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Thursday, May 2, 2013
Oklahoma City, we have a problem

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook's reintroduction to local society came courtesy of the in-arena big screen, which twice showed him sporting the exact same "LET'S GO THUNDER" blue T-shirt worn by the usual 18,000 screamers in the building.

We repeat: Russell Westbrook was spotted wearing what everybody else was wearing. In public.

Count those as the first two recorded hints that this was going to be an anything-is-possible sort of night.

The Houston Rockets then comfortably took care of the rest, rolling on from that seemingly harmless first-quarter juncture all the way to a 107-100 victory over the Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder that suddenly makes the historically impossible seem feasible.

Never before has an NBA team rallied from 3-0 down to win a best-of-seven series. These Rockets, though, are halfway there now and fully oozing momentum after James Harden looked near-flawless in spite of the flu … and after Omer Asik answered a flurry of intentional fouls in the fourth quarter by sinking 11 decisive free throws … and after Patrick Beverley refused to flinch even a little in his 39 gritty minutes in the face of the hostile reception everyone knew he'd be getting.

The Boston Celtics, of course, gave themselves the same history-making opportunity by winning Game 5 in New York earlier in the evening to slice the New York Knicks' 3-0 series lead to 3-2. Yet the view here is that the Rockets are looking at the more favorable 3-2 deficit, if there can be such a thing, because they've got so many guys contributing at the minute.

Harden
James Harden hit seven 3-pointers in Houston's Game 5 win.

At a time Kevin Durant has never looked more alone on an NBA floor. And because Westbrook, thanks to that unfortunate collision with Beverley in Game 2 here, has been consigned to spectator status in a luxury suite to make sure no one gets near that surgically repaired right knee.

"They're a confident group right now," Thunder coach Scotty Brooks conceded. "And they should be."

The Rockets can't help themselves for feeling confident after controlling proceedings throughout and ushering Durant to the first fourth quarter of KD's playoff life in which he played at least 10 minutes and failed to score a point. Whether it was fatigue or Houston's smother tactics or all the rhythm that got sucked out of the game by Brooks' ill-fated decision to repeatedly send Asik to the line, Durant missed three 3-pointers and all five of his shots in the final period to finish with 36 points and copious amounts of frustration.

The Rockets clearly made the decision to do whatever they could to keep the ball out of Durant's hands, confident that nobody else was going to punish them. The Thunder validated the plan by falling behind by as many as 16 points and looking downright desperate in the fourth when Brooks started calling for Hack-Asik. (Or "Hack-A-Turk," as Rockets coach Kevin McHale called it.)

"They don't really care about everybody else on the team," Durant said. "So when I had the ball, there was like four guys guarding me at times.

"I've gotta keep faith in myself," Durant continued. "I'll be all right."

Westbrook's stand-in, Reggie Jackson, did manage 20 points and hurt Houston in some high pick-and-rolls, but the young and small Rockets will live with Jackson (or anyone else wearing a Thunder jersey) taking the shots instead. On this night, OKC didn't even get close to OK, missing 25 of 33 attempts from 3-point range and watching Kevin Martin's series-long struggles hit a 1-for-10 low.

Harden knows the feeling. He showed up for this Game 5 shooting 36.4 percent from the floor, just 16.0 percent on 3s and had more turnovers (20) than assists (17) after his 10-turnover nightmare in Game 4.

Yet the sickness seemed to slow Harden down to a more under-control speed. Too ill for the morning shootaround and draping himself in towels during timeouts, Harden made his first seven 3s and finished with 31 points and eight boards.

"We played pressure-free," Harden said. "Just go out and hoop. We're an 8-seed. Nobody's expecting us to win."

It might not matter even if people are expecting something now, given the withering load Durant is being asked to carry in the wake of the Westbrook injury and how much easier it is to guard the Thunder in this state. The dwindling confidence of those around Durant, OKC's ever-slowing pace with no Russ to bust out and speed things up, and the fact that the Rockets are increasingly trotting out four good defenders together (Asik, Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Francisco Garcia) have all piled on to completely change the series atmosphere.

If Houston has a problem heading into Friday's Game 6, it's probably how to keep Harden sick so he stays this smooth. Maybe there's a special chamber at NASA to help with that.

And if not? You get the feeling that Harden can bank on a lot more help from his teammates from here than Durant is going to get. KD's 115 points in the three games since Russ went down account for the highest three-game total of his playoff career. But living that way is certainly taking its toll by the fourth quarter.

"I have to be better as a leader and lead my guys and get us to play harder every minute," Durant said.

The Rockets, meanwhile, only seem to get tougher. There was a huge police presence at the team hotel to safeguard Beverley and no less than a dozen uniformed officers around Houston's end of the floor during pregame warmups, even when Beverley was back in the locker room. But none of that heightened security, nor the constant booing Beverley endured when he had the ball, managed to bother anyone in road red.

Beverley wound up with 14 points and eight boards, Asik finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds and Garcia continued his unforeseen resurrection with five more 3-pointers to supplement his persistent shadowing of Durant. Only 12 teams in NBA annals have forced a Game 6 after falling into a 3-0 hole, but who's really going to be surprised if Houston can force a Game 7 on Sunday?

"Should be interesting," Harden said, unwilling to take it any further publicly.

Privately?

Rest assured that the Rockets have come to believe that anything, in this particular series, really can happen and probably will.