It's time to see what James Harden and the Houston Rockets are made of.
Since the NBA playoffs began, Houston's character has been tested in each of its three losses against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, attempting to stave off elimination, though, we'll see how they respond with their backs pinned up against the wall.
Kevin Durant and the Thunder showed their resolve in Game 3, winning a tightly contested battle in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter 104-101. They found a way to overcome Russell Westbrook's absence and win. Trailing 3-0, the Rockets will look to channel a similar level of resolve.
But can they? Can they fend off the Thunder in Game 4 and fight on in Game 5?
Facing this type of expulsion makes it difficult to remain optimistic. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. That knowledge often acts as crippling blow. Just ask the recently swept Milwaukee Bucks or Los Angeles Lakers.
For the Rockets to win, they'll have to shed that feeling of hopelessness and instead look to begin a long, arduous and improbable trek back to contention.
Time: Monday, April 29, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Center; Houston, Texas
Series Record: 3-0 Thunder
Key Storyline: Can the Rockets Steal One from the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder?
It's not impossible.
Houston was picked apart in Game 1, losing by 29 points in Oklahoma City. Since then, the Rockets have pushed the Thunder to the brink in each of the last two games.
Oklahoma City's past two victories have been decided by a total of six points. Houston pushed Durant and crew to the limit, and the outcome wasn't decided until the final buzzer.
Still, the Rockets lost both games. Even after coming back from 15 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 3, they still lost. They haven't been able to steal that one game, that single victory that could build some momentum.
Playing at home against an Oklahoma City team that is still without its second-best player, there is a legitimate chance for Houston to get that win. And it's not necessarily about winning this game and three more to do what no NBA team has done before. It's about proving they can win in general, even if only one game.
The problem, of course, is remaining motivated enough to do so. Teams on the verge of being swept can often come out and beat themselves.
But the Rockets can't look at this as an insurmountable deficit. They have to play with the same confidence they played with in Games 2 and 3, the same swagger they nearly parlayed into a victory.
Only then can they take advantage of a suddenly shorthanded Thunder team—at least once.
Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Rockets: Jeremy Lin (chest, questionable).
Thunder: Russell Westbrook (knee, out).
Projected Starting Lineups
Rockets: Jeremy Lin (PG), Patrick Beverley (SG), James Harden (SF), Chandler Parsons (PF) and Omer Asik (C)
Thunder: Reggie Jackson (PG), Thabo Sefolosha (SG), Kevin Durant (SF), Serge Ibaka (PF) and Kendrick Perkins (C)
The Rockets will win if...
They can hit their three-pointers.
I was tempted to say play defense, but we all know that's not going to happen.
The Rockets are shooting just 27.8 percent from beyond the arc for the series, well below the 36.6-percent clip they shot during the regular season.
Had Houston shot better than 10-of-35 from deep in Game 2, Oklahoma City's three-point victory would have likely been a loss.
Admittedly, the Rockets hit on 38.5 percent of their treys in Game 3 and still fell, but that was more the result of an overwhelming lead. They were down by 15 in the fourth and their deep balls (5-of-12) helped get them back in the game.
Houston is a much better team when its threes are going down. And through the first three games of the series, Harden and friends have received decent looks. Now it's a matter of knocking them down consistently.
The Thunder will win if...
Kevin Durant is more like Kevin Durant.
The Durantula attempted to carry the offensive burden for the Thunder in Game 3, and wound up going 13-of-30 from the floor in 47 minutes for 41 points. It was a very Carmelo Anthony-esque scoring display.
We can't implore Durant to stop shooting that much, because he shouldn't. And we can't berate his efficiency either, because 1) he's entitled to an off night and 2) his shot selection wasn't horrible—he was just missing on attempts he normally buries.
I'd like to him better balance his scoring with his playmaking. All year, Durant has done a nice job distributing. He averaged a career-high 4.3 assists during the regular season. With Westbrook out, the Thunder need him to facilitate more in addition to shooting more.
Durant's usage rate through the regular season was 29.8. In Game 3, it skyrocketed to 36.3, nearly seven percentage points more than his regular-season total and almost five more than his current postseason average (31.5). But while the number of plays run through Durant increased, he dished out just four assists. Oklahoma City needs more.
I'm not calling Durant a ball hog, but we must liken his current situation to that of Kobe Bryant's. With Westbrook on the sidelines, the Rockets (deficient though they are on defense) know that Durant is more likely to shoot. Throughout Game 3, they converged on him when he attacked and sent help constantly. Durant must do a better job of kicking out of those double teams and continue to score within the flow of the offense.
The Thunder need him to shoulder a heavier burden; what they don't need is for him to force the action. Durant is so dangerous because he's so potent and efficient. And if Oklahoma City wishes to pull off the sweep, that can't change.
It's impossible to gauge how strong a performance the Rockets are able to put forth when down 3-0. Their energy level will say it all.
Will they be assume a "never say die" attitude like the Boston Celtics or submit to the will of a superior opponent, like the Milwaukee Bucks?
As the youngest team in the NBA, we can't assume the Rockets will respond with a monstrous victory at home in Game 4. Westbrook's absence is sure to have bolstered their confidence level, but they finished just shy of a win in Game 3, even though he wasn't on the floor.
Houston also can't bank on Durant having another turbulent shooting performance. If he shoots 30 times per game, there are those who believe that he'll regress to 'Melo's mean, but this is Durant we're talking about. Even when he was off in Game 3, he was on.
If the Rockets are able to consistently convert on their three-pointers for a full four quarters, and Harden continues his foul-line feast, we should be in for another nail-biter. With the Thunder looking to make a statement in Westbrook's absence and afford themselves some time to adjust to their new dynamic before Round 2, I just don't seem them losing.
Durant will be huge; so will Serge Ibaka, and I'm left convinced that Kevin Martin will remember what it's like to hit a shot. It will come down to who can execute better on the offensive end, and once again, that will prove to be the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder 108, Rockets 104
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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