OKLAHOMA CITY — Andre Roberson decided Monday night's game. He just didn't do it in the way the Houston Rockets wanted.
The Rockets began intentionally fouling the Oklahoma City Thunder’s defensive stopper with just under five minutes to go, sending one of the league’s worst free-throw shooters to the line just as they did during last year’s, first-round playoff series between the two squads. Roberson made one of two shots on both trips to the stripe before Thunder coach Billy Donovan pulled him.
Fouling Roberson played a major factor in the Rockets winning at least one game of their five-game series victory this past April. This time, Donovan spliced Roberson back into the game with under two minutes to go, just in time for the NBA’s arguable best perimeter defender, someone who always gives Houston star and MVP-frontrunner James Harden trouble, to save the game.
If the Rockets' comfort zone doesn't come in making 3s, it comes in getting fouled on them. And the Thunder bit much of the game, playing tight defense, rotating well and making it difficult for the Rockets to score on most occasions — with the fouls on 3-point shooters being a few of the obvious exceptions.
"We fouled too much. In particular, we fouled some 3-point shooters," Donovan said. "And that was kind of one of the things we talked about trying to stay away from because they do a good job of drawing fouls."
Roberson bucked the trend in clutch fashion.
With the Thunder up 110-107 and fewer than 30 seconds remaining, Harden went through the legs and tried a step-back triple from the top of the key. Roberson was in his face.
“I think [Harden’s] step-back 3 has been off the chart, has been really good,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said before the game. “And when he has that, now you’re cooked.”
The reigning All-Defensive Second Teamer did the cooking this time. He got a piece of the shot, which traveled only 15 of the necessary 24 feet to the hoop. Russell Westbrook came up with the loose ball, went a few dribbles and found Roberson, leaked out and under the opposing hoop.
He sank a reverse layup similar in style to the one that won the Thunder’s recent, triple-overtime game in Philadelphia. They went up 112-107 against an at-the-time 25-6 team.
They’d win by that score.
“Not only does Andre have great defensive ability, but he’s really smart, he’s experienced and he’s played against the elite players in this league,” Donovan said. “Harden is a really hard guy to defend.”
It wasn’t just Roberson who made life difficult for the Rockets, who have produced the NBA’s best offense through the holiday season. Houston came into Monday averaging 113.7 points per 100 possessions, the league’s highest figure since it began tracking per-possession statistics in 1996.
It didn’t quite reach that figure. The Thunder, of course, own one of the NBA's stoutest defenses. And they showed it off on a night when the starters shared the scoring responsibilities on the other side.
All five starters sank at least 50 percent of their shots. Paul George finished with 24 points and five rebounds. Carmelo Anthony went for 20 and five. Steven Adams finished with 15 and 10 boards, seven of them offensive. Westbrook, meanwhile, ran for 31 points, five rebounds and 11 assists.
He shot 0 of 6 in the first quarter but went 12 of 18 over the final three.
Of course, he had a chance to tick that 12 up to 13 on the final possession. Instead, he gave the ball up to Roberson, the true hero of the final seconds, who sealed the Thunder's 11th win in 14 games and brought them to 19-15 on the season.
“I was just playing to stay solid. James [Harden] is a great player,” Roberson said. “I was just trying to stay solid.”
He did more than that.
• The Christmas game: Donovan had family in town for Christmas. Of course, he had a basketball game to coach while the group was in Oklahoma.
That’s usual for Thunder basketball. Oklahoma City has now played on Christmas, one of the biggest days on the NBA calendar, eight times, winning 5 of 7 entering Monday. Donovan knows what it means to be a part of the eighth Christmas Day game in OKC history.
“It’s a great honor. Certainly this is a day that’s a marquee day … for the NBA and the fact that our team is recognized with the opportunity to play is great,” he said. “It’s always a little bit different during the holidays when you’re away from family, but this is what we do for a living. This is our job, and I think when you get an opportunity for your team to be acknowledged and play on a day [Christmas] is always a great positive.”
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni felt similarly.
“It’s an honor, first of all, because you’re one of the top teams, and you always want that,” he said. “It’s exciting. You hate to be away from your family and things for Christmas, but at the same time, this is an honor.”
• Roberson update: Roberson left the first quarter of Monday’s game against the Rockets with a dislocated finger on his left hand. He was cleared to play quickly and returned with his middle and ring fingers taped.
• The start: The NBA began limited forms of All-Star voting last week, but opened up all other types of voting on Christmas morning. That means fans can now vote at NBA.com and on the NBA app as well as Twitter, other forms of social media and the Amazon Alexa.
The Thunder have three players who have made All-Star Games before. Russell Westbrook has made six. Paul George has made four. Carmelo Anthony has made 10.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.