HOUSTON -- The Oklahoma City Thunder are done at last with the team that talked them into trading James Harden, knocked Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs and threatened to come all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to take their dignity on top of it all.
Only temporarily, though.
The Houston Rockets obviously aren't all the way out of OKC's lives, given how intertwined these franchises will be for the foreseeable future after the late October blockbuster deal that made Harden a Rocket and the sideline rush from Houston's Patrick Beverley that left Westbrook with a season-ending knee injury. The Thunder were nonetheless thrilled late Friday night to finally get away from them, at least for the next few months, by scrapping to a 103-94 triumph at Toyota Center that ended a costly, agonizing series in six games.
"I was starting to hate those guys," Kevin Durant admitted at the post-game podium, paying tribute to the Rockets' stubborn resilience but also revealing a measure of the tension that has built up over the past two weeks and, really, these last six months.
"I was starting to hate every one of them guys on their team. That's what happens in a series ... I'm sure they felt the same way about us."
The Rockets were left dealing with their own array of emotions, starting with regret, after giving in to the limitations of their size and depth and fading harmlessly away in the fourth quarter. There would be no epic Strep Game from the sickly Harden, who rang up big numbers despite a case of strep throat (26 points, seven assists and six rebounds) but was clearly laboring as he missed 15 of his 22 shots from the floor. So there will be no Game 7 on Sunday back in OKC -- not even after Chandler Parsons tossed in six 3-pointers to finish with 25 points and seven boards -- after it looked as though Houston had a real opportunity against the Russ-less Thunder to be the first team in NBA history to win a best-of-seven series after falling behind 3-zip.
Houston's big problem, on this night, was the sight of Durant getting help on top of KD's increasingly standard flirtation with a triple-double. Kevin Martin showed up shooting 30.4 percent from the floor for the series -- worse than any player in the playoffs who had attempted at least 30 shots not named Brandon Jennings (.298) -- and then uncorked a 21-point first half en route to his first 25-point game since November. Reggie Jackson's near triple-double (17 points, eight assists and seven boards) in Westbrook's place and copious amounts of veteran savvy off the bench from Derek Fisher (who sparked OKC's rally from 10 points down in the third quarter) and Nick Collison meant that Durant (27 points, eight rebounds and six assists) actually looked like he had a team around him. Which was something you couldn't say Wednesday night when the Thunder couldn't close Houston out at home.
"The last 48 hours, after Game 5, I couldn't even look my teammates in the eye because I felt so bad," Martin said.
Turns out that Durant texted Martin beforehand, trying to convince him that his 1-for-10 shooting in the Game 5 defeat was merely God's way of setting him up to rebound big against the team that traded him away. Martin duly atoned by draining a few 3s, repeatedly drawing fouls, sneaking in the odd backdoor cut and generally looking like the player OKC thought it would be getting when it agreed to part with Harden before the season even started instead of letting questions about how they'd be able to afford the bearded lefty long-term hang over the Thunder for 82-plus games.
"I loved our energy from the moment we got on the plane yesterday," Durant said.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale, meanwhile, billed the series as "the start of a journey" for an organization that sits less than two months away from an all-out pursuit of Dwight Howard in free agency, still armed with salary-cap space after acquiring Harden and signing him to an $80 million extension to bring in at least one impact player, whether or not that's Howard.
Through his congestion, Harden tacked on his own optimism about the flashes shown in these six rugged games by the likes of Parsons, Omer Asik and Beverley ... and how Houston's players will actually have "an entire summer together" before the 2013-14 season to "get to know each other."
On his way out of the building, furthermore, Harden told ESPN.com that he intends to be an active member of the Rockets' recruiting efforts this summer.
"Hell, yeah," Harden said. "There's a lot of good options out there."
Asked specifically about the Lakers' Howard, with the Rockets widely regarded as the team with the best shot of stealing him away from L.A., Harden broke into a smile and added: "Maybe. Possibly."
Sources close to the situation likewise said Friday that McHale's willingness to keep coaching the Rockets is believed to be in the "90 percent" range, amid persistent rumbles in coaching circles that the Rockets would inevitably pursue Stan Van Gundy -- who's been on friendly terms with Howard all season since they went their separate ways -- if McHale decided he needed to walk away from the game after the tragic loss of his daughter Sasha in November.
"It's been a long year for me personally in a lot of ways," McHale said. "But these guys fought hard for me every night. We didn't always play the smartest and we didn't always play the cleanest, but ... for a young team that's an impressive thing."
Said Parsons: "I think the world saw that we have a chance to be really good."
Durant saw enough to declare that the Harden-led Rockets "remind me of us a couple years back," referring to 2010 when OKC lost to the eventual champion Lakers in six promising games in the opening.
And this win, sealed by the Thunder's 16-for-16 shooting at the line and Durant's direct involvement in 16 of the their 25 points in the fourth quarter after he went scoreless in Game 5's final period, meant KD could tell Harden so directly.
After confirming that he spent the whole series trying "not to say anything to him" when they were on the floor against each other, Durant told the assembled press: "I love James like a brother. Blood couldn't bring us any closer.
"He's going to be a brother from life."
Yet there will always be "something different" in the air, in Durant's words, when the Rockets are the opponent, thanks mostly to the fact they've got Harden now.
As if heading straight into a very difficult second-round series Sunday afternoon against Memphis minus Westbrook isn't tough enough for the Thunder, they likewise know that their Round 1 victims clearly aren't going away for very long.
"They're building something great here in Houston," Durant said.