By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON — Kevin Durant has scored 74 points combined in Oklahoma City’s past two games against the Houston Rockets.
The problem is that his teammates haven’t stepped up to take some pressure off the superstar, and the Rockets have won both of those games.
Houston has cut the Thunder’s lead to 3-2 in the series, and is looking to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 0-3 series deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
They’ll likely continue to send two or three defenders at Durant and dare other players to beat them in Game 6 today in Houston.
Though it hasn’t happened in the past two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is confident Durant will get more scoring help on Friday.
“We’re getting open shots,” Brooks said. “If we can get those same open shots, I feel very confident our guys are going to step up and hit those shots. Those are the same shots that they’ve made their entire careers.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale raved about Durant and said they’ll continue to try different looks to slow him down, even if it means leaving other capable scorers unguarded.
“When you double team a guy at the top of the key where he has the ball a lot, someone’s going to be open,” he said. “You’ve just got to take the temperature of what’s happening and how hot you think Durant is … and you’ve just got to sometimes live with it.”
While Oklahoma City is without All-Star Russell Westbrook for the rest of the season, the Rockets are dealing with several health issues as well. Point guard Jeremy Lin has missed the past two games with a bruised chest muscle. His status for Friday’s game is still up in the air, but McHale said he was feeling better Thursday.
Carlos Delfino’s status is also questionable after not playing in the second half because of a sore left foot. The Rockets also said on Thursday that star James Harden had been diagnosed with strep throat, but was expected to play on Friday.
He bounced back from a tough performance in Game 4 to score 31 points on Wednesday to lead Houston to the 107-100 win.
McHale was impressed with Harden’s work on Wednesday, especially considering he was struggling with his illness and lacked his normal energy.
“Every day is not perfect,” McHale said. “Being in that situation and having some tough games, it bothers you and you’re bound and determined to come back the next night and play better.”
The Rockets were also helped in Game 5 by the Thunder’s decision to intentionally foul 7-foot center Omer Asik for an almost two-minute span in the fourth quarter. The career 54 percent shooter made 8 of 12 free throws to push the lead to 101-92 before Oklahoma City gave up on that plan.
Brooks said they did it because the team wasn’t playing good defense and he hoped to change the rhythm of the game.
“I thought that would give us a chance,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately, he stepped up. Give him credit … something I go back on, we have to play better defense. We don’t want to get into that if we don’t have to. We would rather play the way we want to play, solid defense for 48 minutes.”
McHale called Asik’s free throw shooting a big part of the Rockets win, and said that he’d got some tutoring in the area from former Houston assistant coach and general manager Carroll Dawson.
“He practices them all the time,” McHale said. “He’s been doing a great job. Earlier in the fall, Carroll Dawson really worked with him on changing his technique a little bit. He’s been working on it and working on it and he’s getting more confident.”
Some Houston players were irked at Durant for saying “hack-a-whatever-his-name-is” when referring to the tactic on Asik.
“He knew his name,” Chandler Parsons said. “The guy has had two double doubles in a row. He’s one of the best centers in the NBA. He knows his name. If he didn’t know, he does for sure now.”
Brooks wasn’t as concerned about his tactic on Asik not working as he was about why his team keeps struggling on defense in the third quarter. Houston scored 38 points in the third quarter of Game 4 and 37 points on Wednesday night.
“I know that’s not who we are because it hasn’t been who we are for a lot of years,” Brooks said.
The Rockets insist that they’re just having fun and that all the pressure is on top-seeded Oklahoma City, because as the eight-seed they weren’t expected to win.
“In our minds still nobody’s giving us a shot,” Parsons said. “But it doesn’t really matter, it matters what we believe in that locker room and that we believe in ourselves. We’re fully confident that we’re going to win tomorrow night and we’re going to take the series.”
Since most of these young Rockets don’t have much playoff experience, they’ve been leaning on the vast experience of McHale, who won three titles in the 1980s with the Celtics. He doesn’t discuss Houston’s chance to make history with this young team, he just asks his players to focus on the next game.
“Anything could happen, that’s the beautiful thing about basketball,” he said. “That’s why you go play. What happened in the past doesn’t make any difference. We had great effort last night and we just need great effort again.”
Of course, the Thunder, who reached the NBA Finals last season, aren’t lacking in confidence either.
Oklahoma City’s players weren’t available on Thursday, but Kendrick Perkins made it clear that he believes the Thunder are in control of the series with a tweet that included a link to his Boston Celtics championship ring.
“You think we stressed out right now,” he asked on Twitter. “Y’all crazy we got heart over here in OKC.”
Then he tweeted again.
“If the playoffs was meant to be easy then everybody could win a ring,” he tweeted. “We up 3-2 and we not looking back. Great position to be in.”