The Houston Rockets are on to the second round. It took them until the final second to clinch their spot, but they escaped with a 104-102 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7 of their first-round series on Wednesday night.
James Harden had a rough night on the offensive end, finishing with 17 points on 4-of-15 from the field, but he came up huge on defense. With just seconds to play, he blocked Lu Dort's potential game-winning 3-pointer, which ended up saving the day for the Rockets. Russell Westbrook bounced back from his mistake-filled Game 6 to score 20 points, while Robert Covington stepped up and added 22.
Dort was the story for the Thunder, turning in a career-high 30 points while playing strong defense on Harden. Chris Paul, meanwhile, finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists to become the oldest player in NBA history to have a triple-double in a Game 7. They couldn't get a basket when it mattered down the stretch, however, and now their storybook season has come to an end.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Harden saves himself, Rockets with defense
James Harden is a phenomenal basketball player, but his playoff resume is not all that special. Since arriving in Houston in 2013, the Rockets have made the playoffs every season, but have won just seven series including this one, made two conference finals appearances, and no trips to the Finals.
Now, a big part of that is the Golden State Warriors' recent dominance, but it's still a disappointing stretch of results for someone who challenged for MVP in nearly every single one of those seasons -- especially considering Harden has had some notable no-shows along the way.
Blowing a 2-0 lead against a team that wasn't even supposed to make the playoffs this season, while scoring 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting in Game 7, would have been yet another huge blow to his postseason legacy. So when he came up with a clutch block in the closing seconds on Lu Dort, he didn't just save the Rockets; he saved himself.
2, Dort makes history
Lu Dort spent part of the season in the G League with the Oklahoma City Blue and averaged 6.8 points per game in the 36 appearances he made with the Thunder. So you would be forgiven for not knowing much about him heading into this series. In fact, most casual fans probably hadn't even heard his name before.
Well, everyone knows it now. Thunder coach Billy Donovan relied heavily on Dort this series, mostly as a defensive specialist against Harden. With his size, strength and quickness, Dort made life miserable for the MVP candidate, including in Game 7, where he helped limit him to 17 points.
But after earning praise for his work on the defensive end over the past few weeks, Dort turned in the offensive performance of his life on Wednesday night, nearly carrying the Thunder to the second round. The Rockets ignored him on the perimeter and Dort took advantage, knocking down six 3-pointers en route to a career-high 30 points.
Though OKC ended up losing, Dort made history in the process, joining LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as the only players 21 or younger to put up at least 25 points in a Game 7. Not bad company.
3. What a ridiculous ending
With seven minutes and 11 seconds to play, Chris Paul hit two free throws to tie the game at 96-96. From there, the two teams played something that only resembled basketball. The Rockets outscored the Thunder 8-6 down the stretch, as they shot a combined 5-of-26 from the field. There were both more fouls (6) and more turnovers (6) than made shots in that stretch.
The last few minutes, in particular, were astounding. There was one sequence where Dennis Schroder missed a jumper and multiple players hit the deck for the rebound before Eric Gordon came away with the loose ball. As he crossed midcourt, Chris Paul flopped to draw a charge, and though he didn't get the call, he did stop Gordon's momentum, and the Rockets guard ended up turning it over. Paul then picked up the ball and barreled into Harden, who flopped and failed at drawing a charge of his own, before Paul missed what would have been a go-ahead jumper. Madness.
And if that wasn't enough, the final few seconds were even wilder. Up by one with time winding down, Harden flew in to block Dort's potential game-winner, and the ball came straight back to Dort. The rookie tried to throw it off Harden to save the possession but ended up throwing it between his legs. The Rockets then got the ball with two seconds left, and Robert Covington was immediately fouled.
He only made one free throw, however, so the Thunder got the ball back down two, with 1.1 seconds to play. On their initial inbound attempt, Billy Donovan ran out onto the court to call a timeout to prevent a five-second violation, while the referee was simultaneously calling a foul on Harden. After deliberating, the refs decided it was indeed a foul on Harden before the ball was inbounded, giving the Thunder one shot and the ball.
Danilo Gallinari couldn't make the free throw, though, so that whole sequence ended up not mattering at all. When they finally came back to the original situation of Thunder down two with 1.1 seconds left, OKC turned the ball over on the inbounds, ending the game and their season.
All told, the final minute of regulation took 16 minutes of real-time between fouls, reviews and timeouts. On the one hand, you want to make sure you get every call right, but that's a bit ridiculous. In any case, it certainly wasn't the prettiest basketball game ever played, but it was quite memorable, which is what you want from a Game 7.