HOUSTON – It wasn’t Kevin Durant, but the other Kevin — a familiar face who turned foe on the brink of the regular season who came back to Houston and delivered the daggers that ended the Rockets’ playoff run Friday night.
Kevin Martin moves on. James Harden goes home.
Nobody could have predicted the spills, twists and turns this series took along the way before ending in six games with a 103-94 victory for Oklahoma City — including the part about the biggest performance of all the players dealt for each other on the eve of the season being Martin instead of James Harden.
“When you’re on the road in the playoffs, the reason it’s so much fun is that the fans hate you so much,” Derek Fisher said, again enjoying postseason success at the Rockets’ expense. “Because you’re getting booed. Because people are saying the most outlandish things their kids shouldn’t be hearing them saying. It requires you to go to a deeper level of focus and intensity. That’s the great part about being in the playoffs.”
Fisher, the five-time Laker world champ and frequent Rockets tormentor whether the uniform read LA or Utah before Oklahoma City, has earned a spot on the consensus top-10 Houston’s Most Hated List.
Ex-Rocket man Martin can hardly generate the same seething contempt, merely disgust and angst after a final season in Houston in which he was perceived to be less than Rocket resilient and committed to the cause. The middle name “Dallas” hardly helps.
Reduced to K-Clank for most of his long-awaited return to the playoffs, Martin resurrected his scoring touch when the Thunder most needed it. Following his dreadful 1-for-10 brickmanship Wednesday night, he scored 25 Friday in fueling OKC’s first-round series closeout and avoiding a you-never-know-what-may-happen winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday.
“The last 48 hours after the Game 5 performance I couldn’t even look my teammates in the eye I felt so bad,” Martin said. “So I was just going out there and playing like I’ve played my whole career and jump-start us to a victory.”
Rare is the game night when OKC’s dominant Kevin is not the ever-deadly Durant.
But Martin immediately flashed a confidence previously unseen in this opening round playoff. He ripped off 11 points in the game’s first 10:00, 12 in the second period, 21 of his 25 before the break. Just one point shy of his career-playoff best set seven years ago for the Kings.
“I was really impressed with him,” bench buddy Nick Collison said. “He had a really tough night in Game 5 and you could tell he was down. I didn’t know how he would react to be honest.”
The skepticism was well warranted. Martin had been misfiring at a 30% clip in the postseason. His usually lethal catch-and-shoot game was instead endangering those within close proximity of baseline seating areas.
“Couple of small things,” Collison said of Martin’s adjustment. “Tried to get him to wait on his screens a little longer so he could off with more force with better timing in a better spot. Minor things like that helped him but his mindset was really good. He was going to come in and be aggressive.”
Martin: “Just staying with it and knowing the last game was just a fluke.”
Martin recaptured his shooting stroke on the same court he called home for 2 1/2 seasons yet never quite won over the committed core fan base. He was the key veteran piece in the jaw-dropping exchange that brought James Harden to Houston. And never was there a nanosecond since when the regular-season roar wasn’t about Harden’s breakthrough to alpha status and the hope for a postseason matchup with OKC that might, just might, damage their chances to return to the Finals.
Patrick Beverly’s hip colliding with Russell Westbrook’s knee took care of some of that.
Games 4 and 5 have Houstonians some further hope.
Then Friday happened, and the lights got turned out.
At the time of the trade, Martin was the Rockets’ best player. In this series he wasn’t nearly as good as Chandler Parsons. At about eight times the price. But in Game 6 he paid a decided dividend for OKC.
“It’s just satisfying to just get a victory,” Martin said, unwilling to publicly gloat. “No one puts more pressure on themselves than me. And you can ask this team – I felt bad. And just wanted to come in here and play as team tonight.”
Martin (+25), Fisher (+32), Collision (+20) led a OKC bench brigade that destroyed the depleted Rockets reserves, outscoring them 46-11 with a collective 10-for-10 shooting at the foul line and 6-for-10 from 3-point distance.
“I knew it was going to take a total team effort,” Fisher said. “This Rockets team had been the team that last couple of games getting contributions from several different guys. Kevin Martin really set the tone for us in that first half. And in the second half our defense caught up with what they were doing and we broke the game open.”
The Thunder sliced a 10-point third period deficit in half with less than 3:00 left when a laboring Jeremy Lin replaced Patrick Beverley. No coincidence that substitution triggered an 18-5 Thunder shakedown.
A Fisher three-ball pumped the OKC lead to 90-81. And then his fingerprints were all over the sequence that sealed it.
With 6:00 to go a Harden turnover/Fisher steal ignited Durant for a breakaway dunk.
That was followed by Fisher’s left-wing 3-ball to bust the OKC lead to 97-84.
A minute later another Harden giveaway/Fisher takeaway led to Martin for an easy transition bucket that broke the pesky feisty Rockets Kiddie Corp. A 15-point margin with 4:31 to go was enough margin on the board and too much for the packed house to stomach. Cue an embarrassing bailout for the exits.
And Fisher again had triumphed at the expense of the team he lives to haunt.
“Yeah (laughing),” Fisher said when I asked if he knew how much Houston is anxiously awaiting his retirement. “It’s never about a particular team, always about just doing my job to help my team win.”
OKC remains the resident Western Conference kingpin, until further notice. The Rockets left empty, figuring out how to get better for the next go round (Dwight Howard, anyone?), cursing yet again a never-favorite son and a forever-hated rival.
Keith Calkins is a longtime sports journalist from Houston. Follow him on Twitter.