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.
In the third quarter, the Rockets quit jacking up so many deep shots and started driving the ball. The Thunder did not respond. At least not initially.
“We said we wanted to attack the paint,” said Houston coach Kevin McHale. “But we're going to need this type of effort up in Oklahoma.”
By the fourth quarter, the Thunder was playing big-time defense again — Houston scored just 14 points in the final period and made just five of 14 shots. The Rockets committed eight turnovers in the final quarter.
That's the way the Thunder must win now. Its defense has to be elite. Supreme. Westbrook is gone. He no longer can bail out the Thunder when Durant is off or surrounded by an angry mob of defenders.
You can't ask Durant to be a magician every night, every final minute. The Rockets would have run all five guys at Durant if necessary and seemed to in the final play.
Brooks blamed the breakdown on a Durant fumble, but the Rockets were determined to make someone else beat them after Durant's three-bounce 3-pointer that determined Game 3.
“After what happened last game with that lucky bounce, we didn't want to give him any chances,” said Rocket Chandler Parsons.
And if the Houstons can do it with their limited defenders, what can the sabertooths of Memphis do?
Thus the Thunder's defense has to be 48 minutes of stinginess. There's no other way for OKC to win in these playoffs.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.