HOUSTON — Russell Westbrook sat at his locker, trying to type into a series of text messages every bit of frustration he was feeling after the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Houston Rockets115-111 on Wednesday night.
For 25 straight minutes, Westbrook sat with his head buried in his thoughts and his phone, texting his friends and family and trying to reckon with the 2-0 hole his team finds itself in this best-of-seven series despite yet another of his sublime and historic triple-doubles.
Westbrook scored the most points ever in a playoff triple-double against the Rockets, finishing with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. But it was what he couldn’t do in the fourth quarter that was on his mind after the game.
“I don’t give a f— about the line,” Westbrook said. “We lost.”
Westbrook typically sits out the final few minutes of the third quarter and first few minutes of the fourth quarter. But after Houston went on a 12-3 run to close the third quarter, Thunder coach Billy Donovan decided to play Westbrook for the entire fourth quarter. It did not go well. Westbrook was just 4-for-18 from the field, and the Thunder were outscored 29-22 in the final period.
“That one sucked. It was garbage,” Thunder center Steven Adams said of the Rockets’ run. “It was just mainly getting some momentum going on the offensive end when we weren’t taking the greatest of shots. That’s why they were able to capitalize. It just really depleted our lead.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things: Focus. Doing it at both ends. Mental stamina.”
The Rockets’ run forced Westbrook back into the game without his customary rest to start the fourth quarter as the Thunder simply couldn’t do without him on the floor. His 14 misses in the fourth were the most in one playoff quarter by any player in the past 20 years.
Afterward, Westbrook denied fatigue played any role. Whether or not it did, in a series this close, against an offense this potent, the Thunder can’t afford to squander opportunities.
“We can’t give away leads like that on the road, man,” Westbrook said. “It’s too difficult.”
Including his 51-point triple-double Wednesday, there have been only six 40-point triple-doubles in playoff history. The other five were recorded by Charles Barkley, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson (twice) and LeBron James.
As in the regular season, James Harden couldn’t match Westbrook’s across-the-board statistical brilliance, but he found a way to elevate his team to win the game. Harden had seven of his team-high 35 points in the fourth, and Eric Gordon had 11 of his 22 in the final quarter.
Oklahoma City has basically decided to mirror Harden’s minutes with shooting guard Andre Roberson‘s minutes. Roberson is the Thunder’s best defender, and while he can’t stop Harden, he does tend to make his life more difficult.
With Houston packing the paint in the series opener Sunday, daring anyone but Westbrook to beat them, Westbrook had one of his most ineffective games of the year. The Rockets essentially did the same thing Wednesday, but Westbrook almost beat them single-handedly.
No matter who ends up winning this season’s NBA MVP race when the results are finally announced June 26, the debate is likely to rage on for years. Harden. Westbrook. Kawhi Leonard. James. You can make a compelling argument for any of them, depending on your view of triple-doubles, advanced statistics, Mike D’Antoni-ball or the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers roster.
So for those who embrace debate, this first-round series between the Rockets and Thunder has set up as something of an early referendum on the just-closed MVP race.
If Game 1 was everything the Rockets hoped it would be, Game 2 was everything everyone else hoped the whole series would be like, with Westbrook and Harden having brilliant games, leading to back-and-forth action and an emotional finish.
The Rockets now lead the best-of-seven series 2-0 heading into Game 3 Friday night in Oklahoma City.
Roberson finished with 12 points, and Victor Oladipo and Doug McDermott each had 11. But Oklahoma City is still looking for more offensively and defensively from its supporting cast. The Thunder lengthened their bench, looking for combinations — and perhaps just extra bodies to throw at the historically good Houston offense. Donovan played 12 players Wednesday.