By Michael Kinney, Eyeamtruth.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — Playing championship caliber defense has not been a part of Oklahoma City’s resume this season. Despite having the third best record in the Western conference, they have suffered through more fourth quarter defensive breakdowns than almost any other team in the NBA.
But Tuesday, with the Houston Rockets in town, the Thunder had one stretch of defensive basketball that could could be called championship level and it led them to an 111-107 victory at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I think we did a tremendous job as a team,” Oklahoma City’s Dion Waiters said. “As a team we really locked in and we made it tough on them.”
Kevin Durant scored 23 points and Russell Westbrook collected his 15th triple-double of the season for Oklahoma City. Durant, who shot 8-for-19 from the field, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out four assists. Westbrook tallied 21 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds for his third straight triple-double and sixth in past nine games.
Oklahoma City (49-22) earned its fifth win in a row. Oklahoma City is undefeated this year when Westbrook has a triple double.
“I am just trying to find the right way to play,” Westbrook said. “A lot of those games are big games for us. I just play my game. The game will tell you what to do.”
James Harden paced the Rockets with 24 points on 7-of-17 shooting, and he added 16 assists. Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley each scored 16 for Houston (35-36). Howard finished with a team-high 13 rebounds.
Harden was a game-time decision on whether he would play or not. But the leagues second leading scorer said he had to play, regardless of any pain he might be in.
“I had to be out there,” Harden said. “For us every game counts. I had to put my individual, whatever I’ve got going on, to the side, and just try and go out there and get the win.”
Westbrook completed a three-point play with 6:50 left in the fourth quarter to give Oklahoma City a 92-90 advantage. He made a free throw on the next trip to put the Thunder up by three.
Minutes later, a Westbrook jumper gave the Thunder a three-point advantage, but Harden knocked down a pair of free throws to cut Houston’s deficit to 97-96 with 3:44 left.
After a Durant miss, Beverley drained a 3-pointer from in front of the Thunder bench to push the Rockets in front 99-97. However, Steven Adams quickly tied it up on a dunk.
The Thunder then forced a turnover that led to a Westbrook one-man fastbreak in which he skied for a tomahawk dunk. Another defensive stop was turned into a Westbrook jumper and a four-point advantage.
Harden hit two free throws before Durant popped in a fadeaway jumper.
Leading by four, the Thunder came up with a series of defensive stops to get the ball back. Durant was fouled and he hit one of two from the line with 28.9 seconds to go.
Jason Terry and Harden hit back to back 3-pointers to get Rockets to within one point with 11.8 seconds left. Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka made just one of two from the line, leaving the door open for Houston.
Harden got the ball at the top of the key and was quickly doubled teamed by Durant and Adams. He attempted to throw an alley-oop to Howard, but Waiters leaped high enough to deflect the pass and save the game.
“Dion Waiters did a heck of a job, coming in the from the corner, putting his body on Dwight and interfering with the pass,” Houston interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “It was the right read by both our guys offensively. But it was a heck of a defensive play by Waiters to deflect the ball.”
Before the game began, Bickerstaff talked about how his team was made for physical games and that it wouldn’t back down from any squad.
That was evident in the first quarter when the Rockets attacked the glass against the No. 1 rebounding team in the league, and Houston jumped out to a 27-18 lead.
However, with just over two minutes left in the period, Oklahoma City went on a 23-8 run that spread over into the second quarter. It was keyed by Durant and Waiters.
Harden settled the Rockets back down on offense and led them to a one-point halftime advantage.
Waiters continued to take advantage of the Rockets’ defense in the third quarter. In just the fifth game back since the death of his younger brother, the reserve guard broke out of a slump that had lasted since the All-Star break, scoring 17 points in 25 minutes Tuesday.
“My brother is on my mind every day,” Waiters said. “I’m not going to get over it for a while. I have to take it day by day and just try get over. But I’m not ever going to get over it. It’s family.”