By KRISTIE RIEKEN, AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets are headed to the Western Conference semifinals after using strong defense and a balanced scoring attack to overcome another big game by Russell Westbrook and eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 105-99 victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
James Harden had 34 points while Westbrook piled up 47 and came up just one assist shy of his fourth straight triple-double. But the Rockets didn’t allow anyone else to score more than 11 points while getting 22 from Lou Williams, 15 from Patrick Beverley and 14 from Nene.
The Thunder head home a year after advancing to the Western Conference finals after Houston took this series 4-1 despite struggling from 3-point range.
“Everything isn’t always going to be perfect,” Harden said. “You’ve got guys that step up and help you make big plays, always have your back … we’re not worried about our shooting, our shooting is going to come.”
The Rockets used a 5-1 run, with all their points coming on free throws, to pull away from the Thunder and make it 98-91. Victor Oladipo threw a pass about 5 feet above Westbrook’s head and out of bounds on the next possession and Harden made a layup on the other end with about 3 minutes left.
The Rockets began eating up the clock after that and Oklahoma City missed shot after shot that could have closed the gap.
Houston couldn’t add to its lead though and the Thunder cut it to 4 points twice in the final seconds, with the second one coming on a basket by Alex Abrines. But Harden made two free throws both times they got close to secure the win.
After scoring 20 points in the third quarter, Westbrook made just 2 of 11 fourth-quarter shots in a disappointing end to a stellar season where he became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He also set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42 to help the Thunder withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency.
“Coming out of the halftime and in that third quarter he was obviously spectacular,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “He was the reason why we got back into it and took a seven-point lead. He has been a phenomenal closer for us all year long … you can’t expect a guy to be perfect every single time.”
Westbrook had 11 rebounds and nine assists but he made just 5 of a career-high 18 3-point attempts.
“I consider it a good season. I think from myself to every guy down in that locker room did an amazing job all year long,” he said. “We can be nothing but proud of them. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to play with all these guys. They do an amazing job of making the game easy for me.”
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni felt fortunate that his team was able to overcome Westbrook’s performance.
“The guy is so good,” he said. “If he were to continue what he was doing, you’d just have to take your hat off to him. I don’t know of anybody with all the athleticism and talent and determination — I haven’t seen it. He was incredible.”
The Rockets advanced past the round for the second time in three seasons in front of a crowd that included Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, rapper Travis Scott and his rumored girlfriend and reality star Kylie Jenner.
Houston used a 10-2 run to take an 86-81 lead with about 9 minutes left. Williams made the last eight points in that stretch, making three free throws to start it and capping it with a 3-pointer from way behind the line.
The Thunder started rolling midway through the third quarter, using a 12-3 run, with seven points from Westbrook, to get within 2 with about 5 minutes left in the quarter. Houston’s offense went cold in that span with its only points coming on free throws by Harden.
Five straight points by the Thunder a couple of minutes later, highlighted by a 3-pointer from Westbrook, gave the Thunder a 69-68 lead.
Harden made two free throws after that before Westbrook hit two 3-pointers in about 30 seconds to extend Oklahoma City’s lead to 77-70.
Thunder: Led by as many as 8 points early. … Oladipo had 10 points and eight rebounds. … Abrines had 11 points. … Westbrook received a technical for arguing with Beverley in the fourth.
Rockets: Made just 1 of 13 3-point attempts in the third quarter. … Williams has scored at least 20 points in three of the last four games. … Beverley received a technical for arguing with Westbrook in the fourth. … Harden made 16 of 17 free throw attempts.
The Rockets were unhappy with a few calls in the first quarter and team owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat and walked over to a referee during play late in the quarter apparently to express his displeasure before sitting back down.
Harden didn’t see it but was amused when told about it after the game.
“He’s just the coolest guy on Earth,” Harden said. “I would have probably ran over there and tried to help him.”
Westbrook and Beverley both had different stories when they were asked to explain their dustup in the fourth quarter that earned both of them technical fouls.
“He looked up and said: ‘No one can guard me, I’ve got 40 points,'” Beverley said. “And I was like: ‘That’s nice. It took 34 shots to get it.'”
Said Westbrook: “He was talking about he was first team all-defense, but I didn’t know what he was talking about because I had 42 at the time … maybe he was dreaming,” Westbrook said.
Rockets: Will face either Memphis or San Antonio in the second round.
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