School Of Hard Knocks And Heartbreak
HOUSTON - Between all the banged up bodies and brutal weather wreaking havoc in Houston, a larger than usual air of uncertainty hovered over Saturday’s pivotal Game 3 between the Rockets and Thunder right from the very start. Absolutely anything seemed possible and the crackling electricity echoing off the walls of Toyota Center only added to the surreal scene. Something special, unique or memorable was going to happen – that much seemed certain.
For a few precious moments, it even appeared as if “miraculous” might be added to that list given the resurrection that had occurred when the Rockets completed their rally from a 26-point deficit. But only one force of nature reigned supreme from start to finish. Kevin Durant kick started the night with a spectacular show of supreme talent and, with his team reeling and on the ropes, he ended it – with plenty of help from a fiendishly friendly rim – in much the same manner, breaking Houston’s heart while leading Oklahoma City to a 104-101 victory and a 3-0 series lead.
For the second straight game, the Rockets were left to wonder what might have been after yet another astonishing comeback ultimately resulted in little more than another laundry list of life lessons to add to the rapidly expanding catalog they have already compiled this postseason. To be sure, any and all teaching points should be welcome for a team possessing such a dearth of playoff experience. That realization doesn’t make the present day education any less painful, however. This game was there for the taking. But porous early defense, missed opportunities and sloppy late-game execution conspired to put Houston in a hole from which no team in NBA history has ever recovered.
The loss took the shine off a stunning and altogether remarkable performance from Francisco Garcia, who came off the bench to help slow Durant while providing a desperately needed dose of outside shooting help to a Rockets team that once again struggled to consistently connect from long range. The oldest player on the Houston roster at the ripe, “old” age of 32, Garcia was a revelation, setting a playoff career-high with 18 points, 4-8 shooting from beyond the arc and some dogged defense on Durant whose 27-point first half scoring binge finally began to subside when the Dominican Republic native assumed the unenviable assignment and attacked it with exceptional vigor. Fittingly, it was Garcia’s final three that put Houston ahead 99-97 with just 45 seconds remaining, setting off the sort of frenzied, frothing delirium Toyota Center hasn’t heard in years.
The fiesta proved short-lived, however. Following a Thunder timeout, Durant rose up for a triple of his own that hit the back rim only to bounce high above the backboard before descending back toward the cylinder where it eventually settled through the twine after a couple more caroms along the iron. Houston head coach Kevin McHale immediately rose and attempted to get the referee’s attention to call timeout in an effort to advance the ball to half-court and set up a two-for-one opportunity, but those pleas went unheard and, moments later, James Harden threw a pass that was picked off by Derek Fisher. Making matters worse, the Rockets proceeded to allow 17 precious seconds to elapse before committing an intentional foul McHale did not even want them to make at all. And though Houston still had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation, Carlos Delfino’s last-second trey came up short, capping an agonizing final five minutes that saw the Rockets miss two critical free throws (Houston was 17-25 from the line on a night when OKC hit 28-30) while suffering through three turnovers and four missed three-pointers.
Those end-game foibles can and will be scrutinized from now until Monday’s Game 4. But the Rockets know all too well that tough luck bounces and a couple bad decisions can sabotage any game in which the margin is razor thin. Such contests frequently become coin flips and the coin certainly came up in the Thunder’s favor the second Durant’s shot bounced in. Far more damaging, then, were the issues that led to Houston falling behind by 26 points in the first place – on it’s home floor in front of a cacophonous crowd, no less. Do that against a team like Oklahoma City and a player like Durant, and doom will be in the forecast far more often than not.
“You’ve got to find a way to win these games,” lamented Chandler Parsons, who finished the night with 21 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. “I think we are learning a lot and growing a lot right now but it is very frustrating. We feel we should be up 2-1 right now and yet we’re down 0-3. It’s frustrating. We’ve just got to find a way to not dig ourselves into a deeper hole.
“We are never going to give up until we lose four games or we win four games. They still got to beat us one more time and that is our mentality going in there. It is a one-game series from now on. We are not going to hang our heads. We are frustrated and heartbroken right now but we’ve got to use this feeling right now to get better tomorrow and be ready Monday night because the series is not over yet.”
