By Kristie Rieken / The Associated Press
HOUSTON—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 Five 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 three-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 three 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 four 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 two of 11 fourth-quarter shots in a disappointing end to a stellar season where he became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961 and 1962 to average a triple-double by scoring a National Basketball Association-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 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 three-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.
The Rockets will face either Memphis or San Antonio in the second round.
In Los Angeles Gordon Hayward scored 27 points, Utah controlled the paint and the Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 96-92, on Tuesday night to take a 3-2 lead in their series.
Hayward returned after missing most of Utah’s win in Game Four due to food poisoning.
Chris Paul’s three-pointer drew the Clippers within two with five seconds left. After George Hill hit two free throws, Paul struggled getting the ball under control near the sideline and couldn’t do anything as time expired.
The Jazz made five three-pointers in the fourth quarter, including three by Rodney Hood, who finished with 16 points.
Paul led the Clippers with 28 points and JJ Redick added 26 with injured star Blake Griffin watching from the bench, his right foot encased in a black walking boot.
The Jazz can clinch the series with a victory in Game Six on Friday night in Salt Lake City.
Image credits: AP