LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Russell Westbrook returned.
Dennis Schroder left.
That was a fortunate turn of events for the Houston Rockets.
James Harden scored 31 points, and Westbrook came back from an injury to face his former team in the playoffs for the first time, helping the Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-80 on Saturday night for a 3-2 lead in the first-round playoff series.
“We’ve missed him the first four games. Now we’ve got him, and let's see what we can do,” Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. “I knew he was going to be a little rusty, but he gave us a nice little spark.”
A two-time scoring champion and the 2016-17 league MVP, Westbrook averaged 27.1 points in his first season in Houston but had played just one game since Aug. 4 because of a strained right quadriceps -- missing the Rockets’ first four playoff games. He finished with seven points, six rebounds and seven assists in 23 minutes against team where he played the first 11 years of his career.
“He brought that energy. He brought that excitement we were missing,” Harden said. “We need him.”
Schroder led the Thunder with 19 points — 18 of them in the second quarter, when Oklahoma City had its only lead of the game. But he was ejected midway through the third for hitting P.J. Tucker in the groin while trying to fight through a screen; Tucker also was ejected after retaliating with a head-butt.
“It was kind of a bang-bang play,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I understand, with P.J. getting thrown out, maybe it felt like Dennis needed to get thrown out. But again, it was an illegal screen. I’m not even going to speculate or even know (how) to read Dennis’ mind.”
Robert Covington had 20 of his 22 points in the second half, and Eric Gordon had 20 in all for the Rockets, who can advance to the conference semifinals for the fourth straight year with a victory in Game 6 on Monday.
Steven Adams had 12 points and 14 rebounds, and Darius Bazley had 10 points and 12 rebounds for the Thunder. They trailed by three at halftime before giving up 19 of the first 21 points of the third.
Houston scored 20 of the game’s first 27 points, but the Thunder erased the deficit in the second -- taking a brief lead of as many as five points -- before the Rockets took a 48-45 lead into the half. Houston outscored the Thunder 37-18 in the third.
Midway through the third quarter with Houston leading 67-49, Tucker set a pick on Schroder, who swung his right arm between Tucker’s legs. When the two players stood back up, Tucker approached Schroder and head-butted him from behind.
After checking the video, referee James Capers called a Flagrant 2 foul on Schroder and ejected him. Tucker was given a technical foul with an ejection.
“As Schroder attempted to get through the screen, (he) delivers an unnecessary and excessive act in the groin of Tucker. Tucker gets up and head-butts Schroder,” Capers told a pool reporter. "It was unnecessary and excessive and by rule that is the definition of a Flagrant Penalty 2.”
OFF THE COURT
The teams had been scheduled to play the game on Wednesday before the league suspended all games in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks' decision not to play as a racial justice protest.
As president of the players' association, Thunder guard Chris Paul was one of the busier people during the walkout. He finished with 16 points and three assists, going 1 for 5 from 3-point range while Oklahoma City made 7 of 46 as a team.
“No excuses," Paul said. "It’s been an emotional couple days for everyone on our team as well as their team.
“To be honest with you, it was nice to get out and play some,” he said. "But as soon as the game is over, it’s back to the work.”
Harden extended his streak of playoff games with 20 or more points to 18 in a row -- the longest active streak in the league. ... The Rockets are 6-0 when holding an opponent to under 100 points. ... George Hill remained in the tunnel during the national anthem but explained later that it was part of a pregame ritual to use the bathroom.
Game 6 is Monday.
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The Associated Press