• Brian L. Barefield

BLOCKED: Harden’s game saving shot-block helps the Rockets advance to the second-round.

Photo Credit/ Houston Rockets

One measure of a true leader is allowing others to lead as well. That’s what Houston Rockets superstar guard James Harden did on Wednesday night in Orlando to help his team defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-102 and advance to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. They will face the No. 1 seeded Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night in Game 1.

Harden, who has been criticized in the past about his lack of presence on the defensive end came up with a huge block on Thunder forward Lu Dort in the waning moments of Game 7. Down by one point in the final 4.8 seconds of the game, OKC managed to find a way to swing the ball to the hottest hand on their team. Dort had a career-high 30 points in the game and had found his stroke from beyond the arc hitting 6 out of the 12 shots he took from that range after coming up short five out of the previous six games.

As he gathered himself to shoot, Harden darted out of the lane where he had been guarding Thunder center Steven Adams to block Dort’s shot and avoid having the ball bounced off of him as Dort recovered the ball after the block shot.

“I’ve been locked in all year long,” Harden said who finished the game with three blocks. “Trying to be better on that side of the ball. Tonight, was a huge emphasis. I came up with the big block to win the game. I just try to stay engaged as much as I can.”

The NBA’s leading scorer struggled on the offensive end with 17 points and 1-for-9 from the three-point range but found a way to help his team win the game when it counted.

“Offensively, I had a rough shooting night,” said Harden, who also had nine assists in the game. “I turned the ball over a little bit too much. But I tried to find ways to impact the game. and I came up with a huge block to end the game.”

Harden and Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni have been preaching since the All-Star break on how important his teammates would be if they wanted to reach the next level and be considered one of the elite teams in the NBA. On Wednesday night they picked up the slack for him on the offensive end to help Houston advance.

"These are the games, you want to win a championship or win playoff games, you've got to do it with your heart," D'Antoni said in his postgame press conference.

Rockets forward Robert Covington finished the game tied with guard Eric Gordon as the leading scorers on the night with 21 points. It was Gordon’s resurgence from the three-point line where he had struggled in Game 6 (16.7%) that help Houston in the end as he hit five out of the nine triples he shot (55.6%). Covington, who was acquired by the Rockets in a four-team trade that involved the Minnesota Timberwolves hit six three-pointers in the game to make up for a poor shooting night from Harden. He finished the series shooting 55% or better in the last three games and hit 16 of the 28 three-pointers he attempted during that time.

That offensive explosion by Covington and Gordon help offset a triple double by OKC’s veteran Chris Paul whose 19 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds was almost good enough to help the Thunder advance.

Photo Credit/ Houston Rockets

"It's a tough one. It's tough," said Paul who was traded in the offseason for Russell Westbrook. "We fought hard all year. Honestly, a lot of people doubted us, but we didn't doubt ourselves. We didn't give a damn about anybody's predictions going into any series."

Game 7 also seen the resurgence of Russell Westbrook’s energy on both ends of the court. Westbrook, who sat out the first four games of the series with a right quad injury, recovered from a horrible Game 6 loss where he was out of rhythm and had seven huge turnovers in the game. He cut that number down by five in Game 7, chipped in 20 points and nine rebounds and made one of two game saving plays (Harden’s block being the other) at the end of the game to give the Rockets the victory.

With Houston up by two points and 1.1 seconds left on the clock, Westbrook recognized an out of bounds play ran by his former head coach Billy Donovan. After denying the entry pass to Danilo Gallinari who the play was drawn up for, Westbrook was able to deflect the inbounds pass from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Steven Adams and P.J. Tucker was able to gather the loose ball as time expired.

Photo Credit/ Houston Rockets

“Yeah, I kind of know a little bit,” Westbrook said with a smile after being asked if his previous time under Donovan gave him an advantage. “I just wanted to mix it up because I knew they were out of timeouts and I knew where the ball was going. I was just trying to muck it up.”

Houston now faces the Los Angeles Lakers who have two of the top-ten players in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Rockets won two out of the three meetings in the regular season against L.A.

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