OKLAHOMA CITY -- The perspective from the Houston Rockets' locker room Wednesday night was that they let a game slip away. Maybe even lost a game that might haunt them later in the season.
Houston rallied from a 13-point, first-half deficit and led by as many as seven early in the fourth quarter, but a lack of ball movement and 28 missed open shots led to their demise.
“We were too slow offensively; our pace wasn’t good at all,” James Harden said. “We got as many good shots as we wanted to, we got a couple of good looks and we didn’t make them. Our pace wasn’t normal; that was the cause of that."
The Thunder slowed the offensive juggernaut that is Harden with constant double-teams when the Rockets tried pick-and-roll plays. Instead of going with the player who rolls, the Thunder kept two players on Harden, slowing Houston's offense. Andre Roberson, who made two baskets the entire night, harassed Harden quickly in the backcourt, forcing Harden to find his teammates ... who failed to deliver.
Harden dismissed the double-teams as something that might have worn him down, but he went 4-for-16 on the night with 13 assists and 13 total points. Harden didn’t reach double figures until nailing a 3-pointer with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
Harden was asked if Roberson contributed to his troubles.
“I missed shots,” Harden said.
Asked about the double-teams causing him problems, Harden shook that off, too.
“Normal, I still was able to make passes,” he said. “A couple of passes we missed, but normal game, just didn’t make shots, especially down the stretch like we needed to, and that was it.”
With two Thunder defenders on the ball, that meant more open looks for the Rockets. Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza missed seven each. Eric Gordon missed nine, and Harden himself went 0-for-3 on uncontested shots.
As the game began to slip away from the Rockets, they reverted back to isolation basketball -- Harden dribbling and dribbling and dribbling. When he did pass, the Rockets had open looks, only to misfire.
“Regardless if it moved enough or not, we still got the looks that we like, the looks that we’re going to take,” Ariza said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t hit them tonight.”
Houston had some legitimate complaints late in the game, particularly after the Thunder tied it at 100. Roberson appeared to touch Harden as he missed a jumper, prompting an outcry from the Rockets' bench.
In transition, Roberson scored on a lob pass from Russell Westbrook to give the Thunder a 102-100 lead with 1:43 to play. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni called timeout, and Patrick Beverley, out as he recovers from a knee injury, stood up and exchanged words with Roberson. Harden said Beverley was upset no foul had been called on his shot attempt.
Houston still had chances later on, but Anderson and Ariza each missed long jumpers sandwiched around Gordon's miss on a drive. Westbrook pushed the lead to three when he made one free throw, and Harden missed a 25-footer for the tie. After his miss, Harden stole an outlet pass and sent a bounce pass toward Ariza, who was moving toward the rim, only to see it hop out of bounds.
Houston appeared to have one final chance when Clint Capela grabbed a rebound off a missed layup. But it seemed Westbrook slapped Capela on the wrist to force the ball out of bounds with seven seconds remaining. A review confirmed it was OKC ball.
“It’s a hard game to referee,” D’Antoni said. “It goes both ways. We (as a team) just need to get a little bit better.”
After officials finished their review, Westbrook finished the Rockets. He dunked on Capela, pushing the Thunder lead to five. It was a mind-blowing play, starting in slow motion and ending in a flash. Westbrook drove from the corner toward the Rockets' center. Capela did what he was supposed to do: challenge the play. It didn't work out.
So the Rockets come home knowing the 13 fourth-quarter points weren’t enough in a game they should have won.
D’Antoni warned his group about losing games like this. You need to win in November, because every game has playoff implications. You want to stack up victories so you won’t have to play in desperation mode in March and April.
“We were up 10 in the third quarter, and we've got to go up 12 or 15,” Harden said. “They cut it to five and made it tough on ourselves. Tough game for us. We didn’t play well and we didn’t shoot the ball well. We still had an opportunity to win. Tomorrow, we have a game at home against Portland.”
And the Rockets can’t let that one slip away, either.