(On coming back in the game and not finishing) “You know, to battle back and put ourselves in position to win the game. It was a hell of a shot, a three, a couple of turnovers late that were tough. The guys fought back from like 26 and took the lead. We did some good stuff. We started off the game when they were coming down hill on us. We were trying to bring help to (Kevin) Durant, but we couldn't get there fast enough; he was coming down and going to work on us. In the second half we got our feet under us and played a little bit better.”
(On the difference of guarding Kevin Durant in the second half) “We got aggressive. We actually did what we said we were going to do. We tried to push him to people (Kevin Durant) and do some stuff. Early in the game we had no pressure. We tried to bring help, but he was straight line driving past everybody. He was straight line driving past the help. So we did what we were supposed to do with a little bit of aggression. The only guy that played him with any kind of aggression early was...we finally got Cisco (Francisco Garcia) in there and he kind of got up into him and slowed him (Kevin Durant) down a little bit. We were trying to force him certain ways and trying to bring the help and he would dribble away from the help and then we're done we were screwed. We'd run an extra guy at him and he's beating his guy, it’s essentially a 5-on-3 so everything was open after that”
(On Francisco Garcia's play) “He played well. He made some big threes. He made that big three at the end there. We got shots we wanted. I know that stretch we were getting open threes and we couldn't make them. That’s what we're looking for, driving the paint and get the open three. It seemed like to start the game, we had a good flow and it then it seemed like there were a lot of whistles and we just couldn't...all of a sudden it was just snowballing on us. We lost our composure there for a while and got it back a little at the end of the second quarter and came back in the third quarter and got right back in the game. We had chances almost the entire fourth quarter to extend the lead. Like I say, a huge shot and (Serge) Ibaka's little hook shot up with less than a second on the clock was huge too.”
(On fouling in the final minute off Harden's turnover) “I didn't want to foul. I was screaming not to foul. Before that I was calling a time out. I walked out on the court and to called time out and they got up and I don't know, we didn't get it called. I was screaming at the referee, normally when coaches call time outs you can get it called, I don't know. We wanted at that point to go... (Kevin) Durant hit the shot with 37 seconds, I wanted to get it and advance it and try to go for a 2 for 1 for ourselves. I was screaming not to foul, the guys just got a little caught up in the game. You're going to have some turnovers, we had some unforced ones, that’s what hurt us. For us to only have 11 turnovers is a big game. We had a couple late, those hurt us because at that point we need to get up good shots. But we moved the ball from side to side and attacked, I thought we were getting the shots we wanted to get. We were getting to the rim more and kicking out, and getting open threes.
(On closing out playoff games) “We've had leads in both fourth quarters I the last two games. You know we've got to, we've got another one on Monday and we've got to find a way to win that game. We got to win that game. Overall the second half I think we played the way we wanted to, in the first half I just thought that they came out as hard and fouled right away. We thought they were going foul (Patrick) Beverly and do some stuff. It seemed like we were a little unnerved and then we got our bearing straight. Halftime, the guys just played better, they did what we talked about doing. For us, it’s definitely a series where we've battled back in the last two games we've had leads in the fourth quarter. And now we've got to win games, that’s what your out there for.”
(On Oklahoma City's resilience after losing Russell Westbrook) “They're a different team without Russell (Westbrook) of course. You've got to give them credit, they came out, I think they were 6-of-8 from the three to start the game with their first 8 shots. They came out and got a lead, like I said, we had a good start, but a lot of whistles and it seemed like we couldn't catch our flow at all. And then it just snowballed from there, and then we came back, but I mean to have a game at 27 points at half and we were able to contain them somewhat. He (Kevin Durant) had the big high bouncing three, that was a big play for them. Without Russell (Westbrook) they are a different team. I though they did a much better job on the boards. We went small and beat them up on the boards a little bit. They came out and got some offensive rebounds early and (Serge) Ibaka kind of made it a point to get in there and got some offensive rebounds.”
