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Ball Don't Lie

Behind the Box Score, where the Thunder held on despite Russell Westbrook’s absence

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Kevin Durant scored 41 draining points on Saturday (Getty Images)

Oklahoma City 104, Houston 101; Oklahoma City leads the series, 3-0

For the first half of Saturday night’s tilt, it seemed as if the Oklahoma City Thunder would have absolutely no issues moving forward without injured star guard Russell Westbrook, against the Houston Rockets at least. The San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat are another matter for another month, but early on it appeared as even a Westbrook-less Thunder team was outclassing Houston, especially with Kevin Durant carrying the Thunder to a 26-point lead at one point partway through the second quarter, with 27 first-half points.

The second half commenced, seemingly mid-blowout, and things started to fall apart. You remember LeBron James in Cleveland? Remember how predictable the offense was and how tired James often looked? Sadly, with Westbrook now out for the season, there was some of that going around.

The Rockets roared back, without injured guard Jeremy Lin, by spreading the floor and going with their drive-and-kick game. By nailing 3 after 3 and alternating startlingly poor defensive rotations with some honest to goodness very good ones against OKC, the Rockets came all the way back to take a one-point lead over the Thunder with just over three minutes to go. Just barely clinging on, Durant hit a spectacular 3-pointer (one that bounced three times on the rim, one time nearly over the shot clock, before falling in) and Serge Ibaka saved yet another broken possession with a reverse layup to hold off a Rockets team that just couldn’t hit enough corner 3s to make it work.

There were also a few bad plays by players who should have known better — like Francisco Garcia’s weird intentional foul late in the fourth with Houston down just one point, after the Thunder dribbled 16 seconds off of the shot clock and with the Rockets guaranteed a final possession had they secured a defensive rebound. Or James Harden’s two last-minute turnovers, one coming on a miscommunication with Garcia, who was dealt to Houston in February. Houston’s a good team, but they’re also an eighth seed attempting to work ahead of the curve. Their only chance was to fire away in a small, spread offense, and hope for the best.

As a proving ground for Oklahoma City, even giving credit to Houston’s talent, this was a rough first go.

Westbrook’s absence was huge. Durant played spectacular ball (41 points, 14 rebounds), and replacement starter Reggie Jackson played well (14 points and just one assist, though he wasn’t used as a passing point guard too often), but Westbrook’s (dare I say) calming influence could have sustained the Oklahoma City blowout.

It wasn’t so much that they missed their leader, or the guy who’s been running their plays for years, or the team’s top passer. It was that they lost a playmaker — someone to jump in the air without knowing if he was going to pass or shoot it. And when you take all the assist, score, and hockey assist-possessions that Westbrook provides (to say nothing of the offensive rebound possibilities he creates after he draws the defensive attention and misses), this is what results. The Thunder can continue to win in this series and the next, but there will be spells like that third quarter.

The pressure is on Scott Brooks. Not Durant, not Jackson, and certainly not Derek Fisher. Brooks has to find a way to make it so one of the more talented performers in basketball history can actually surprise opponents as he executes his way through a play.

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Chicago 142, Brooklyn 134 (3 OT); Chicago leads the series, 3-1

There is very little to add to this game that wasn’t already discussed in several other posts from today. The Brooklyn Nets are certainly facing a formidable 3-1 deficit, but I’m not ready to completely (there’s always a tiny chance) count them out yet based on the idea that this team can make a three-game run simply by playing bad basketball from here until the end of a potential Game 7.

Throughout Game 4, heady Chicago Bulls defenders treated Nets scorers as if full-on drives to the basket were an actual option for the Brooklyn shooters. As a result, Bulls defenders tried to cover both angles, and Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Andray Blatche, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace answered by pulling up for perimeter looks.

