Rockets 118, Thunder 116 - Rockets withstand absurd Westbrook game to win sixth straight

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Thursday saw the much-anticipated third battle between two of the NBA’s best, and the two guys who figure to be the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player Award come May. The Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder have split their two meetings so far this season, but Houston gained a seven-game lead in the Western Conference standings with Thursday’s narrow victory.

The Rockets got off to yet another slow start, allowing the Thunder to build a 14-point lead by the middle of the first quarter. OKC had dominated the paint early, controlling the glass and scoring 10 quick points in that area. Houston evened out the paint scoring by the end of the quarter, but still allowed OKC to shoot 62% from the field.

The battle of the MVP front-runners immediately took center stage in this game. Russell Westbrook scored 15 points on 86% shooting from the field (including three from downtown). While Westbrook did his damage early in the quarter, James Harden did his at the tail end. Harden scored 13 points in the last five minutes of the opening period, including a couple of beautiful Euro-step layups and back-to-back threes that cut OKC’s lead down to five. At the end of the first, the Rockets were down 38-33.

The second quarter marked another installment of the Eric Gordon show. Gordon scored Houston’s first seven points in the period, cutting the deficit to two points. He single-handedly tied the game at 45, adding another three points and an assist on a Nene dunk. The Rockets kept the momentum up throughout the rest of the quarter and outscored the Thunder 34-18 to go into halftime with a 67-56 lead. Westbrook kept up his hot shooting, going to the locker room with 26 points on 66.7% shooting. Harden, on the other hand, had 19 points on 50% shooting and six assists.

The Rockets managed to extend their lead to 18 early in the third quarter, thanks to good minutes from Nene (who got the start on Thursday instead of Montrezl Harrell). By this point in the game, Nene had hit all six of his field goal attempts and contributed 16 points in just 15 minutes.

Westbrook’s hot streak continued as he sank two more threes (bringing his total to seven) to cut Houston’s lead down to ten. Thankfully, when the Rockets start to get a little stagnant they have a hot shooter of their own to rely on – Eric Gordon, who drilled two deep threes of his own. Despite Westbrook posting an incredible stat line of 40 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, the Rockets had a 97-83 lead at the end of three quarters (Harden’s stat line through three quarters was also very impressive – 22 points, 11 assists, six rebounds).

OKC’s second unit (and Victor Oladipo) did an excellent job of playing with physicality to start the final period, and they cut Houston’s lead down to seven points before Harden checked back into the game. Unfortunately for Rockets fans, Russell Westbrook also checked back into the game and immediately cut the lead down to three with just over five minutes left. What had once been an 18-point lead for the Rockets had evaporated, and Houston was going to have to grind out another win.

Two guys that really gave the Rockets problems were Andre Roberson and Enes Kanter, especially in the fourth quarter. Roberson had been tasked with the undesirable job of guarding James Harden for the majority of this game, and he actually did a good job in the fourth quarter. OKC’s gameplan included not switching off Harden if it meant a big man was going to be stuck with him out on the perimeter, and Roberson really took that to heart in the last few minutes of the game. Roberson finished the game with 14 points and nine rebounds. Meanwhile, Kanter was a bully in the paint, contributing 15 points and 13 rebounds (six on the offensive side of the glass) off the bench.

Back-to-back threes from Westbrook and Oladipo gave OKC a 116-114 lead with less than two minutes left in the game – the Thunder’s first lead since the second quarter. Harden tied the game with a couple of free throws. After Trevor Ariza missed a wide-open three, Patrick Beverley hustled for the offensive rebound in a crowd. The ball seemingly bounced on the baseline out of bounds before Beverley could grab it, throw it off of Jerian Grant, and retain possession for Houston.

Gordon and Westbrook traded missed layups, then Gordon missed a wide-open three that Montrezl Harrell tipped out to James Harden, who was wide-open at the three-point line. Harden took too long to get the shot up and Roberson blocked it (credit Roberson’s hustle on the close-out), allowing the Thunder to grab the rebound and call a timeout with 24.6 seconds left. The game was tied at 116.

Russell Westbrook got the inbounds pass and managed to get Harden switched on him for an isolation play – this could have been a pivotal moment for this MVP rivalry. Then, Westbrook jacked up another three-pointer (he had previously made three of them) and missed. Beverley got the rebound and Houston called (several) timeouts with 3.8 seconds and a chance to win the game.

Head Coach Mike D’Antoni called a play to get Harden the ball on the perimeter, which left Nene wide-open under the basket. Harden threw an absolute bullet to Nene, who went up for a dunk but was fouled in the process. With only 0.7 seconds Nene, a 57% free throw shooter, calmly sank two free throws to give Houston a 118-116 lead. OKC threw a lob up to Kanter, who tried to tap the ball in, but missed.

Despite an absurd statistical game from Russell Westbrook (49 points, including 8/15 from three, eight rebounds, and five assists), the James Harden (26 points, eight rebounds, 12 assists) led Rockets escape with a victory. That’s how this MVP race is seemingly going to go. Both guys are going to put up ridiculous numbers – Westbrook might even average a triple-double this season – but the Rockets are likely to win more games. It’ll be up to voters to decide whether or not Westbrook’s numbers are that much more ridiculous, and how big of a factor Houston’s winning percentage is. Nonetheless, this an MVP race between two close friends and two of the most dynamic athletes the league has ever seen.

The Rockets look for their seventh straight win on Friday in Orlando.

Game Ball

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

Monday’s game ball goes to Nene.

Now, this game saw incredible contributions from Harden, Eric Gordon, and Patrick Beverley, but Nene – who got a rare start in favor of Montrezl Harrell – absolutely took advantage of every minute he was given. He scored 18 points, hitting all six of his field goals, and was called upon when Harrell struggled against OKC’s big men. Nene only played 17 minutes (12 less than Harrell played), but hit shots at crucial moments and, of course, hit the two most important shots of the game – the game-winning free throws.

Nene won’t see many nights like tonight with Harrell’s emergence and the imminent return of Clint Capela, but it’s a luxury for the Rockets that they have a capable veteran on the roster. It speaks to the depth of this roster and potential for a deep Playoff run.

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