(On the game) “We were trying to fight. We kept fighting. We kept getting it down to 3 (points) and 1 (point) and 5 (points) for basically half the quarter. Then we went ahead and hit a big 3 (pointer), which put us up by 2. So, during the timeout, we didn’t want to give up any 3’s. Three wasn’t going to hurt us. He just made a lucky shot. It was good defense. The ball bounced three times around the rim then went in. It kind of took some of the energy out of us. It was a big time shot.”
(On whether he was surprised by the resiliency of the Thunder after losing Russell Westbrook) “They’re still a good team. They are one of the best players in basketball. They are one of the best shot blockers in basketball. They have some very good players. Of course, they are here for a reason. They are number one in the Western (Conference) for a reason. Like Chandler (Parsons) said, we can’t dig ourselves into a 26-point deficit and expect to come back. This isn’t regular season. We are playing against a very good team. (We) just need a better start. A better start to put ourselves in a better position to win a game.”
(On the team’s energy) “No energy. We were kind of sluggish. At the beginning of the game we went up big then they (Thunder) kind of hit us throughout the half. We were kind of sluggish and we weren’t moving the basketball, we weren’t moving our bodies and giving them (Thunder) too many easy layups.”
(On what changed from the first half to the third quarter on how they defended Kevin Durant) “Francisco (Garcia) did a great job in the second half. In the second half, we collectively zeroed in on him (Durant). I told Francisco and myself and Carlos (Delfino), whoever was on him to basically deny him and not let him get the ball and when he did get the ball play all the non-shooters and that way we did a way better job in the second half. It is just tough to come back from a 26-point deficit against a team of that caliber but we fought really hard and it is the second game in a row that we should have won.”
(On being 0-3 in the series) “It’s difficult but it is the same thing for them (Thunder). You got to find a way to win these games. I think we are learning a lot and doing a lot right now but it is very frustrating that we should be up 2-1 right now but we are down 0-3. It’s frustrating. We just got to find a way to not dig ourselves into a deeper hole. We are never going to give up until we lose four games or we win four games. They still got to beat us one more time and that is our mentality going in there. It is a one game series from now on. We are not going to hang our heads. We are frustrated and heartbroken right now but we got to use this feeling right now to get better tomorrow and be ready Monday night.”
(On the Rockets getting down early) “They (the Thunder) came out and we really didn’t do anything in terms of making them uncomfortable defensively and they just picked us apart. Sometimes, especially in the playoffs, you can’t just give up huge leads and expect to be able to create some magic. It doesn’t always work like that.”
(On how he feels, after playing with his injury) “It’s kind of besides the point right now. If I choose to go out there and play, then I’ve got to perform and that’s basically it.”
(On whether the Thunder tried to use his aggressiveness against him early in the game to try to get him into foul trouble) “I don’t know, but I got three quick ones (fouls) in the first half. I was kind of upset about that but I tried to make some adjustments in the second half and tried to not be so aggressive while at the same time try to play my game defensively.”
(On whether or not the Rockets came out with a sense of urgency to start the game) “We came out of the game (ahead) 7-1. The crowd was into it. It’s hard to defend when you’re in the bonus. We got into the bonus quick in the first quarter. We were trying to stay aggressive and at the same time be aggressive. We were putting them to the free throw line a lot and Kevin Durant was making shots. Throughout the whole game he made some shots. He made some tough ones at the end. We did a good job in the second half. They scored 14 points in the third quarter and Kevin Durant scored two points in the third quarter.”
(On what was problem tonight) “They (Oklahoma City Thunder) came out real aggressive. (They) were hitting shots. We were not making shots. In the beginning we came out and I think we were up like 7-1 and then we got a couple of guys in foul trouble. So that kind of messed us up a little bit.”
(On getting out of their shooting slump at the end of the game) “We were playing pretty good, sharing the ball, and finding the open man. Too bad we didn’t get the win tonight.”
(On how they played once they got the lead) “We moved the ball a little better and we started to make shots. I think that it is something that has happened to us the whole series. We tried to shoot contested shots and it wasn’t working. When we were moving the ball, we shook the offense a little bit, it gave us a chance to get in the game and to make shots and play better.”
