HOUSTON — Remember when the Thunder had three stars? Three guys who could dominate a game and lift a team from the depths of despair? For one magic Friday night in Space City, the Thunder had that luxury again.
Kevin Durant, so valiant in the week since the injury to Russell Westbrook, found reinforcements again. Not only did Reggie Jackson ride to the rescue with a reasonable facsimile of a Westbrook game, Kevin Martin did a mean impersonation of James Harden, and the Thunder rode that trio to a 103-94 victory over the Rockets that closed out this gut-check Western Conference first-round series.
After a Game 5 loss in Oklahoma City, Durant seemed weary from the load he's had to carry since Westbrook's injury. Even talked about how the Rockets “didn't care” about guarding Durant's Thunder teammates. But Friday night, Durant had all kinds of help.
Martin had 21 first-half points and finished with 25, in the wake of a 1-for-10 shooting night in Game 5. His sixth-man performance was Hardenesque; Martin played almost 40 minutes and kept the Thunder ticking in the first half, when Durant had a slow start.
Jackson got into triple-double territory, much like Westbrook often did. Jackson didn't even score in the fourth quarter, but no matter. He still finished with 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. “Tremendous game,” said Rocket coach Kevin McHale. “Reggie really hurt us, got in the paint a lot. Made plays.”
And, oh yeah, Durant warmed up, too. Spiderman finished with 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He had nine fourth-quarter points as the Thunder bolted from a 78-77 lead after three periods to a 101-87 lead advantage with 2:38 left.
Durant went scoreless in the fourth quarter of Game 5, and Brooks admitted that Durant felt a certain degree of frustration.
“You've got to shoot it with freedom,” Brooks said. “That arm became a heavy arm. Kevin got frustrated. You hardly ever see Kevin get frustrated. He wanted to win that game for our fans.
“But he did what he's supposed to do. He's supposed to lead us. And he did, he led us past the first round, and we're excited about it.”
Think about it. The Thunder took three stars to the NBA Finals last season. With the Harden trade and the Westbrook injury, the Thunder has been trying to rid itself of the Rockets with only one star. That's a big change.
But Martin returned to the form he showed earlier in the season. Makes all the difference in the world.
“K-Mart had a great first half, really kind of got ‘em up,” McHale said.
Martin had 12 points in the second half alone as the Thunder stormed back from a shaky start.
“K-Mart started us off with an incredible first half,” Brooks said. “I believe in him. The most important people that believed in him are his teammates. That's a true character win for our guys.”
Durant said he texted Martin after that Game 5 debacle, told Martin that “God is setting him up for a big game. He's a big-time scorer. In the first half, he carried us.”
And “Reggie was phenomenal, man,” Durant said. “That's what we're going to need.”
Jackson was indeed superb. He played like a season veteran. Not a guy making his fourth NBA start.
“I give Reggie a lot of credit,” Brooks said. “We said it for a week, it's unfortunate we don't have one of the best players in basketball. For Reggie to step in and play four solid basketball games at the hardest position in basketball … he led us throughout the game tonight. He made big plays, he made big passes, he made stops. He was terrific tonight.”
And so the Thunder doesn't have to deal with the ignominy of playing a Game 7 after leading a series three games to none. The Thunder gets to start anew, with Memphis in the West semifinals starting Sunday afternoon.
If Durant gets this kind of help, the Thunder could stay alive.