The Nets, Williams especially, want to shoot. They don’t want to drive into the lane and earn free throws, or attack off the dribble. The team is content with sitting back and hoping the 3-pointers or mid-range jumpers do the work for them. It took Nate Robinson, of all people, to figure this out late in Game 4 — his work in crowding Williams late in the contest forced him into a few bad perimeter misses. There’s your hint: Robinson overplayed on the perimeter, and Williams still went for the long jumper.

Talented players making iffy decisions can sometimes win ballgames. Sometimes three in a row, even. I don’t think this is a warming note worth banking on for Brooklyn, but because the Bulls have to play so perfectly just to make up for their lacking offense and injury issues, it’s still worth paying attention to.

Luckily, the Bulls are good at paying attention to details.

***

Atlanta 90, Indiana 69; Indiana leads the series, 2-1

Don’t you hate it when a playoff series completely lives up to its stereotype?

Coming off two fractured, snippy contests in Indiana, the Atlanta Hawks returned to Georgia to both play up to potential, and make it the Indiana Pacers’ turn to endlessly carp to the referees. The Pacer offense was too late to initiate itself in the half court, the movement was half-hearted and the team seemed to expect that Atlanta was going to show up with more urgency on its home floor.

Most teams expect that from the home squad. It’s one thing to be aware of it, and weather the storm. It’s another thing to be swept away by it. And with more bodies to work through (7-footer Johan Petro started the game at center as the Hawks’ frontcourt positions all moved down a slot, with Kyle Korver coming off the bench), the Pacers didn’t really seem to mind letting the Hawks take this one.

Take away David West’s 7 for 14 night, and the Pacers shot just over 22 percent from the field. Allowed to roam somewhat, Hawks forward/center Al Horford switched position spots in the offense with Petro all afternoon and finished with a whopper of a line — 26 points and 16 rebounds. Josh Smith annoyed with his shot selection again (expected, after nailing a series of perimeter tries in Game 2) but his defense was on point. And Jeff Teague continues to find seams in the Indiana defense during transition breaks.

These two teams really are bringing out the worst in each other. Perhaps that can even out in time for a competitive Game 4.

***

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Tayshaun Prince holds off the Clippers in the Game 4 win (Getty Images)

Memphis Grizzlies 104, Los Angeles Clippers 83; series is tied, 2-2

Like most of the viewing public, I missed the entire first half of this contest because TNT weirdly refused to toss the coverage of this game to its Turner compatriots at either TBS (the station was showing "Friends" re-runs — could they be any more timeless?) or NBA TV (the network was broadcasting playoff highlights from earlier in the week). As a result, I have no idea why the Memphis Grizzlies managed to put an un-Grizzly-like 33 points in the first quarter (apparently Tayshaun Prince was quite good) or how the Los Angeles Clippers roared back to hold Memphis to just 13 points in the second quarter.

What I do know is that Memphis looked well within its wheelhouse in the second half, with Zach Randolph holding court on either block and Marc Gasol coming through with one of the more impressive games of his career. Randolph helped Memphis out to that early advantage with a 24-point night, but it was Gasol’s 17 second-half points (24 overall) that helped the Grizzlies pull away and tie the series. Thirteen rebounds, four assists, three blocks and just one turnover for Gasol on the night. He also spanked himself in public after hitting a long jumper in the third quarter. It was somewhat appropriate.

The Memphis bench was worryingly outplayed again, with the Clippers attempting to wear down the Grizzlies’ lead with their waves of depth, but by the time the fourth quarter swung around the ball-swingin’ from Memphis was too much to handle. The Clippers weren’t ready for their mixture of movement and muscle, with both 25 assists and 13 offensive rebounds (impressive, considering the Grizzlies’ 51 percent shooting) showcasing that two-pronged attack.

It’s surprising for a veteran team (and veteran players, as Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups combined to miss all 10 of their shots from the field), but the home confines of Los Angeles will do the Clippers good. The Clips came through with an impressive road win over Memphis in the last week of the regular season, but in two postseason contests, the team looks rattled and incapable of communicating properly defensively. That figures to change back at Staples Center.

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