HOUSTON — You can blame Serge Ibaka's short-armed follow shot at the buzzer, or the breakdown of the final possession that forced Reggie Jackson to drive into Houston pine tree Omer Asik, or the overall offensive tomfoolery that led to 31 Rocket points off turnovers.
But the Thunder-Rocket series remains alive because the Thunder let down on defense for just a little bit of time.
And in these no-Russell Westbrook times, that can't happen.
Houston beat the Thunder 105-103 Monday night at the Toyota Center when Ibaka's wide-open rebound shot at the buzzer didn't make it above the rim. But the Thunder lost this one almost an hour earlier, when it let the Rockets have a third quarter for the ages.
Trailing 60-53 at halftime, Houston made 11 of first 13 shots coming out of the break and eventually scored 38 points in the quarter. The Thunder played uphill the entire fourth quarter, and though it nearly scaled to the summit, this team can't play like that.
Without Westbrook to relieve the pressure from Kevin Durant, opponents are going to make offense awfully dicey on the Thunder. Durant was as fantastic as ever — 38 points on 12-of-16 shooting — but he committed seven turnovers and had to work double tough for everything he got.
In the final minute, the Thunder had two possessions to tie. The first resulted in a Durant charging foul, the second in the Jackson/Ibaka debacle, after Durant failed to shake free with the ball.
And it's not going to get any easier, since the Rockets are among the NBA's worst defenses.
“It's easy to point to a play or two down the stretch, but there were a lot of plays we could've done a lot better,” said Scotty Brooks.
“We have to play a little more consistent defensively. I thought we had the opportunity to lock in defensively. They did a good job of breaking us down. Those are things we can correct.”
The Thunder's defense was excellent outside of those first 10 minutes of the third quarter. The Rockets had 53 first-half points, but that was after a hot half in which they made nine of 17 3-pointers.