Like every game except the first one in the series, the Rockets and Thunder went right down to the wire in game four. In every other game, the Thunder got the big shot or the turnover needed to win the game.
Monday night, it was finally the Rockets' turn.
Chandler Parsons did what only two other players in team history had done before him, scoring at least 28 points, grabbing 10 boards and dishing 8 assists (Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson were the two others), while James Harden struggled (15 points, 10 turnovers). Parsons led the Rockets to a scintillating 105-103 win.
The Thunder had chances down the stretch, but for the first time I can remember, it was team defense that not only kept the Rockets in it, but sealed the victory. On the final play, Kevin Durant, who has been spectacular all series and was again Monday with 38 points on 12-16 shooting (wow!), had to give up the ball thanks to Francisco Garcia, who has been something of a defensive revelation in the series. That forced Reggie Jackson to drive the lane where he was met by Omer Asik. The ball finally landed in the hands of Serge Ibaka who missed a layup to give the Rockets the win.
All night, the Rockets got help from unexpected places. With Jeremy Lin sitting out with a chest injury suffered in game two, Patrick Beverley got the start and did not disappoint. He had 16 points on 5-10 shooting and his backup, Aaron Brooks pitched in 7. Garcia was relentless on defense all night even though he has been known throughout his career for his shooting. Asik had his typical double-double with 17 points and 14 boards. Even Carlos Deflno, who has been clutch most of the series but has an injured foot, added to the highlight reel with a poster dunk over Durant in a third quarter that saw the Rockets outscore the Thunder by 14 and turn a 7-point deficit at the half to a 7-point lead.
But with Harden struggling, the go-to player was Parsons, who was stellar from outside and inside, scoring from all over the floor and providing help defense on Durant. Despite the play of Parsons, it was Harden with the ball in his hands the final three plays of the game, all of which were jump shots that clanged off the rim, each decision more frustrating than the last for fans. Coach Kevin McHale admitted after the game he wanted Harden to take the ball to the basket, and the Rockets are fortunate Ibaka's final shot was off.
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Now, the Rockets head back to OKC to a very hostile environment against a team that wants no part of a game six on the road. It's been a fascinating series for the Rockets who clearly will not back down and play about as hard as you can for 48 minutes.
Unfortunately, their lack of experience also means they don't always play consistently or with intelligence. When Durant did get going Monday, just as in game three, it was primarily because the Rockets weren't handling their defensive assignments correctly. Once they adjusted, they were able to force him into tougher shots. They also experience turnovers at the most inopportune times and seem occasionally lost on offense.
But the experience they are gaining is invaluable and win or lose Wednesday night, this is a huge stepping stone to improvement come next season. Let's hope the offseason is held off for at least one more game.