Growing as animated as he possibly could, James Harden turned to his bench, threw up his hands in front of his chest with his palms out and his shoulders scrunched. The Thunder's spark plug bellowed two words to his team's bench.
“It's easy,” Harden hollered with his face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning as he walked to the huddle.
Harden had just finished shredding Houston's defense by taking over at point guard for the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. During that stretch, he masterfully orchestrated the Thunder's offense, slicing his way into the paint and producing points either for himself or his teammates via pinpoint passes.
Everything, as Harden said, looked easy.
Until it wasn't.
Things got hard for the Thunder only when the offense stopped running through Harden.
The end result was Oklahoma City blowing an 11-point lead inside the final 2½ minutes on Tuesday night and dropping a 104-103 decision to the Rockets inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
When the final buzzer sounded, signaling the Thunder's third home loss in 21 games, the Rockets, who are struggling to maintain the Western Conference's eighth seed and a potential first-round matchup with the Thunder, celebrated like they had just won the championship. They jumped for joy. They pumped their fist. They screamed and shouted.
It was the Rockets' second win in their last eight games and just their eighth road victory in 22 tries. Furthermore, Houston fought its way to a comeback win despite playing without its starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, who are out due to injury and illness.
For the Thunder, it was simply a meltdown, the latest subpar showing in a string of duds that have dropped OKC to 5-3 since the All-Star break.
“That was a tough loss to take,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “There's no doubt we did a lot of good things to get back into the game and take the lead. But our late-game execution on both ends of the floor wasn't up to the level that we've been all season.”
It took 42 games for the Thunder to finally allow Harden to be the primary playmaker throughout the fourth quarter. And just when it was working as wonderfully as expected, it came to a screeching halt and paved the way for Houston to claw its way back.
Harden had been brilliant with the ball in his hands. He scored or assisted on 16 of the Thunder's first 18 points to start the fourth quarter. His last assist in that stretch, a feed to Nazr Mohammed for a reverse layup, gave the Thunder a 91-89 advantage, its first lead in 12 minutes, 8 seconds.