Russell Westbrook's absence could go down as the single biggest factor in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. No, in losing to Houston 105-103, the Thunder don't have to worry about making it past the first round of the playoffs. Only the most optimistic Rockets fan would label this talented-but-incomplete Houston squad as capable of taking three consecutive from OKC.
But for the first time since last year's Finals, the Thunder looked mortal Monday night.
Kevin Durant dropped 38 sublime points, more than holding up his end of the scoring bargain. But looking deeper into the numbers reveals an incredibly-two sided statistic: he made 12-16 shots (and 13-15 from the stripe), showcasing the kind of accuracy that makes him the elite talent he is.
But this is a team missing it's second-leading scorer and emotional galvanizer; if you're KD, you have to take more shots than that. Doesn't matter how many times you were fouled; anything less than 20 shots and you're hurting your team, a group of role-players not used to carrying the load like this (Kevin Martin's good at scoring, but you won't see him creating his own shot against Memphis or Los Angeles).
As far as Houston is concerned, anything to prolong the series is a plus. Chandler Parsons continues to build up his playoff resume, netting 27 points with some of the best white-boy play we've seen in some time (the fact that the Thunder essentially blocked Parsons' own dunk into their net is pretty telling). Coming off of 21 and 17-point outings, it's clear that James Harden is in no way alone on the perimeter in H-town.
And speaking of Harden, well... 15 points on 4-12 shooting isn't the game he wanted. OKC continues to make him work for his shots (he's averaging 25 points for the series on sub-.400 shooting), and Monday night saw Harden at his most compliant, settling for jump-shot after jump-shot. He'll have to return to his attacking ways if Houston wants to bring this thing back to Houston for a Game 6.
The Brooklyn Nets, fresh off one of the biggest losses in franchise history, could've keeled over in their Game 5 showdown with the Chicago Bulls. It's the set up Chicago wanted given their thoughts on their opposition. Kirk Hinrich sat out with a leg injury but, with momentum still on Chicago's side, a delayed sweep remained likely.
The teams sized each other up for most of the first half until Brooklyn pulled away with an eight point lead at the half. A tight third quarter eventually saw the Bulls pull within one via key shots from Luol Deng, Nate Robinson and Marco Bellineli but, in the fourth, the ball bounced the Nets' way.
Andray Blatche's big shots and drive which drew a suspect, flagrant-1 foul changed the complexion of the game. BK went on a torrid scoring streak towards a 110-91 win. Nate Robinson caused fits with his 20 points and Brook Lopez racked up 28 and 10 for his winning side. Carlos Boozer also enjoyed his first game in the series with beast mode deactivated.
Blatche's role in the fourth show's the least bit of pliancy in P.J. Carlesimo's stubborn rotation. Maybe he figured out Reggie Evans works best as a cheerleader down the wire? Chicago's usually reliable defense against the Nets' isos didn't pan out and their paint protection didn't have the same shape. You better believe Tom Thibodeau and his staff will put in work on the stated, uncharacteristic trends. Game 6 has the prime set up for a thriller on Thursday.
Think of your best friend. If said buddy texted you this morning, "Hey, did you see Paul George and Josh Smith both score 40 last night in a Game 4 thriller you just had to see to believe," chances are we'd all look at our phones with the deer in the headlights look. Without Google, could we really prove they didn't?
George and Smith did not trade 40 points game, but both led their respective teams in scoring. J-Smoove's playoff career-high 29 points and 11 rebounds helped lead the way for a Hawks team who heads back to Indiana now in a best of three series following Monday's 102-91 victory. Smith's defense on George - the league's Most Improved Player - was critical all night. Despite PG24 finishing with 21 points, he was hassled into 6-16 shooting doing so thanks in part to Smith.
Since we're throwing praise around in the Hawks direction, credit (or blame) Kyle Korver's 19 points off the bench including a huge three late to keep the Pacers out of dodge for prolonging what I'm 87% sure is the least watched series of the first round.
For the Pacers, their shooting woes continued. Even with an effort to get their front court players involved early, David West, Roy Hibbert and the aforementioned George shot a combined 17-41 (41.4%), with the team as a whole shooting 38%. Shooting this bad on the road won't get the job done in Atlanta, and damn sure won't in Madison Square Garden pending they and the Knicks both advance to the semifinals. Indy has dropped two straight (13 overall in Atlanta) and suddenly lost control of a series they had in a headlock before traveling to the city known for its strip clubs and Waffle Houses.
However, let's just say this goes the distance. What's the possibility we just put Ivan Johnson and David West as the undercard to Floyd Mayweather/Robert Guerrero fight this Saturday?
That'd all be better than a Game 7 anyway, right?