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Published September 13, 2015
Without All-Star Russell Westbrook running the point, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are struggling to close out the Houston Rockets.
So much for a sweep. This is suddenly a series.
James Harden scored 31 points and sank seven 3-pointers while fighting flu-like symptoms, and the Rockets beat Oklahoma City 107-100 Wednesday night to pull within 3-2 in their first-round playoff series.
Harden made the first seven 3s he tried and Houston led by as many as 16 to win its second straight, getting halfway to becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.
"We just came out here and played pressure free. Go out there and just hoop, that was our mindset going into the game," Harden said. "The same thing back at home: just go out there and hoop. We're an eighth seed. Nobody's expecting us to win. So just give it what we've got. Simple."
The Rockets have made it look much easier since Westbrook was lost for the rest of the playoffs to knee surgery before Game 3. With back-to-back wins, Houston had Durant blaming himself for just about anything that went wrong for the Thunder even though he scored 36 points and almost single-handedly kept his team in the game.
When asked about how first-time starter Reggie Jackson has done filling in for the injured Westbrook, Durant faulted himself for demanding the ball too often from the young point guard. When questioned about Kevin Martin's awful three-point performance on 1-for-10 shooting, Durant offered that he needed to be more encouraging to the sixth man.
Try as he might, Durant can't do it all.
"They don't really care about anybody else on the team," the three-time NBA scoring champion said. "So, when I have the ball, there's like four guys guarding me sometimes and I've just got to make the pass. Tonight, we didn't make some shots, but I trust that we're going to make those wide-open ones. I've got faith that we're going to make those shots."
Harden could hardly miss. Had he stopped after his first seven attempts, he would have tied Robert Horry's NBA record for most 3-pointers without a miss in the playoffs.
"I just tried to go out there and give it all I had," said Harden, who left Houston's morning shoot-around because of a lack of energy and then slept all day.
"It was a win or go home, so I got some shots to fall and I just tried to not think about it."
The Rockets played without starting point guard Jeremy Lin for the second straight game because of a bruised chest muscle. Key reserve Carlos Delfino didn't play in the second half because of a sore left foot.
They still had plenty of offense, getting 21 points and 11 rebounds from Omer Asik and 18 points and five 3-pointers from Francisco Garcia as six players scored in double figures.
Oklahoma City eliminated half of Houston's big lead before managing to stymie its own comeback.
Apparently doubting they could overcome an eight-point lead on their home court without Westbrook, the Thunder resorted to intentionally fouling Asik — a 54 percent free throw shooter — with 5:33 to play. Asik went 8 for 12 from the line, extending Houston's lead to 101-92 with 3:53 remaining before Oklahoma City gave up the tactic.
"It kind of slowed the rhythm down a little bit," Durant said.
Durant was scoreless in the fourth quarter, missing all five of his shots, and picked up a technical foul with 22.5 seconds left for complaining to referee Bill Spooner.
"They do a great job taking it out of his hands in that fourth quarter. They were sending guys, face-guarding him throughout the quarter," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We have to figure out ways to get him moving and open."
Reggie Jackson contributed 20 points for the Thunder. Kevin Martin, who was acquired in a preseason trade for Harden, missed his first nine shots before making a jumper in the fourth quarter.
What was missing most, though, was Westbrook.
"They miss him everywhere. How would you not? He's one of the top players in the league," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "They probably miss him in the locker room, miss him in shootaround, miss him on the bus, miss him on the plane, miss him on offense, miss him on defense. Did I miss anything?"
The Rockets made a series-high 14 3-pointers on 35 attempts, making up for getting outscored in the paint, in second-chance points and on the fast break. Oklahoma City made just 8 of 33 from 3-point range, missing 14 of its first 15 attempts.
"We pride ourself on getting defensive stops and we didn't do that tonight," Brooks said. "We didn't make shots either. That's a bad combination when they're hitting 3s and we're not hitting 3s."
Rookie Patrick Beverley, who made a lunging attempt at a steal in Game 2 that resulted in Westbrook's knee injury, received a hearty boo during pregame introductions, then got booed each time he touched the ball.
Undeterred, he drove against Jackson for the first basket of the game and the Rockets got out to a strong start. Beverley was called for a technical foul for thrusting his left forearm into Jackson after the Thunder guard made a steal attempt similar to the one that ended up with Westbrook getting hurt.
"My teammates told me to come out here and stay aggressive. This is a family unit with this team," said Beverley, who scored 14. "I tried to not hear the boos and tried to go out and stay focused on the game plan today."
Durant hit the free throw after Beverley's technical to complete a string of eight straight Oklahoma City points and put the Thunder up 17-16, but Houston responded with its own 8-0 run and wouldn't trail again.
NOTES: Westbrook watched the game from a suite. He was unable to be on the bench because his leg needed to be extended. ... With the clock running down at the end of the game, McHale told Harden to "go ahead and shoot it if you like," but Harden opted to take the shot-clock violation. Derek Fisher popped in a 3-pointer for Oklahoma City at the final buzzer.