OKLAHOMA CITY - Russell Westbrook relishes the moments when an opponent challenges him and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates and it becomes time to respond.
Rookie Patrick Beverley showed a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the Thunder's All-Star point guard, and the Houston Rockets didn't back down despite a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Then it was up to Westbrook and the Thunder to come up with an answer.
Westbrook and Kevin Durant each scored 29 points, and Oklahoma City recovered after squandering its big lead to beat Houston 105-102 on Wednesday night and take a 2-0 series lead.
"It's fun. During this time of the year, as a team we've got one goal and we can't let nobody get in the way," Westbrook said. "That's how I feel and that's how I want my team to respond as well."
Durant hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:28 to play after the Rockets had turned a 15-point deficit into a four-point lead, and the Thunder didn't relinquish the lead. Durant missed a free throw with 1 second left, but Houston was out of timeouts and Carlos Delfino couldn't connect on a desperation shot at the final buzzer.
"It's frustrating and it hurts really bad right now," said Chandler Parsons, who scored 17 points for Houston. "But you've got to take some positives out of it. It's a long series."
Game 3 is Saturday night in Houston.
The Thunder's big lead melted away with nine straight empty possessions as the Rockets mixed in a zone defence. James Harden spearheaded a 21-2 Houston comeback by getting into the lane to create his own opportunities, and he also kicked the ball out to set up two 3-pointers by Delfino. His second 3, from the right wing, provided a 95-91 lead with 3:27 to go.
But the Rockets couldn't keep it up.
Oklahoma City came back to tie it before Harden knifed to the basket for a layup to give Houston its last lead at 97-95 with 2:42 to play. Durant answered right away with a deep 3 from the left wing at the opposite end, and the Thunder came up with back-to-back stops before Thabo Sefolosha's 3 provided a little breathing room at 101-97.
Serge Ibaka added a long jumper to make it 103-98 after Durant was forced to give up the ball. Durant and Kevin Martin, both in the top 5 in the league in free-throw percentage, both went 1 for 2 at the foul line in the final 12 seconds to give the Rockets one last chance.
"We all stuck together," Westbrook said. "They made a run when we weren't able to make shots, but I thought everybody had a big role toward the end of the game and we came up with the win."
Harden ended up with 36 points and 11 rebounds, and Beverley had 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists for Houston. The Rockets made up for a 40 per cent shooting mark with a 57-40 advantage on the boards and a 50-30 scoring edge in the paint, engineering a massive turnaround after getting blown out 120-91 in Game 1.
And they did it without starting point guard Jeremy Lin, who didn't play in the second half because of a muscle contusion in his chest.
"Our team is a young team and we're not a perfect team by any stretch of the imagination, but they'll fight," coach Kevin McHale said. "They're a bunch of scrappers. They'll go out and fight you for it. So, I knew our team would play well today. That's who they are."
Beverley moved into the starting lineup as Houston went with a three-guard unit, and it didn't take long for the rookie to get under Westbrook's thin skin. Beverley lunged for a steal as Westbrook stopped to call a timeout after Houston took a 42-41 lead midway through the second quarter, with his hip slamming into Westbrook's right knee.
Westbrook smashed his right hand onto the scorer's table in anger and hobbled back to the huddle, but was able to stay in the game. He stripped Beverley for a runout layup two possessions later, but the Thunder still couldn't shake free.
Later in the half, Beverley knocked Westbrook down on a foul and then reached out to help him up. Westbrook slapped his hand away.
"It's part of basketball, playoff basketball. Everyone wants to go out there and win," Beverley said. "Anyone who knows me, knows my character, that I'm not going to back down from anyone, Russell Westbrook or anybody else."
Another rookie, Greg Smith, drew a technical foul when he jawed at Ibaka after dunking on the NBA's top shot-blocker and Houston was still within 57-55 at halftime.
Just after Harden's driving throwdown put Houston ahead 63-61, Oklahoma City raged back with a string of 13 straight points with Ibaka keying the run. He swatted Omer Asik's dunk attempt, hit two free throws and grabbed an offensive rebound that set up Westbrook's three-point play. The Thunder started the fourth quarter with an 11-2 to run to push their lead to 89-74 after Martin's 3-pointer with 9:22 to go.
McHale called time out, and the Rockets immediately responded with Beverley's 3-pointer off a set play — and that was only the beginning of the comeback.
"We were down 15, we could have just given up the game and said, 'Let's go to Game 3,' but we fought back and took the lead," Harden said. "So, we definitely have some confidence going into Game 3 and going back home."
Notes: Beverley had not started any games during his rookie season, moving into the rotation midway through the season and playing 41 games. ... After finishing second to Tyson Chandler last year's voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Ibaka was third this year behind Marc Gasol and LeBron James. Ibaka has led the NBA in total blocks the past three seasons. "He led the league three years in blocks. I guess that don't mean nothing nowadays," frontcourt partner Kendrick Perkins said. "At the end of the day, I think he deserves it. He should have won the thing. But it's over with, so we're just going to move on."