Rockets 113, Thunder 115 - Harden Misses at Buzzer, OKC Gets First Win of Series

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For the third straight game, the Rockets offense got off to an ugly start. OKC once again cut off Harden’s passing lanes in the pick-and-roll, forcing Harden into four first-quarter turnovers. Just like in Game 2, the Thunder opened with a major sense of urgency and hit 12 of their first 15 attempts from the field (80%). Taj Gibson got off to an extremely hot start, scoring 12 points on near-perfect shooting. OKC took a commanding lead early that was whittled down to nine when the Rockets closed the opening period on a 7-2 run, but the Thunder still held a 34-25 lead at the end of one.

Houston’s offense finally started to take shape in the second quarter, with Lou Williams providing a major spark. Including a layup in the first quarter, Lou hit his first six attempts from the field (including three beauties from beyond the arc) to give him 16 points. In addition, James Harden once again found his fortune by driving to the basket. By halftime Harden had 20 points on 55.6% shooting (5/9) from the field, and his aggressiveness and craftiness was handsomely rewarded with nine first-half trips to the free throw line (he drained all nine). Houston’s defense was still a problem as they gave up 65 points in the half, but they were finally starting to catch a groove offensively with a manageable deficit to overcome (65-58).

The third quarter opened with a 9-0 run that gave the Rockets its first lead of the game. Unfortunately, OKC responded with a 9-0 run of its own, and they managed to hold on to a nine- to ten-point lead for the majority of the period. Three-point shooting was really the story in the third, as Houston missed six straight after the initial run. Meanwhile, OKC saw a pair of threes from Andre Roberson (a 24% three-point shooter during the regular season) and Alex Abrines, and another from sharpshooter Doug McDermott that gave OKC a 93-83 lead heading into the final period.

With both Harden and Westbrook starting the fourth quarter on the bench, the Rockets opened with a 7-0 run that cut the lead 3. This prompted Westbrook to check back in at the nine-minute mark, and Harden checked back one minute later with OKC up by eight (100-92). The Thunder maintained this lead for the majority of the quarter, and the Rockets kept missing threes. However, Houston went on another 7-0 run that saw Harden hit a three and both Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson hit tough layups. Houston was now down just three points (106-103) with 3:35 left to play.

Houston had a couple of bad possessions in a row (one of which resulted in a shot clock violation), but a James Harden dunk kept this a three-point game (108-105). Russell Westbrook responded with a midrange jumper to extend OKC’s lead to five; he was lights out from the midrange for the entire game. Harden, in his infinite wisdom, managed to draw a three-point shooting foul to cut OKC’s lead back down to two (110-108) with just under 90 seconds left in the game.

A couple of plays later, Nene tried to draw a charge on a Westbrook drive, but he leaned into the contact for a blocking foul. Westbrook missed the second free throw and Harden brought the ball up to drain another three and tie the game at 111. Houston forced a miss on the next possession, but Stephen Adams followed with a tip-in to put OKC up by two with less than 30 seconds left. The Rockets next play ended with Harden tripping on Roberson’s foot and having to call a timeout with 18 seconds left (seven on the shot clock). Houston drew up a play to get Harden open, but he a bricked a deep three and the Rockets were forced to play the fouling game.

Westbrook was at the free throw line again and missed the first one. He made the second to give OKC a 114-111 lead. The Rockets elected not to call a timeout and inbound the ball, which prompted OKC to immediately foul Harden to send him to the line, preventing a possible three-point attempt. Harden sank both, OKC called a timeout, and the Rockets sent Westbrook back to the free throw line. Westbrook again missed a free throw, and the Rockets had eight seconds left to tie or win the game. Again, Houston didn’t call a timeout and Harden brought the ball up. This time, he went for the win but the ball bounced off the front rim and Houston came up short.

There was a lot of talk in this game about Russell Westbrook’s incredible and detrimental performance in Game 2. He came in Game 3 looking to get his teammates more involved, and head coach Billy Donovan made some adjustments to his rotations that greatly benefitted the Thunder. Westbrook ended the game with 32 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists, but he had help with double-digit scorers like Taj Gibson, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter.

James Harden, on the other hand, had some scoring help in the form of Lou Williams (22), Ryan Anderson (18), and Eric Gordon (12). However, the Rockets only shot 28% from the three-point line (10/35), despite getting a lot of good looks – especially in the fourth quarter. Anderson’s three-point shot is going to have to start falling if Houston wants to have any Playoff success though, as he was 0/12 going into Game 3 and only 2/7 on Friday night.

Houston looks to pick up a win (and commanding 3-1 series lead) in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon.

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.

The third game ball of the postseason goes to James Harden.

Harden scored 44 points on just 21 shots from the field, while dishing out six assists and grabbing six rebounds. After his atrocious first quarter on both ends of the floor, Harden tightened the screws and played an efficient game that saw him drive to the basket instead of falling in love with the outside shot. He hit all 18 of his free throws and very nearly won the game at the buzzer.

Here’s to hoping Harden and the Rockets come out with some energy to start Game 4. If they do, they should have no problems winning.

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