By Arnie Leshin
The Oklahoma City Thunder joined the Dallas Mavericks Monday as the two Western Conference underdogs who bounced back from two-straight defeats in the opening round of the restarted shortened National Basketball Association season playoffs and deadlocked their series at 2-2.
Following the road that brought the Mavs a comeback win over the 2nd-seeded Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the Thunder survived a barrage of 3s in the first half against the 4th-seeded Houston Rockets by rallying behind veteran guard Chris Paul to earn an exciting 117-111 triumph at the ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex in Lake Buena VIsta, Fla. From a half that had James Harden and teammates toss in 19 3s, Houston faltered in the fourth quarter, making only four of 23 attempts from the 3, and OKC cashed in.
In the day’s opener, it was the Eastern Conference No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks moving to within a win of advancing to the next round via a 121-106 success over the 8th-seeded Orlando Magic that they just about maintained from start to finish and posting a 3-1 advantage in the series. Their leading player, Giannis Antetokounmpo paved the way with 31 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists and for the Magic,it was Nkola Vucevic also turning in the game-high 31 points to go with 11 boards and seven assists.
The Bucks led by four after one quarter, were up 58-52 at the half, then after three quarters, Orlando closed the gap to 84-81, but in the final quarter it was all Milwaukee as Antetokoumnpo took charge with 15 points, controlled the boards, and handed out assists. The Magic surprised in game one by upsetting the Bucks.
The Oklahoma City-Houston game was tight most of the way, the Rockets with their 3-point shots and the Thunder hanging in there on hustle and letting Paul engineer the offense. He finished with 24 points and dished out nine assists. It was Houston up 37-35 after one quarter, 60-all at intermission, the Rockets ahead 93-92 after three quarters, and when their money shots lost their range, it was OKC finding the basket behind Paul and Dennis Schroader.
Schroader came away with a team-high 30 points and Paul added his play making to find opened players, hoist his outside shots and drive to the basket. Schroader just played a stellar game on the offensive end and took turns being the point guard, Harden scored the game-high 32 points, but after a red-hot first half when he hooped 21 points via 3-point range, but the second half failed him and his teammates as their shots stopped falling.That’s when Paul slowed it down and took charge.
Once the Thunder took the lead at 106-105 late in the fourth quarter, it stayed in front, and every time Harden and company missed shots, down the court came OKC to up its lead to 114-108 and maintaining it. It also received 18 points and a dozen rebounds to go with six assists from Shai Gilrous-Alexander, and Harden brought down 13 boards and teammate P.J. Tucker contributed 11 points and the same number of rebounds. Also key, the Thunder converted 22 free throws, the Rockets only nine.
Break out the brooms, the 4th-seeded Miami Heat completed its mission for a sweep, 99-87, after winning the first three games, but its best player, Jimmy Butler, was on the side line and then the locker room trying to attend to his injured left shoulder, then entered the game in the third quarter, scored on a layup from a pass, but didn’t take any shots in the time he played in the quarter. Still, Miami banded together and led after the first two quarters, but 4th-seeded Indiana wasn’t going away as it trailed by only four early in the third quarter..
But later in the quarter, a Heat 15-3 run increased the lead to 16 points. Then, when the Pacers began making shots and playing better defense, they got to within six points but not closer as the sweep was completed. With Butler cheering from the sideline, Miami received 23 points from Goran Dragic and Bam Aoelayo took down 19 rebounds and accounted for 14 points and six assists. Indiana was led by 25 points from Victor Olidipo and Miles Turner brought down 14 boards.
The Heat were in front, 48-42, at halftime, 70-62, heading into the fourth quarter, and the loss of Butler didn’t stop it from wrapping up the sweep.
The top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers didn’t take long to establish their goal in the Western Conference game four against the rejuvenated 8th-seeded Portland Trailblazers by ringing up an 80-51 halftime lead, and the rout continued after Portland stunned the Lakers in game two. So now the Lakers need to win one more to move on to the conference semifinals.The lead was 94-58 halfway through the third quarter, 99-71 heading into the fourth quarter, and at 109-73 with the quarter still having six minutes.