HOUSTON — Scott Brooks warned that this would be the toughest game.
“Nobody wants to go home,” the Thunder coach said beforehand.
Brooks was right. Houston didn't.
And the Rockets won't be.
With their season on the line, the Rockets dodged a series sweep by securing a 105-103 win over the Thunder in Game 4 on Monday night inside the Toyota Center.
Now, rather than heading home, the Rockets are returning to Oklahoma City. Game 5 is on Wednesday night. Tip-off is 8:30.
Kevin Durant scored a game-high 38 points to lead the Thunder. Reggie Jackson added 18 points, Kevin Martin scored 16 and Derek Fisher chipped in 12.
Playing its second game without Russell Westbrook, however, the Thunder again missed its All-Star point guard and appeared lost at times on the offensive end while its most dynamic weapon watched from his couch.
Still, the Thunder fought valiantly and had an opportunity to send the game into overtime. Two missed layups from point-blank range in the final three seconds, though, sealed the Thunder's fate.
The toughest game yet in this series ended in the toughest way possible.
With just 12.1 seconds remaining and the Rockets leading by two, the Thunder had a chance to tie or win the game. After the inbounds pass, Durant mishandled his dribble and was forced to pass to Jackson. Following a strong drive and heavy contact by Rockets center Omer Asik, Jackson missed the layup. Serge Ibaka had an uncontested putback opportunity but left it short.
“They got into us,” Brooks said of the final play. “At that moment, it was a scramble play. I thought Reggie did as best he could. We had an open tip-in.”
Chandler Parsons led the Rockets with 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Asik had 17 points with 14 rebounds. Patrick Beverley scored 16 points and Carlos Delfino added 13 points off the bench.
James Harden, meanwhile, struggled mightily. He scored 15 points with just one rebound and three assists. He had five steals but 10 turnovers.
“I couldn't get it going early,” Harden said. “At halftime, I kind of regrouped. Then foul trouble kind of set me back.”
Harden's personal performance was a microcosm of what was a particularly sloppy game, as both teams turned it over 22 times.
But the Rockets, to no one's surprise, started the game with a sense of urgency expected for a team whose season was on the brink. Fueled by that impossible-to-ignore possibility, Houston jumped to a 29-24 first-quarter lead as its shooters finally awoke, finding their stroke in the opening quarter and making five of nine 3-pointers. The Rockets hadn't converted at least 33 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in any of the previous three games.
Francisco Garcia, who started in place of an injured Jeremy Lin, buried three of six from long range in the first 12 minutes, while Chandler Parsons made both of his attempts.
Matching the Rockets' shot-making wasn't the problem for the Thunder. Taking care of the basketball was. Oklahoma City coughed up the ball eight times in the first quarter, leading to 12 Rockets points. It ruined the Thunder's ability to gain any rhythm and offset an 8-for-15 shooting quarter.
But the Thunder took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 36-24 and leading by as many as 13 in the period. OKC used a 12-0 run to turn a 34-31 deficit into a nine-point lead. Durant and Martin scored all 12 point for the Thunder, with Durant dumping in seven during the spurt. The Thunder went on to lead 58-45 with 1:13 remaining in the half.
The Rockets, though, closed the half on an 8-2 run, stealing momentum and constructing enough confidence going into the locker room to come out and challenge the Thunder in the second half. Nothing built Houston's spirit quite like Delfino's strip on Durant as he brought the ball up and ensuing 3-pointer that capped the run.
Surprisingly, Houston did it in spite Harden's struggles. The Rockets' franchise player missed shots, turned it over and was a total non-factor. He contributed just six points in the half and turned it over seven times. Jackson, starting his second career game, had two more points in the first half. Derek Fisher, meanwhile, supplied a much-needed spark by scoring nine first-half points, making all three of his 3-point tries.
When the third quarter began, that 8-2 run quickly ballooned into an 18-2 run as the Rockets scored the first 10 points of the third period. They later assembled a 17-4 run to snap a 73-all tie and take a 90-77 lead, their largest of the night. Five Rockets scored during the stretch, as Houston didn't have a single empty possession in that three-minute window. The Thunder, over that same span, turned it over three times.
But thanks to a 7-1 run in the final two minutes, the Thunder closed to within 91-84 entering the fourth quarter.
Houston led by as many as eight in the final period.
The Thunder now returns home continuing its search for answers as to how the offense can continue to keep up with the Rockets without Westbrook.
“It's definitely going to continue to develop … We just have to keep evolving,” Brooks said. “You don't prepare for (the loss of Westbrook), but when it happens you adjust and you move on. We're still a good team. We're definitely going to be a little different team, but we still have good players that can compete at a high level and that are driven and want to push the team forward.”