(On Durant’s 3) “It happened. I was the second (player) coming to contest the shot, so we were trying to get him away from me and try to take the best shot he could. I thought it was a good look, it was frustrating.”
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER COACH SCOTT BROOKS
(On what led to the Rockets comeback) “Good NBA players competing. It was as simple as that. We had a big lead. They've (Rockets) got good players just like we do. During the playoffs, it's always a 48-minute game. It wasn't that we relaxed, it was that they were making some amazing plays and they have the players to do that. I thought tonight’s game, we came out with a lot of defensive toughness and did not allow them any open looks and then they (the Rockets) ended up getting hot and then at the end we did a great job just staying composed when they took the lead. They were making some tough threes also, but we know that this team does that and like us they can score the basketball.”
(On the meaning of this game) “It definitely was an emotional time, the last 48 hours. We all love what Russell (Westbrook) is about, the guy has probably the biggest heart I've ever been around. He's done a great job of putting us in this position, like myself and all the players, we love him, we love what he is about. Tonight’s game was a great game, we wanted to come in here and get this win. Our guys came in focused and we got the win. We focused on a couple of areas that we didn't do well last game. We wanted to make sure we did a good job rebounding and we did. We did a decent job in transition, like I said, this is one of the toughest teams to guard. They play four or five small guys at one time. They kind of force you to make some tough decisions, but I thought our guys did a good job rebounding.”
(On Durant's play) “Well Kevin (Durant) has done a great job of being a great play maker all season long. He’s an amazing scorer and we look at that a lot, but he sets up a lot of guys to get easy buckets. He's a play maker, he's a basketball player and he wants to do the right thing and the right thing is to make the right play and he does that quite a bit.”
(On Derek Fisher's play) “Fish (Derek Fisher) stepped up tonight. He made timely shots and made big free throws. He had a steal and he had a block, one of those blocks I used to get below... not that you guys remember, it was four of them. (Laughs) He has big game ability, he's been amazing. He's having an amazing career and he makes big plays. I thought he did a great job defensively. It’s hard to measure those things, but him and Reggie (Jackson) did a great job of manning that position. “
(On Reggie Jackson's play) “I thought Reggie (Jackson) did a good job, I thought that he made some good plays throughout the game. He's a developing player that is going to continue to get better because of the work he puts in with the staff. I though him and Derek (Fisher) did a great job, that’s not an easy task in a playoff game when one of the best players in the game gets an injury. Those guys came in and they both stepped up and Reggie did a terrific job, I'm proud of him, I'm proud of the way he played. He kept his composure during some tough moments of the game. His last 5 minutes were...you would think that he was playing for 6 or 7 years. It’s a great testament to his character.”
(On the Thunders’ Composure) “Its always about being composed and playing in the moment right then and there. You can’t worry about the last play, you always have to focus on the play ahead, it’s mental toughness, it’s something that we talk about and our guys display that night-in and night-out and every day in practice. They just have that mentality. Their competitive spirit has always been at a high level. Mental toughness, I even showed that. I took Kevin (Durant) out for 45 seconds, I didn't want to do that. He (Durant) had great energy throughout the game, his rebounding, his defense and his play making was really high level.”
(On Durant's minutes during the playoffs) “I thought it out, I'll probably rest him a few minutes in the first half. There are long time outs, we use our time outs wisely and in the second and fourth quarter there is a lot of real time rest, but he has an opportunity to get a few more minutes of rest in the first half, I'm going to take advantage of that.”
(On Kevin Martin's play) “He made some shots that we needed. He missed a couple of open looks and he's going to make those shots, he's been a shot maker his entire career. He didn't make a couple of them, but its something that we know that he does, he's done it all year and he'll come back, hopefully, and make those shots on Monday.”
(On Kevin Durant wanting to stay in the game) “Kevin (Durant) loves to play. He's a baller, he just wants to play basketball. I've said it many times, but he's not a very exciting kid, he just wants to play basketball and he wants to just play it all the time. So tonight’s game, I wanted to rest him. At that time he didn't want to rest, but I felt that I needed to rest him a minute to kind of regroup and kind of see the game for a minute just like an extra long timeout, but I thought that helped him down the stretch.”
