It was an exciting back and forth game that featured 21 lead changes and 11 ties, and despite a game effort by James Harden on an obviously bum ankle, the Rockets couldn't contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant down the stretch in a 111-107 defeat at the hand of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Harden finished with 24 points, 7 rebounds, a career-high 16 assists, and 4 steals, but was in obvious discomfort and his shot suffered as a result, as he knocked down just 7-17 from the field and 2-8 from deep. He was noticeably concentrating on distributing, especially early, leading to the personal record night in dimes.
Houston held a slim one-point lead after both the second and third periods, but faltered when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, allowing Westbrook to score 14 of 21 points in the period and Durant to put up 9 of his 23. Westbrook finished with his third consecutive triple double, his sixth in his last nine games, and his 15th total on the year. He added 13 rebounds and 15 assists to round out the triple dip.
The Rockets did have a chance to tie the game in the closing moments, but a missed alley-oop connection from Harden to Dwight Howard with just 9 seconds left in the game sealed the deal for the Thunder.
All five Rockets starters finished in double figures, as Patrick Beverley added 16 points and 4 triples, Howard had 16 points and 13 rebounds, while Trevor Ariza and Donatas Motiejunas finished with 13 and 11 points, respectively. Though like Harden, Ariza also had trouble with his shot, finishing only 5-18 from the field and 3-12 from downtown.
The big difference was the Thunder bench, which outscored the Rockets 40-27. Waiters was surprisingly big, going for 17 points and three from deep to go along with the clutch contest on Howard, while Enes Kanter had 10 points and 10 boards in just 21 minutes of action, and Anthony Morrow hit 2 clutch shots from beyond the arc.
Michael Beasley led the Houston bench with 11 points, though he played only 15 minutes of action tonight, as the Thunder played a lot of Durant at the four when going to some of their bench, a matchup coach J.B. Bickerstaff obviously wanted to avoid for Beasley.
The Rockets did manage to out-rebound the league's best rebounding team by slim 47-46 margin, undershot their season average in turnovers, and also held the Thunder to 22.9 percent shooting from three, including a combined 1-12 from Westbrook and Durant, but it was all for naught as the Rockets fell back to an under .500 record. The Thunder's stars made the plays when they counted most, and the Rockets' stars did not, it was as simple as that.
The Rockets are now just a half game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and host Utah at the Toyota Center tomorrow night in an all-too-crucial second game of a back-to-back. The Rockets would officially fall out of the playoff seeding with a loss. Oh, and James Harden played 40 minutes tonight on that ankle and has to turn around tomorrow and do it all again.
Gut check time for these Rockets.