James Harden’s shooting touch deserted him, but the Houston star came up big on the defensive end in the Rockets’ 104-102 series-clinching win over Oklahoma City in the NBA playoffs on Wednesday.
Harden leapt to block a potential game-winning three-point attempt by Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort with 4.8 seconds remaining as the Rockets held on through a frantic finish to win the best-of-seven Western Conference series four games to three and book a second-round showdown with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In a closely contested game, Houston took the lead for good, 103-102, on PJ Tucker’s driving basket with 1:25 remaining.
The ball changed hands several times before the Thunder got it into the hands of the red-hot Dort, whose dream night was ended by Harden’s big block.
Houston’s Robert Covington drained a free throw with 1.4 seconds left to make it 104-102.
Then Harden was called for a foul on Danilo Gallinari before the ball was inbounded, giving the Thunder a free throw and the ball.
Gallinari missed from the foul line and the Thunder turned the ball over on the final inbounds pass.
“I couldn’t make a shot, turning the ball over, just everything that was not supposed to happen,” said Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer who had just 17 points on four-of-15 shooting.
“But I just kept sticking with it,” he said. “Defensively I had to make a play.”
Covington and Eric Gordon scored 21 points apiece for the Rockets. Covington also pulled down 10 rebounds and Russell Westbrook added 20 points for Houston against his former team.
Dort, a 21-year-old undrafted Canadian, scored a career-best 30 points for the Thunder and Chris Paul, who was traded for Westbrook prior to the season, added a triple-double of 19 points 12 assists and 11 rebounds for Oklahoma City.
Butler seals Heat win
Earlier in the NBA’s coronavirus quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida, the Miami Heat went down to the wire to take a 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in their Eastern Conference second-round series.
Jimmy Butler, fouled on a potential game-winner at the buzzer, calmly made two free throws to seal a 116-114 victory.
Goran Dragic scored 23 points – his sixth straight playoff game with at least 20 — to lead seven Heat players in double figures.
A Butler turnover resulting in a Brook Lopez layup saw Milwaukee close within 111-113 with 8.5 seconds remaining.
A Butler free throw stretched the Heat’s lead to 114-111, but Dragic was judged to have fouled Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton as he attempted a three-pointer and Middleton made all three free-throws to knot the score with 4.3 seconds remaining.
Butler’s shot as time expired missed, but officials said he was fouled by Giannis Antetokounmpo and he had his chance to win it at the line.
“I knew I was going to make one out of two, and that’s all we needed,” Butler said.
Tyler Herro added 17 points, Jae Crowder scored 16, Bam Adebayo 15, Butler and Duncan Robinson contributed 13 apiece and Kelly Olynyk chipped in 11 points for a Heat team that led by as many as 13 in the first half and by nine with less than two minutes to play.
Reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Antetokounmpo scored 29 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Bucks and Middleton added 23.
But the Heat are two wins away from reaching the conference finals for the first time since 2014 — when James still played in Miami.
Meanwhile the Bucks, owners of the best regular-season record in the league, are in danger of a second straight playoff disappointment after their loss to the Toronto Raptors in a 2019 Eastern Conference Finals series in which Milwaukee won the first two games.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged he was “disappointed” by the touch foul called on Antetokounmpo at the buzzer.
“As far as the clock was concerned the shot was released with time remaining, the foul occurred, I guess, some point when he landed,” Budenholzer said.
“We’re going to disagree, but we need to shift our attention to game three and get prepared for that and understand that’s the most important thing right now.”