2020 Playoffs: First Round | Rockets vs. Thunder

Unlikely heroes emerge for Thunder, Rockets in Game 7

Lugentz Dort, Eric Gordon and Robert Covington set much of tone in thriller

Let Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni tell it, we’re lucky to still have him.

“[Lugentz] Dort probably gave me three heart attacks,” he said.

Perhaps Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan shared similar feelings on the other side regarding Eric Gordon and Robert Covington, as three of the most unheralded players in Wednesday’s Game 7 created the most significant impact for their respective teams in Houston’s nail-biting 104-102 win.

Dort racked up a game-high and career-high 30 points for the Thunder, while Gordon and Covington paced the Rockets with 21 apiece.

Houston advances to the Western Conference semifinals, where it faces the well-rested Los Angeles Lakers on Friday (9 ET, ESPN).

“Right now, Game 7s, especially, it’s not about how good you play,” D’Antoni said. “It’s how hard you play and how engaged you are. It’s more brains and heart, and not talent. I thought everybody fought out there.”

D’Antoni’s remarks specifically reflected his thoughts on the Rockets, but they certainly apply more broadly. That’s especially true considering how the chaotic finish played out with the night’s biggest star, James Harden, struggling all night before finally sealing the victory from the defensive end in the waning seconds.

In a Game 7 chockful of star power with two former Kia MVPs (Harden and Russell Westbrook) and a future Hall of Fame point guard (Chris Paul), nobody in Las Vegas would have bet on Dort, Gordon and Covington being Game 7’s top scorers.

“In the playoffs, man, each game in the series different guys will be able to step up,” Westbrook said. “It’s not always the main guys that make plays down the stretch and throughout the game. We have a lot of those guys on our team.”

Houston sorely needed them, too, to take this series-deciding victory.

Struggling all night offensively, Harden shot 4 of 15 and 1 of 9 from 3-point range to finish with 17 points, while Westbrook contributed his 20 points on 9-of-20 shooting and 0-for-2 from deep. They also combined for six turnovers, which made the contributions from Gordon and Covington more timely.

In a fourth quarter featuring three ties and four lead changes, Covington knocked down a 26-footer to put Houston ahead by 3 with 6 minutes and 53 seconds remaining, before nailing one of two free throws with 1.4 seconds left to extend the Rockets’ lead.

Gordon, meanwhile, entered the game shooting 8 of 43 from 3-point range this series, before turning that around in Game 7 with a 5-of-9 performance from deep. Perhaps Gordon’s most significant contribution came from him locking down Paul in the clutch with the game on the line.

Paul hit a pair of free throws with 7:11 remaining to tie the score at 96.

He wouldn’t score again.

“Everybody did something great,” D’Antoni said. “The way Eric guarded Chris Paul towards the end was terrific. Cov[ington] had some big plays.”

Covington and Gordon combined for four blocks and four steals to play prominent roles in Houston enjoying a 28-12 advantage in points off turnovers. Covington also secured a team-high 10 rebounds, as the Rockets outscored the Thunder 14-8 on second-chance points.

“He was excellent tonight on both ends of the ball,” Harden said.

Had OKC captured the victory, Dort’s performance would’ve garnered the lion’s share of headlines. Known mostly for his solid defense on Harden this series, Dort shot 3-of-16 from the field and 0-of-9 from 3-point range in Game 5, before bouncing back in Game 6 with 13 points, including 10 in the third quarter of that victory.

In Game 7, Dort put the clamps on Harden while providing his own fireworks, offensively, against a Houston defense that was content most of the series with him taking open shots.

Dort hit 10 of 21 from the field and 6 of 12 from 3-point range in Game 7.

“It was one of the most impressive things that I’ve seen out of a player that young,” Donovan said. “Here’s a guy that was in the G League. He never got drafted, was a two-way player. And here he comes up, and we have some injuries. Everybody knows the story: [he] comes into the starting lineup. In a significant playoff [Game 5], he goes 3-for-16 and 0-for-9. If that doesn’t show you the mental toughness of a guy to be able to come back and play as well as he did in Game 6 after that Game 5, and then come back today to play even better, and to also focus on guarding James Harden, I was really impressed with him.”

It’s important to retrace Dort’s background here to illuminate the brightness of his future in this league.

In the playoffs, man, each game in the series different guys will be able to step up. … We have a lot of those guys on our team.”

Rockets guard Russell Westbrook

An undrafted rookie out of Arizona State playing on a two-way contract earlier this season, Dort spent a good portion of the first half of the season in the NBA G League with the Oklahoma City Blue before becoming a full-time starter in January.

OKC finally signed Dort in June to a multiyear contract, and on Wednesday, he scored the third-most points by a rookie in a Game 7, while producing the most points in a Game 7 for a player under the age of 22. To put that last number in perspective, consider that LeBron James (27 points) and Kobe Bryant (25) rank second and third, respectively, on that list.

Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Bob Marley and the words “Get up, Stand Up,” Dort wiped away tears while discussing his journey.

“This team just gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “The vets, they just gave me a lot of confidence. They really trusted me. It’s a blessing just to be here. Dennis [Schroder] is one of the guys who really trusted me from the beginning.

“I remember the first game I played against Minnesota, and he really talked to me about how I could impact this game at this level. Just the way he was talking to me just really helped for the whole season. My teammates and my coach really believed in me. This really helped. I know it was a big game, and I live to play games like that. It didn’t go our way. It hurts. But I can’t wait for the future. There’s a lot that can happen.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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