(On Kevin Durant being physically/emotionally drained during the game) “I sense its been an emotional 48 hours, there’s no way around it. You can’t plan for that, you don't plan for that. There is nothing you can read about and be able to manage it better; it’s one of those things that happens. It’s part of the game. Unfortunately it happened. This is why they're (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) best friends. Those guys are the best of friends and they've competed the last 5 years together and I’m sure he would tell you guys that it was an emotional game for him. I just thought that the fact that he stayed composed and he made big shots and he made big plays and he had big rebounds tonight.”
(On how proud he is on being a part of the win) “We just want to play our hardest and I think we left it all out there on the floor. Houston is really good team and I think people underestimate what they do on both ends of the floor. So we were able to come out with a lot of energy to start the game and I think that helped us. Going through what we went through in the last 24 hours, we just wanted to stay together. I think we did a great job down the road.”
(On his last 3-point shot at the end of the game) “The Lord was with us. That’s all I was thinking. I knew as soon as that shot hit the back rim, I was thinking ‘Not again. Tough three I shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But, it was able to bounce in and all because of the good Lord. I really can’t say too much else about that. I’m glad we made it.”
(On how emotional he was playing without Russell Westbrook) “It feels the same. I just go out there on the court and I knew I had to give it my all no matter what. That’s what I’m going to do for however many more games we have to play. Hopefully we do a good job the next game. I’m just going to give it my all no matter what and not worry about missed shots, turnovers or anything, rebounds…just go out there and give it my all.”
(On the game) “We won collectively as a team. We had a run there where we couldn’t put the ball in the basket and they (Rockets) got very hot and got some stops and got out into transition and got some 3’s. Francisco Garcia got hot and (Carlos) Delfino hit some big shots and we just tried to weather the storm and we were fortunate to get a win.”
(On the 4th quarter) “We were just men out there tonight. Serge (Ibaka) hit a tough layup and KD (Durant) had a favorable bounce and (Derek) Fisher hit some big free throws and they set me up to just make my free throws and that wasn’t that big of a deal, not to me I guess, because we play Monday regardless. If I didn’t make them we still had a chance to get a stop and fortunately, I got my free throws to go in. It was good to get the win.”
(On the team’s mental toughness) “Everybody was just locked in and tried to weather the storm once again and get some stops. We were fortunate at the end to get some big stops. Houston was hot and unfortunately, we had a few misses. (Francisco) Garcia ran the base line and had a good look on the wing in front of our bench and I was very fortunate that he missed. It bounced in and came out.”
(On Kevin Durant) “He’s Kevin Durant and he’s just clutch. He can definitely fill the stat sheet up and put the ball in the basket and we needed that from him tonight and we were fortunate that he did so.”
(On the Rockets run and their early lead) “We came out great. Obviously, we played well and were the aggressors on both ends and then Houston settled down a little bit and got better shots and we didn’t defend as well. We let them get out into transition and they slowly made their way back. We struggled down the stretch, for sure, but we were able to get just enough stops and a couple of good bounces and get the win.”
(On Kevin Durant’s 3 pointer that bounced on the rim then fell in) “That was obviously a big bounce and definitely that doesn’t happen often but we’ll take it.”
(On the Thunder’s finish) “I thought we kept our composure. That being said, we didn’t execute real well the whole 4th quarter so we’re going to have to be better to finish them off. I thought our composure helped us be able to get just enough to win. We made just enough plays and stepped to the line and made free throws. This was a big win for us. We’re fortunate to get it and we have to be ready to go for game four.”
(On Russell Westbrook not playing) “We knew Westbrook was going to be out at practice but eventually we have to get over it. You have to be able to move on and play and that’s what we do. We’re basketball players and we’re in the playoffs and we have to get ourselves ready to play. I don’t think we had an emotional hangover and I think we came out ready to go. Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court. So, we’re going to have to learn to play without him and learn to execute without him.”
