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Russell Westbrook and the Thunder melt down in crunch time again

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Oklahoma City blew a 14-point third-quarter lead to fall to 3-1 in its first-round series.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One day after Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley gave the basketball universe its best game of the season, James Harden and Russell Westbrook followed up with a Game 4 for the ages.

The Houston Rockets absorbed several blows but came out on top of the Oklahoma City Thunder, 113-109, on Sunday. The Rockets now lead the series, 3-1, with a potentially deciding Game 5 headed back to Houston.

But it took a roller-coaster ride in the game’s final moments to get there, and that ride featured another Oklahoma City late-game meltdown.

Of the Thunder’s fourth-quarter blunders, none was more pronounced than head coach Billy Donovan’s decision to leave Andre Roberson — a 42 percent free throw shooter — in the game while the Rockets employed a Hack-a-Shaq. In just over one minute, from the 4:11 mark to 3:02 in the fourth, Roberson missed six of his eight free throw attempts as Houston’s bench chuckled at his charity stripe woes.

The Rockets outscored the Thunder, 40-32, in the fourth quarter and were able to prevent Oklahoma City from getting any offense by sending Roberson to the line.

With a minute remaining and the Thunder down just three, Westbrook turned the ball over on a critical possession and lost his man on the opposite end of the floor. That led to a Harden step-back, mid-range jump shot that extended the Rockets’ lead to five.

In all, the Thunder held a 14-point third-quarter lead. That advantage evaporated when Westbrook went to the bench. Oklahoma City outscored Houston by 14 points with its MVP front-runner on the floor. When he exited the game, the Rockets erased that lead wholly.

The Thunder’s late-game breakdown was reminiscent of their Game 2 woes, where the Oklahoma City offense reduced to ash behind Westbrook’s 18 fourth-quarter shot attempts. Of those 18, the Thunder guard only made four, while the rest of the team shot 4-of-11 in the final period.

The Thunder already had to be perfect to compete with a team as gifted offensively as the Rockets. Folding late in games won’t help their case, either.

Houston will look to wrap things up when they take Game 5 back home. The Thunder will need another Herculean effort from Westbrook, who posted both his third straight triple-double and the fastest playoff triple-double in the last 20 years, to stay alive.

If Oklahoma City wins, it earns a shot at redemption on its home floor in Game 6. But one thing is for sure: The Thunder can’t melt down the way they did in Game 2 — or on Sunday.