re two young players who are very good and they turned it on when they needed to.”

The shame of it all is that, even with the defensive issues, the Rockets still had every reason to hope their evening would end with a victory. Luis Scola, though he went scoreless in the final frame, still finished with a game-high 31 points and 11 rebounds, and the Houston bench was solid, outscoring Oklahoma City’s second unit 42-32. Courtney Lee was especially excellent off the pine, pouring in a season-high 19 points to go along with 4 boards and 3 assists. He was also a significant part of the Rockets’ furious rally down the stretch, which saw the team go on a 12-1 run in the final two minutes to trim Houston’s deficit from 13 to a mere two points. But Westbrook and James Harden combined to go a perfect 8-for-8 at the line over the course of the game’s last 17 seconds to seal the win for the Thunder.

“We just have to stick with what got us the lead, getting stops and getting out running,” said Lee. “We would be fine if we didn't score as long as we were getting stops and no one scored. So we just have to find ways to get stops.”

There may be good news on that front on the horizon. Hayes went through an intense workout following the team’s morning shootaround and declared himself close to returning. So long as his ankle responds well, he fully intends to take part in practice with his teammates on Thursday, and he even left open the possibility of playing Friday night when the Rockets host the Hornets.

But Hayes or no, Houston simply must find a way to shore up the defense. Otherwise this all too familiar storyline will be repeatedly revisited, leaving little more than regret and frustration in its wake.

QUOTES

RICK ADELMAN

(On the game) “We just had a hard time controlling (Kevin) Durant and (Russell) Westbrook. We did get some stops but they got the ball back. It's a combination. There are just little things that we have to do through the course of the game to win a game like that. We didn't do it, they did.”

(result of inexperience?): You can say it’s inexperience but we have to grow up and we have to grow up fast because we’re losing games like this at home where we have a chance to win and it’s hurting us.

(Durant and Westbrook): He’s a great player and Shane works his tail off and tries to make him work as hard as he can. But I did not think we did a good job on Westbrook all night long. He got into the middle too much, he got deep into the paint and that’s when you really get into trouble because now he has 13 assists, 8 rebounds and 23 points and shoots 12 free throws. That really put us at a disadvantage so we have to do a better job containing him and we didn’t do it. They’re two young players who are very good and they turned it on when they needed to.

SHANE BATTIER

(defending with a lack of experience in the frontcourt): It makes our job tougher. When you play with experience you play with a bit of a comfort zone. But our young guys play hard and that’s all we ask of them. If you’re in the right spot and you play hard we feel that we can still be an effective defensive team.

That’s the only remedy: you have to play hard, limit your mistakes and overcome inexperience.

LUIS SCOLA

We’ve been talking about it all season long: We don’t have a lot of margin for error and if we make mistakes they’re going to make us pay, especially a team like Oklahoma City. I think we did a good job today actually, it was just one part of the game when they got ahead on the scoreboard. It’s happened to us before – they just closed the game better.

COURTNEY LEE

(On the difficulty of the loss after the Boston win) “It was very difficult. We went there ( Boston) on Monday and did everything we needed to do to position ourselves to win. Coming home, this is a place we have to protect, especially our home court. It's definitely frustrating when we're right there the whole time and they're (Thunder) doing their run in the 4th quarter. I'm thinking we got down 7 or 8 points so from then on we were playing crawl back. We were able to make a run but we weren't able to sustain it.”

(On the tendency for things to go wrong in the 3rd and 4th quarter) “We just have to stick with what got us the lead, getting stops and getting out running. We would be fine if we didn't score as long as we were getting stops and no one scored. So, we just have to find ways to get stops.”

KYLE LOWRY

(On the loss) “It's tough. We are trying to find a new rhythm for each guy with guys in and out of the lineup. Tonight, we missed some shots we really could have made and we should have made but tonight was just another one of those nights. It seems like they are happening more frequently.”

(On the Rockets defensive problems) “We scored 112 points. We've got to play a little bit of defense and hopefully make one or two more shots.”

AARON BROOKS

(On combination play with the younger players) “We all know our role. We're going to get out and run and it's what's good and best for the team. The rotation doesn't affect us at all in playing.”

(On the difficulty of the loss after the Boston win) “It's difficult but like I said, they're a good team. We put ourselves in a position to win the game but we fell flat with jump shots. I think the good thing is we were getting shots. They were open shots but we didn't hit them. They (Thunder) gave tough shots. (Kevin) Durant hit a couple of shots with Shane (Battier) right in his face. I tried to get in his (Durant) face but I don't know if he saw me. He hit some tough shots and that' s why he's one of the best players in the league.”