(On the Rockets comeback) “We made big plays. Sometimes the shots just go your way and I thought we fought hard throughout the whole game. It was a good game. Houston played well and they came back and made their run and we were able to hold them off at the end.”
(On the win) “It was big. We know we can play and we have a lot of good players and talent and obviously, it is always tough to lose a guy, your starting point guard. We have what it takes in this locker room and we are really confident and that gave us a little boost.”
(On defending James Harden) “It’s a tough match-up. Very challenging. I rely on the rest of the group a lot. They did a good job meeting him at the rim and trying to not get him to the free throw line too many times even though it’s tough. He had a good game but I think overall we did well.”
(On how the game changed from first half to second half) “Obviously, Kevin (Durant) was at an unbelievable level in the first half and he set the tone and he carried us offensively. I thought defensively we were really good. As the game went on, I thought Houston did continue to attack and played aggressive. They tried to play faster and attack us more and did a good job of getting back into the game and they made us work to get this one.”
(On his role with Russell Westbrook being out) “We’re obviously impacted by his (Westbrook) absence. The way it happened and how it happened and so we are definitely still grieving as a team but that’s why I’m here and that’s why this is a team. Injuries and bad things happen in sports and you still have to figure out a way to get things done. I thought tonight we did a good job of it. Now, more adjustments need to be made and get ourselves prepared to try and give ourselves a chance to win on Monday.”
Houston registered a sold out crowd of 18,163 for tonight’s game.
The Rockets erased a 26-point deficit on the night to take a 99-97 lead with 45.2 seconds left, but Kevin Durant hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to help the Thunder escape with a 104-101 win tonight. Houston also turned a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit into a four-point lead with 3:27 left to play at Oklahoma City (4/24/13), but Durant made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:28 to go in Game Two, which was a lead the Thunder did not relinquish.
Houston made 12 blocked shots tonight, matching its 2012-13 regular season high of 12 blocks vs. Sacramento (4/14/13).
The Rockets held the Thunder to just 33-of-87 (.379) from the field tonight. The road team has now shot below .400 in each of the first three games of the series. Houston was just 33-of-91 (.363) from the floor in Game One at Oklahoma City and made 36-of-91 (.396) from the field in Game Two.
The Thunder outscored the Rockets by a 39-19 margin in the first quarter tonight, marking the largest point differential (20) in any quarter of this series.
Houston finished 12-of-37 (.324) from 3-point range tonight. The Rockets went 18-of-71 (.254) from beyond the arc over the first two games of this series. Houston ranked ninth in the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage (.366, 867-2369 FG) during the 2012-13 regular season.
James Harden recorded 30 points (9-22 FG, 10-15 FT), eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and two bocks tonight. It marked his third career 30-point performance in the playoffs (30 on 5/29/12 at San Antonio and a career-highs 36 on 4/24/13 at Oklahoma City).
Chandler Parsons collected a playoff-career-high 21 points (8-12 FG, 3-6 3FG), seven boards and a game-high seven assists tonight. Overall, Parsons had a career-high 22 20-point outings in 2012-13 regular season.
Francisco Garcia registered playoff career highs of 18 points (7-13 FG, 4-8 3FG), five rebounds and three blocked shots.
Kevin Durant matched his playoff-career-high 41 points (13-30 FG, 4-9 3FG, 11-13 FT) to go with 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals and one blocked shot tonight. He actually had 27 points (9-16 FG, 3-4 3FG, 6-7 FT) in the first half alone. Durant had 37 points (13-22 FG) against the Rockets earlier this season at Oklahoma City (11/28/12) to mark his best regular season point total ever against Houston.
Serge Ibaka posted his second consecutive double-double with 17 points (7-14 FG), 11 boards and two blocks tonight. Ibaka also had 12 points (5-6 FG), 11 rebounds and six blocks in Game Two.
Reggie Jackson, who made his first career start tonight, totaled 14 points (3-6 FG, 2-4 3FG, 6-6 FT) tonight, including a pair of free throws in the final seconds to help ice the game.