By Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY —
The Houston Rockets mixed up their starting lineup, switched their defense and found a way to give the Oklahoma City Thunder a serious scare.
It still wasn’t enough to prevent the Rockets from heading back to Houston down 2-0 in their best-of-seven playoff series.
James Harden & Co. went back to work Thursday, trying to build on the momentum they gained with a 21-2 fourth-quarter comeback that put them up by four with three minutes left in what ended up a 105-102 loss to top-seeded Oklahoma City.
Game 3 is Saturday night in Houston.
“They’ve been in some big playoff series before. They know Game 3 is a huge game. The difference between 3-0 and 2-1 is night and day,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We’ve got to go out there and play well.”
The Rockets seemed to find some answers in Game 2, starting Patrick Beverley for the first time and using a three-guard lineup for all but a few brief moments. McHale felt the change allowed Houston to penetrate the lane more frequently, with one of his perimeter threats often matched up against one of the two Thunder big men, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
“They kind of put a tight shell out there, but once you break that shell and get on the inside, a lot of stuff can open up,” McHale said. “We had a lot of good catch and shoot 3s, open 3s and that’s how we have to play.
“We don’t have a dominant inside presence. A lot of our inside points are finishing on dunks and tipped dunks. It’s our guys going in there and making plays against their bigs and then kicking it out.”
McHale also found success by going with a 2-3 zone after Oklahoma City had built its biggest lead at 89-74 early in the fourth quarter. Houston responded by scoring 21 of the next 23 points, even taking the lead.
The struggles with the zone were a mixed bag for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook had a jumper blocked and missed another, and Kevin Durant misfired on a 3-pointer before a string of three straight turnovers that bothered coach Scott Brooks. Kevin Martin stepped out of bounds in an unforced error, Thabo Sefolosha threw an errant pass out of bounds and then Beverley stripped the ball and knocked it out of bounds off Westbrook.
“If we can get those same looks in our zone, I feel very confident our guys are going to make the shots,” Brooks said. “The thing that disappointed me is our turnovers in the zone. It was because we just turned it over.”
Brooks expressed confidence the zone won’t continue to cause problems, as it has periodically for the Thunder in recent years. The decisive shots down the stretch — the go-ahead 3-pointer by Durant, another 3 by Sefolosha and a long jumper by Ibaka — also came against the same defense.
“It’s not easy. We haven’t seen it much during the year,” said Sefolosha, who had airballed one 3-pointer and missed another against the zone before his big make. “So, when a team throws a zone at us like this, we try to keep the ball moving, keep bodies moving and really try to attack the paint. I think this is where the weakness is. We’ve got to do a better job at driving the ball and then maybe kicking out.”
The Thunder were happy that despite Houston’s rally, they continued to play as a team and didn’t simply rely on their two All-Stars.
“Kevin and Russell, they make big shots, they’re big-time players, they’re shot makers, but they also trust their teammates,” Brooks said. “That’s just a great example. ... The last two or three minutes when they made their run, we still stuck with our principles of believing in each other and trusting each other and playing with the pass.”
Each team is facing some uncertainty with its starting point guard, although it appears both Westbrook and Houston’s Jeremy Lin could play. An MRI Thursday confirmed that Lin, who missed the second half of Game 2, has a bruised chest. His status is day to day.
Brooks said Westbrook, who injured his right knee during a second-quarter collision with Beverley and hobbled the rest of the game, would be “fine” although he didn’t participate in drill work during the final portion of practice Thursday that was open to the media.
Brooks said the starters were asked only to do a film session and shoot free throws. All but Westbrook, who has never missed a game in his career, were out taking shots nonetheless.
Brooks’ concern is more with eliminating the 57-40 rebounding advantage that Houston amassed despite going with the smaller lineup.
“This is a very good offensive team. They’re among the league leaders in scoring. You give a good offensive team a second possession and you’re just playing with fire,” Brooks said. “That’s unacceptable. That’s something we have to clean up.”ꆱ