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Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Updated: April 25, 10:57 AM ET
Another winning experience

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin McHale was answering a question, not offering advice, but leave it to the Houston Rockets leader to offer just about the perfect diagnosis of the Oklahoma City Thunder's challenge in this year's playoffs.

"The longer you're in the league," McHale said before the Thunder outlasted the Rockets 105-102 in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series Wednesday night. "You quit doing all the things that didn't work.

"People would say to me, 'You had a better year,' and I'd say, 'Yeah I figured out all the things that didn't work and I quit doing them and I started doing a heck a lot more of what worked.'"

The question that led to such a sage answer was about the Thunder's development these past few years. How this young group has grown up around 24-year-old superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and why it's worked so well, so far.

McHale
Rockets coach Kevin McHale went with a smaller lineup to great effect, but the result was the same.

McHale is a cagey sort too, though. Because in Wednesday's game he put that challenge directly to the Thunder with a series of deft adjustments throughout the night.

He went small from the jump, inserting scrappy guard Patrick Beverley into the starting lineup, to challenge the Thunder's defensive principles.

He threw a zone defense at them in the fourth quarter, basically daring them to rely on isolation plays and outside shooting.

If the Thunder stayed true to who they've become and how they've learned to win, those adjustments wouldn't have worked so well.

If they got complacent, well, you get what happened Wednesday night as the Rockets rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit and nearly stole one here in Oklahoma City.

Credit the Thunder for finding their way in the end. For not panicking when the Rockets took a 95-91 lead on Carlos Delfino's 3-pointer with 3:27 to play. For getting back to what they do best, and not falling back into bad habits.

"We can't let them put us on our heels and be passive. That's what we did earlier for them to get that lead," Durant said of Houston's 21-2 run in the fourth quarter, spurred on by some poor OKC shooting (1-for-8 from the field during the six-minute span). Seven of those eight shots, by the way, were jumpers of at least 16 feet, against the Rockets zone.

But after Thunder coach Scott Brooks called timeout with 2:56 to play, Durant got his team back in line.

The ball moved again, Durant was aggressive trying to pass and score, Westbrook focused on getting to the rim, and not the chippy 1-on-1 matchup with Beverley, and guys like Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka hit key baskets to help the Thunder pull out the win and take a 2-0 series lead.

"We just got a little complacent with the way we were playing," Sefolosha said. "Looking back at last game (a 29-point Thunder blowout), maybe we thought it was going to be easier than it was. But we've definitely got to take this team very seriously and do what we were supposed to."

Eventually, they did. They stopped doing, as McHale put it, "all the things that don't work," and got back to their style of play.

It was an impressive resurrection. One you'd expect from a veteran group, not a team led by two guys who would still get charged an extra fee to rent a car.

But you know, that's kind of what this Thunder team is now. Durant and Westbrook have been around so long, and on this stage for so many years already, they can rightly be called veterans now.

"So are we a veteran team now?" Brooks said, with a little laugh. "Nice. Well, I think when you've been together for a few years and you have sucess in the playoffs -- we're still young -- but we have good experience.

"I think every team has to go through the growing pains of being together and learning what it takes. We were doing it together all at the same time, and that's not easy."

But the point is, they've done it. So when situations like Wednesday night arise, there's some confidence there. Some experience.
Westbrook/Beverley
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had his hands full with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, who made his first career start.
Now, that doesn't mean that experience will always be enough. Or that the Thunder don't need to avoid falling into booby traps like the ones McHale set for them in Game 2. It's never going to be a good idea to shoot as many 3-pointers as the Rockets (35), for example. But if you'd going to shoot that much, you'd better make more than 11 of 'em. Durant and Westbrook were just 3-for-16 from behind the arc.

The Rockets very nearly beat the Thunder. Next time they might not be so fortunate to escape.

James Harden was shaking his head an hour after the game, lamenting how close the Rockets had come to stealing this one.

"We had a few opportunities in the last three or four minutes to capitalize and we didn't," said Harden, who was brilliant again with 36 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

"There are a few possession we wish we could have back. It cost us the game."

The Rockets come away from here with both the confidence of knowing they had Oklahoma City on the ropes, and the frustration of knowing they let them off the hook.

They also wasted one of the great breakout games of the playoffs from Beverley, a 24-year old rookie who was playing in Russia as recently as December.

McHale called on the gritty guard to play defense on Westbrook after he'd torched the Rockets in Game 1. Beverley did that and then some, finishing with 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

He was also on the receiving end of a classic Westbrook play. After the two had knocked knees, sending Westbrook to the ground in pain, Beverley offered a hand to help him up when he fell again a couple minutes later.

Westbrook pushed his hand aside and got up on his own.

"That's OK. I probably would've done the same thing if he'd done it to me," Beverley said. "He's a competitor, I'm a competitor. I'm not going to back down from anybody so ... it was fun."

Westbrook said the same.

"It's the playoffs, you can't help it," he said. "I love to compete. ... During this time of year, we've got one goal and can't let nobody get in the way. That's how I feel and how I want my team to respond as well."