The Houston Rockets once again outlasted Russell Westbrook and the Okahoma City Thunder, eliminating them from the playoffs in Game 5.
USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Rockets survived the Russell Westbrook storm on Tuesday night, downing the Oklahoma City Thunder 105-99 at the Toyota Center to finish their first-round series in five games.
Houston, which went from an eighth seed a year ago to a third seed that has earned the distinction of darkhorse title contender, will face the winner of the San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies series in the second round (the Spurs took a 3-2 series lead with a 116-103 win Tuesday). If only Westbrook’s teammates would have found a way to help, this one might have been different.
No matter how angry Westbrook was in his postgame session with reporters on Sunday, when he grew surly with a local columnist who inquired about the Thunder’s elephant-in-the-room problem of playing poorly without him, that harsh reality remained true two nights later.
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After Oklahoma City rallied from a 51-44 halftime deficit to lead 77-72 entering the fourth quarter, with Westbrook scoring 20 of his 47 points in the third, the Rockets exploded on a 14-4 run while Westbrook was on the bench. According to NBA.com/stats, the Thunder were a plus-15 for the series when Westbrook played (194 minutes) and minus-58 when he sat (46 minutes). By comparison, the Rockets were a plus-19 with fellow MVP candidate James Harden on the floor (187) and plus-24 when he sat (53 minutes). In the end, that inverse trend was the Thunder’s undoing.
In this series that was billed as an MVP faceoff, Harden won out because he had the kind of offensive help the Thunder sorely lack. Harden finished with 34 points (eight of 25 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists. Rockets reserve Lou Williams, who came their way via trade with the Lakers in February, had 22 points. Houston won despite struggling from beyond the arc, as they hit just six of 37 from beyond the arc.
“Everything isn’t always going to be perfect,” Harden said. “You’ve got guys that step up and help you make big plays, always have your back … we’re not worried about our shooting, our shooting is going to come.”
Westbrook – who also had 11 rebounds, nine assists, and seven turnovers – finished 15 of 34 overall (five of 18 from three-point range). Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, who was the closest thing Westbrook had to a sidekick this season after Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors in free agency, missed 13 of 17 shots and had just 10 points.
“I consider it a good season,” Westbrook told reporters. “I think from myself to every guy down in that locker room did an amazing job all year long. We can be nothing but proud of them. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to play with all these guys. They do an amazing job of making the game easy for me.”
Westbrook kept fighting until the end, hitting a putback layup while getting fouled with 12 seconds left to cut the Rockets’ lead to four. Westbrook missed the ensuing free throw intentionally with the hopes of a Thunder offensive rebound, but the Rockets’ Eric Gordon corralled it. Not long before, the entertaining matchup between Westbrook and feisty Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley had come to a head, too.
As Westbrook grew frustrated during the fourth quarter in which he eventually hit just two of 11 shots, he exchanged words with Beverley after an Oladipo turnover with 7:23 remaining. When later asked about the exchange that resulted in double technical fouls, Westbrook didn’t hold back.
“Oh yeah, (Beverley) was talking about (how) he was first-team all-defense, (but) I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about because I had 42 (points) at the time,” Westbrook told reporters in Houston. “The series – I don’t know what he’s talking about. Maybe he’s dreaming or some (expletive). I don’t know. Sorry. Excuse my cuss word. I don’t know what he was talking about, but I guess he wants to be first-team all-defense or something and maybe he was dreaming about it. I don’t know.”
Even with the loss, Westbrook’s regular season heroics won’t soon be forgotten. By averaging 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game, he became just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season. Oscar Robertson, who deemed Westbrook the new “Triple Double King” in a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports, achieved that feat for the Cincinnati Royals in the 1961-62 season. And the Thunder, who some believed might struggle to even make the playoffs, recovered admirably from Durant’s departure. En route to earning the sixth-seed, they won just eight fewer games without Durant in the regular season than they had in his final season in Oklahoma City (47-35 compared to 55-27).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.