OKLAHOMA CITY - The Houston Rockets are heating up from 3-point range, just in time to avoid playoff elimination and create some drama in their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After setting a franchise record for 3s in the regular season, Houston has steadily improved its accuracy over the course of the series against Oklahoma City before hitting 44 percent from behind the arc in a 105-103 victory in Game 4.
Still trailing 3-1, the Rockets are at least carrying some momentum into Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night.
"It changes everything," said Chandler Parsons, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4. "We know we can beat them now."
Houston came awfully close in Games 2 and 3, losing both by 3 points, before finally gaining some real traction during the third quarter on Monday night. Coming out of halftime facing a seven-point deficit, the Rockets outscored the Thunder 38-24 and led by as much as 13 during the period.
That opening stretch of the second half was under the microscope at Oklahoma City's practice facility Tuesday, the most glaring example of the Thunder's diminishing defense.
"We do not want to give up 30-point quarters, and we nearly gave a 40-point quarter," coach Scott Brooks said. "So, we just have to focus on being consistently defensive-minded because this team, they put so many 3-point shooters on the floor and we just have to just be really focused on guarding every possession and not having as many breakdowns."
Houston has been able to make a bigger dent in Oklahoma City's defense as the series has worn on, making just 22 percent from 3-point range in the opener and then improving to 29 percent and 32 percent before the Game 4 sharpshooting.
The Rockets have combined that with a 136-82 scoring advantage in the paint over the past three games, and coach Kevin McHale says there are no big changes to that game plan that have made the series competitive.
"Obviously they're a great offensive team, but we feel like we can score on anybody in the league," Parsons said. "We've had success scoring on them, so I think all our focus needs to be on defense and primarily (Kevin) Durant."
Durant has been the driver of Oklahoma City's offense since fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook was lost for the remainder of the playoffs prior to Game 3. Durant has become the primary ball-handler, attracting even more attention from the Rockets' defense.
He had 38 points on just 16 shots, making 12, along with eight rebounds and six assists in Game 4. Durant had 30 shots in Game 3, but made only 13 and finished with 41 points.
"Kevin's not going to get the 30 shots that everybody wants him to take because the other team does not want Kevin to shoot the 30 shots that people want him to take," Brooks said. "If he gets 30 shots one game, the next game a lot of teams aren't going to give you those same shots. They were throwing two or three guys on him, and I thought we did a good enough job to win the game."
Without Westbrook, the Thunder have been far less effective on the fast break, scoring just 15 points in the last two games after totaling 45 in the first two. Their points in the paint have also dropped off, with a series-low 22 in Game 4.
For Brooks, though, the bigger concern is on the opposite end of the court.
"We're working through some things, but we all know how to play defense," Brooks said. "That doesn't change no matter who you put on the floor."
Game 5 will be the first game in Oklahoma City since the full extent of Westbrook's injury was determined. He was hurt in Game 2 when Houston's Patrick Beverley lunged for a steal and slammed into Westbrook's knee.
"It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to all the boos and stuff," Beverley said. "I understand the crowd is going to be amped up and I hope that's going to get us that much more focused."
Added McHale: "In the famous words of Bill Walton, `If they're cheering you in the opposing gym, you're doing something wrong.' I don't think they'll be cheering, so he must be doing something right."
It's uncertain whether Houston could get starting point guard Jeremy Lin back for Game 5. He missed all of Game 4, was ineffective in Game 3 and sat out the second half of Game 2 with a bruised chest.
"Today I felt better, I definitely felt better," he said Tuesday. "It's just time. It's one of those things where you just have to wait it out."
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