By Pulling Together, Thunder Survives Key Test

HOUSTON -- There were big shots, clutch free throws and huge defensive stops.

To pick one over the other would not do justice to the collective whole of the final 5 minutes and 46 seconds of Game 3 on Saturday night, when the Thunder showed its collective mettle and poise to defeat the Houston Rockets, 104-101.

"It was a big character win for us," veteran guard Derek Fisher said.

On Sunday, some 12 hours after he had left the post-game interview room, Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks continued to talk about the resiliency of his team; about how each player focuses on the moment and is ready to step up when the situation demands it.

"It was a very good win," he said before running the Thunder through its workout at Rice University in preparation for Game 4. "We talked about a few things going into that game and the guys did a good job executing the plan. We got back in transition, didn't turn the ball over and we had some key offensive rebounds."

The Thunder, which once led by as many as 26 points in Game 3, found itself in a tie game, 91-91, with 5:46 to play and the home crowd going nuts after Houston forward Chandler Parsons drilled a 3-pointer. It was the first tie since 9-9 with 7:79 remaining in the first quarter.

Rather than panic, the Thunder pulled together and relied on each other to erase two deficits -- the first with 3:45 remaining, the second with 45.2 seconds to play -- and take a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven, first-round series.

"We did a great job of just staying composed," Brooks said afterward. "This is the Playoffs, it's always a 48-minute game. It's not like we relaxed and let them back in it. They made a lot of amazing shots, which we know they're capable of doing. That's a very good team."

The Thunder, too, prides itself on being a team. And as a team, they stayed together with less than four minutes remaining to give themselves a chance to close out this series Monday night. Consider this final stretch (time remaining in parenthesis):

  • 3:45: Carlos Delfino hits a 3-pointer in front of the Thunder bench to put the Rockets up, 94-93; it was their first lead since 9-8.

  • 3:13: Serge Ibaka battles two Rockets under the basket and secures an offensive rebound, the biggest of seven offensive boards he had in the game, to keep the possession alive. He wasn't done. Ibaka drilled a 13-foot fadeaway jumper to put the Thunder up, 95-94.

  • 1:25: After the Thunder defense forced two Houston turnovers on back-to-back possessions, Ibaka again came up big, securing a pass from Kevin Martin in heavy traffic under the basket and angling his body to get the basket with one second left on the shot clock, pushing the Thunder lead to 97-94. "Serge had some very big moments last night, his presence at the basket, his rebounding, shots," Brooks said, adding: "He deserves success. He's a tireless worker, a team guy."

  • 45.2: Francisco Garcia drills his fourth 3-pointer of the night, giving the Rockets a 99-97 lead. The Thunder calls time out.

  • 41.9: Kevin Durant answers with the biggest -- and most dramatic -- shot of the game, a long 3-pointer that bounced high off the front of the rim, hit the back of the rim and finally fell through, capping his 41-point night and putting the Thunder back in front, 100-99.

  • 29.9: Fisher steps in front of a Harden pass and secures the ball. It is the seventh steal of the night for the Thunder, and unquestionably the most important.

  • 12.5: Fisher is fouled. He calmly and cleanly sinks two free throws, putting the Thunder up, 102-99.

  • 8.0: Following a Harden basket that cut the lead to one, Reggie Jackson is fouled on an in-bounds pass and sent to the line. Jackson swishes both free throws to make it 104-101.

  • 1.5: Ibaka refuses to bite on a series of fakes and gets his hands up as Delfino launches a corner 3 to tie the game. The ball goes off the side of the rim and Jackson soars to corral the rebound as the buzzer sounds.

Thunder wins, indeed.

"We obviously were coming in here to try to give ourselves a chance to win," Fisher said. "We didn’t expect to get off to such a great start, although we knew we needed to. To have that lead dissipate and have the Rockets fight back like they did and take the lead, then on the road be able to make enough plays down the stretch to win a playoff game, it says a lot about our group."

Added Jackson: "We just tried to weather the storm and we were fortunate to get a win. ... Serge had a tough layup. KD had a favorable bounce. Fisher hit some big free throws. They set me up to just make some simple free throws. … I was fortunate to get the free throws to go in and it was good to get a win."