Around The Association
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant stepped up with Russell Westbrook out. Playing all but 44 seconds, Durant matched a playoff career-high with 41 points and added 14 rebounds and four assists.
Defining moment: After the Rockets erased Oklahoma City's 26-point lead, Durant made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 41 seconds left. The ball bounced on the rim three times, the first above the backboard, before dropping -- three clanks that could have gone differently in an tight game.
X factors: Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher. Jackson, making his first career start in Westbrook's absence, scored 14 points on six shots. The Thunder played even better with Fisher, who had no turnovers and stayed out of Durant's way in his 24 minutes.
MVP: Al Horford. He was a monster. His line speaks for itself, but it was more than that. His ferocity and refusal to be denied was contagious. The whole Hawks team adopted a mentality that he personified.
LVP(s): Indiana's backcourt. George Hill and Lance Stephenson combined for seven points on 2-for-15 shooting. Revolting stuff. Teams don't win when that happens.
X factor: Josh Smith took six of his first nine shots within five feet of the hoop. He attacked Paul George in the post and got out in transition. This is a different team when he is imposing his will in the paint.
MVP: Marc Gasol. Rare is the big man who eats space and creates it. Gasol lived up to his Defensive Player of the Year moniker by protecting the rim on one end and using his gorgeous jumper and interior passing on the other to completely flummox the Clippers.
X factor: 3-point shooting. If the Clippers are making the same amount of 3-pointers as the Grizzlies, something has gone horribly wrong. The Clippers had decent looks but shot just 4-for-21 from behind the arc and got essentially no scoring production from their wings.
Well, that was ... persistence personified. The Grizzlies have found something with Zach Randolph on the block, and the Clippers have failed to take it away. The starting frontcourt of the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 63-21 in a truly dominant performance.
MVP: Nate Robinson, who responded to a retaliation screen from Gerald Wallace by scoring 23 points in the fourth, nearly breaking a franchise record set by MJ (!). He got the Bulls back into the game, the one his agent will refer to while negotiating him a new contract in the offseason.
X factor: Nazr Mohammed sprung off the bench after Joakim Noah fouled out, scoring four points in the third overtime period, including the dagger putback off a missed free throw. So, yes, the Nets sort of got beat by Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed.
That was ... heart-pounding: Poor Brooklyn -- it blew a double-digit lead and wore out by three overtimes' end, losing a crucial Game 4 to take a 3-1 series deficit before heading back east. The Bulls now have three chances to close this one out.
How Far Will Thunder Go Now?
Here's the real question. It's tough to say what Oklahoma City will be like without Russell Westbrook because we've never seen this before. Continuity has been one of the Thunder's greatest strengths. The team's starting lineup played more minutes together (1,307) than any other lineup in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. By contrast, Oklahoma City's likely new starting five with Jackson played a total of 19 minutes together all regular season.
The encouraging stat for Thunder fans is that the team was slightly better during the regular season with Kevin Durant alone on the court than with both stars. The improvement is fluky, but Durant's ability to pick up his scoring load will help make up for Westbrook's absence. According to NBA.com/Stats, Durant increased his scoring per 36 minutes from 25.7 to 29.4 when Westbrook sat while also improving his efficiency; his true shooting percentage went from .640 to .680.
Naturally, Oklahoma City struggled when both stars were out. So expect Scott Brooks to rely heavily on Durant in coming games. In the last two postseasons, Durant has averaged 42.5 and 41.9 minutes per game, and those numbers might qualify as the under going forward.
The Thunder still should have more than enough talent to dispatch of the Rockets, especially with a 2-0 head start in the series. The level of competition will go up quickly in Round 2 against either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies. While the Grizzlies previously looked like the worse matchup from Oklahoma City's perspective, now the Thunder may not want to see the Clippers tandem of Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe against their backup point guards.
Series Of Events
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If you're waiting for the Chicago Bulls to hit all their free throws down the stretch or turn a 14-point fourth-quarter lead into a rout, even at home, stop. If you're thinking the Bulls are going to win these playoff games with a flourish, don't. They're not going to overwhelm anybody. They're not going to win going away or do anything that suggests they have control of a series. They're not that team. Too many injured knees and feet, too much rust, too offensively challenged even if healthy.
But somehow they're just fine with it, with shooting 39.7 percent in a playoff game, with making just three 3-pointers, with being outscored by 10 in the fourth quarter and making a measly 50 percent of their free throws in that final quarter. They're fine with having so, so precious little margin for error, with every game going to the wire, with high drama that some teams wouldn't survive so regularly.
Clips, Griz On Westbrook
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As news of the injury to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook reverberated through the NBA on Friday, the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies reacted to the Westbrook's possible absence in a potential second-round series between the Thunder and the winner of the first-round series between the Clippers and Grizzlies.
"[The Thunder] are still a great team even without him, but he's a huge part of their offense and a great player," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "So it does leave them vulnerable but we can't really look to that yet. We can't be focused on that. We have to take care of business first of all here, then set our sights on that."