OKLAHOMA CITY COACH SCOTT BROOKS

(On his team’s win in Houston) “When was it 2005? It was a good win for us. They are banged up, but they fought until the very end. We knew it was going to be a very difficult game. (Serge) Ibaka was a big difference for us off the bench.

(On his team’s play) “Our guys fought and battled the whole game. The defense in the second half for us was very good. We stepped up and hit free throws down the stretch. Our guys have a lot of heart. We relaxed a bit too much at the end. If one guy is not playing well on this team, somebody else has to step up and tonight it was Serge (Ibaka) and he was big.”

(On Luis Scola) “He’s really good. He’s smart and very crafty inside. He has a lot of moves and tricks down there. He is as tough ha player as there is in the league to stop down low.”

KEVIN DURANT

(On the game) “We made it hard and tough on ourselves down the stretch, but it was a good win for us. We have to start from the beginning. The second half, we played a lot better defensively. We need to learn to start the first half the same way.

(On Serge Ibaka’s play) “He had a great game. He helps a lot defensively and he keeps the ball alive and also had some big blocked shots.

(On his play with Battier defending) “I really felt good and thought I got my shots. Shane (Battier) tries to get in your head. I tried to move around and get open looks. He (Battier) always makes me a better player every time I play against him.”

JEFF GREEN

(On the key to the game) “We were able to take away Houston’s three point shooting and then we were able to get defensive stops. We came out a little lackadaisical but we turned it up defensively in the second half. We knew Houston would make a run but we stepped up and hit big free throws and won the game.”

SERGE IBAKA

(On his play) “I try to come in off the bench and give my team energy both defensively and offensively. I do whatever the team needs. Today I had open shots and they felt good. I always try and play as hard as I can.”

NOTES

The Rockets snapped an 11-game home winning streak over the Thunder with a 118-112 loss tonight. It marked the Oklahoma City franchise’s first win in Houston since an 87-85 victory on 2/22/05.

Houston scored a season-high 70 points in the paint tonight. The Rockets have now reached at least 60 points in the paint three times this season. Houston’s 70 points was more than its last two games combined (46 on 1/8/11 and season-low 22 on 1/10/11).

The Thunder tied Houston’s opponent season-high for second half scoring with 66 points over the final two quarters. It marked the third time this season for an opponent to reach the 66-point mark in the second half (last: 12/29/10 vs. Miami).

The Rockets were just 5-of-18 (.278) from downtown tonight. Houston’s season low was a 3-of-25 (.120) outing from beyond the arc in the last home game vs. Utah (1/8/11).

Luis Scola finished with 31 points (13-24 FG, 5-8 FT) and 11 rebounds tonight. It marked his third 30-point game of the season and his ninth double-double of 2010-11.

Courtney Lee scored a season-high 19 points (8-14 FG, 3-5 3FG) tonight, adding four boards and three assists. His previous high was 16 points done three times (last: 12/10/10 at Milwaukee).

Kyle Lowry had 18 points (8-14 FG) and four assists tonight, while Aaron Brooks added 17 points (6-14 FG, 4-4 FT) for a combined 35 points. This same Houston backcourt also outscored its Boston counterparts by a 41-28 margin in the last game.

Kevin Durant totaled 30 points (10-17 FG, 4-4 3FG, 6-8 FT) and six rebounds tonight, upping Oklahoma City’s record to 12-2 when Durant scores 30 or more points this season. Durant also had 32 points (12-18 FG, 2-2 3FG, 6-6 FT), seven boards and four assists in the prior meeting at Oklahoma City (12/15/10).

Russell Westbrook notched 23 points (7-19 FG, 9-12 FT), 13 assists and eight rebounds tonight. The Thunder is now 11-3 when Westbrook reaches 10-plus assists this season.

Thabo Sefolosha had three blocked shots and tied his career high with 13 rebounds tonight (now done three times: last on 2/24/10 vs. San Antonio). His previous season high was 11 boards vs. Minnesota (11/22/10).

Serge Ibaka added 16 points (8-9 FG), six rebounds and a blocked shot off the bench. Ibaka also posted 16 points (7-7 FG, 2-3 FT), eight boards and three blocks in the prior meeting in Houston (11/28/10).

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