The Rockets defeated the Thunder 105-103 to take Game 4 in Houston on Monday night. The series returns to Oklahoma City on Wednesday night with the Thunder leading 3-1.
• More choppy offense from the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder. The inconsistent production that marked Oklahoma City's attack in Game 3 was back in Game 4, with the Thunder again taking control of the contest with a solid first half only to have things sputter down the stretch. While they managed to escape in Game 3 without Russell Westbrook thanks to 41 points from Kevin Durant, their luck changed on Monday, as Houston loaded up on Durant, denying him the ball whenever possible and hard-doubling him often when he succeeded in getting open.
Durant remained his lethal, super-efficient self, finishing with a game-high 38 points (on just 16 shots!), eight rebounds and six assists, but he committed seven turnovers and had no choice but to pass the ball on several key possessions late, making the right basketball decision but turning the game's fate over teammates who weren't able to deliver.
"They do some crazy things on defense," Durant said afterwards. "They run two guys at you, don't care about the other guys on the floor sometimes, but I trust my teammates, I know they're going to come through. ... If they keep doing that, we have to keep passing the ball and trusting each other, hopefully we'll make some shots."
The main culprits from Game 3 were again guilty of not pulling their weight in Game 4: Kevin Martin finished with 16 points but had just two in the second half while struggling with turnovers and Thabo Sefolosha was a non-factor. Without one or both of that pair knocking down shots to keep opposing defenses honest, the Thunder grind down into some sloppy basketball that puts Durant in a position where he must go one-on-five. Let's be clear, there are moments, even late in the game, where that's not an impossibility. Take this sensational down-the-lane dunk with 1:13 remaining, the last two points that Oklahoma City would score, for instance.
That play followed a Durant three-pointer, which kept the Thunder's hopes alive, and put Oklahoma City in position to force overtime had Serge Ibaka been able to convert a last-second, point-blank lay-up. It was the three minutes that preceded Durant's heroics where the Thunder looked particularly mortal. After hitting a three-pointer with just less than five minutes remaining, Reggie Jackson, Westbrook's stand-in, missed back-to-back three-pointers. They were open looks by design, as the Rockets gifted Jackson, a 23.1 percent three-point shooter on the year, the opportunities. He couldn't resist and he also couldn't find the net. On the next possession, the ball swung to Derek Fisher, the one Thunder perimeter player besides Durant who had it going, but his three-pointer was wiped off by a shot clock violation. Those three plays, plus a Durant charge, made for a three-minute dry spell in which the Rockets ran off a 5-0 run.
The issue wasn't Jackson's misses, or even his willingness to take the threes, but rather the Thunder finding themselves in dire need of Westbrook's ability to force the opposing team's defense to play on its heels with his ability to get into the paint and get to the foul line. On the whole, Jackson performed admirably, scoring 18 points and dishing three assists, but he isn't the commanding presence that can get to the line when things are going south like Westbrook. Oklahoma City has compensated by turning over the "need some points" duties to Durant, who got to the line 15 times. It's still an effective approach with one All-Star rather than two, but meaningfully less so.
To be clear, this wasn't a case of a single late-game drought coming at the wrong time. Oklahoma City started the third slowly and had a fairly rough stretch early in the fourth too. Against Houston, Oklahoma City can make up for this scoring inconsistency through Durant's sheer talent and will, but they are headed for tougher, deeper defenses in the Clippers (or Grizzlies) and Spurs, and that will spell problems.
• Chandler Parsons steps up. Chandler Parsons, Houston's pre-series X-factor, scored a team-high 27 points and nearly finished with a triple-double (10 rebounds and eight assists). This was a balanced Rockets attack that finally got its outside shooting going -- five Rockets finished in double-figures and three Rockets hit at least three three-pointers -- but Parsons stood out. Known primarily as a shooter, the 2011 second-round pick did serious work in the paint, too, which was a must-have given James Harden's relative ineffectiveness.
The Rockets' All-Star guard finished with just 15 points, three assists and 10 turnovers, shooting four-for-12 from the field and spending key portions of the fourth quarter on the sideline due to foul trouble. In that hole, Parsons was able to score five of Houston's final seven points, just enough to hold off the Thunder and stave off elimination.
"The pain and frustration from those last two losses, we didn't want our season to end," Parsons said, explaining his thought process down the stretch.
Despite topping 30 points twice, Harden hasn't had a great game yet in this series, at least by his standards. His 0-for-4 shooting from deep on Monday dropped him to four-for-25 (16 percent) on the series, an abominable number. He hit rock bottom late in this game, settling for and missing three straight jumpers as Durant and the Thunder mounted their late rally.
"Those are good shots, I was just cold," Harden said, blaming his time on the bench because of the foul trouble. "Freezing."
• Parsons leaves Rockets fan hanging.
The images of Ibaka crumbling on the floor after missing his point-blank attempt to tie the game won't soon be forgotten, as he wore his disbelief like a suit. This hilarious GIF from moments after Ibaka's agony resides on a different end of the emotional spectrum. As the Rockets celebrated their victory, Parsons happened to leave a courtside fan hanging on a fist bump before turning to fix his hair. Funny stuff. On Monday, Parsons' stat line was LeBron James-esque; It only makes sense that he would follow in King James' footsteps here.