The Houston Rockets survived another big game from Russell Westbrook to climb to within a win of advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – The team that prides itself on never taking midrange jumpers is one step closer to the second round of the NBA playoffs because of one.
The team that some might suspect was born out of an Ivy League math class is up 3-1 on the Oklahoma City Thunder because it showed the kind of toughness that can’t be measured on a calculator.
If the Houston Rockets keep this up, they might take this fascinating formula all the way to the Finals. The league’s most interesting team, this bunch that is headed by the resident analytics leader (general manager Daryl Morey), the creative coach who’s in the midst of a renaissance (Mike D’Antoni) and the star who makes it all go (James Harden), won 113-109 in Game 4 on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. And the Rockets did it in the kind of counter intuitive fashion that served as a reminder of how good they can be.
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This effort could not only end the Thunder’s season on Tuesday, but it might give the heavyweights like Golden State and San Antonio a serious push down the line. This is the kind of nuanced development that could convince the masses that the Rockets are for real.
And it wouldn’t have happened if Harden didn’t break protocol at the perfect time.
With 41.8 seconds left and the Thunder trying for the series split heading into Game 5 on Tuesday, Harden buried a stepback jumper from the free throw line over Victor Oladipo that put Houston up five and was the antithesis of Rockets basketball. All season long, the Rockets had made their way to a 55-win campaign by shooting only three-pointers and layups. They played the percentages, breaking the NBA records for three-pointers taken and made while making it abundantly clear at every turn that no midrange shots were allowed.
They pushed this mathematical envelope in unprecedented form, building a roster that was well-equipped to game the system and put together the kind of winner that no one saw coming. And this time, Harden went against their grain to get the job done.
“You get the best shot available, you know?” Harden, who struggled to a 16-point, seven-turnover outing, told USA TODAY Sports about his final shot. “That’s what it was. That’s what was available, so I took it.
“I was just driving. The lane clogged up once again, and I just tried to create as much separation as I could, which is what I work on every single day. Take the shot and make it.”
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The playoffs have a way of revealing a team’s character, either exposing all those weaknesses that can’t always be seen from October to mid-April or showing the basketball world a stronger side. The Rockets, due in large part to the man’s-man outing from 34-year-old big man Nene, did the latter.
When he wasn’t wrestling with Steven Adams down low, doing all he could to keep the Thunder center from bullying the flustered Harden at every turn, he was hitting all 12 of his shots for a 28-point, 10-rebound outing that helped the Rockets star off the hook. With the Rockets hitting just 11 of 35 three-pointers in all, Harden – who saw the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook finish with 35 points (10 of 28 shooting), 14 rebounds and 14 assists – missed all seven of his shots from beyond the arc.
“This game is a lot of physicality,” Nene said. “Physicality is ability and ability is there. We try and stick with it. We understand that last game; we missed a lot of defensive-centered scenarios and this game we came and played physical, we made shots, and we stopped defenders. We exploited their weakness. That is why we won.”
Make no mistake, they worked the numbers too. They always work the numbers.
After nearly 44 minutes of top-tier hoops entertainment, with the Thunder leading 58-54 at halftime and 77-73 through three quarters, it became a game of gimmicks down the stretch. D’Antoni went to the hack-a-Shaq strategy at the 4:11 mark, ordering fouls on Roberson because, well, he shot 42.3% from the line this season. He missed seven of eight attempts during the four-possession span, forcing Thunder coach Billy Donovan to limit late playing time for the fourth-year small forward who had been so effective against Harden all game long.
This formula, new wrinkle and all, is working wonders for these Rockets now.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.