The Oklahoma City Thunder reached the NBA Finals last season with a "Big Four" consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
Now, they're down to just a Big Two, which barely merits such a nickname. Harden is wearing the other team's uniform and Westbrook has been lost to injury.
Harden has played tremendously well against the team that traded him away just before the season began. Through three games, he's posting 28.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.
But overall, OKC is not a good matchup for the Houston Rockets. Even without their Olympian point guard, they have too much scoring, superior defense and a vast advantage in playoff experience.
And that latter stat is really the key. Houston's downfall against the Thunder lies not in their youth, but their inexperience.
Life without Westbrook
Westbrook suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee and will miss the remainder of the playoffs after undergoing surgery on Saturday (per AP, via NBA.com).
He sustained the injury in Game 2 when Houston's Patrick Beverley attempted to poke the ball away from him. Beverley bumped into Westbrook and spun him around awkwardly. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that a source told him Westbrook is "irate" with Beverley.
The OKC point guard had never missed a game in his career, and coincidentally, Rockets center Omer Asik takes over the ironman mantle with 230 consecutive games played.
The stage was set for Game 3, with Durant and Harden essentially pitted in a head-to-head scoring duel. KD bested his former teammate 41-30, and his supporting cast stepped up as well.
Serge Ibaka, who had really boosted his jump shooting this season, turned in a solid 17-point performance. Kevin Martin, on the other hand, shot just 3-of-11 from field in 31 minutes.
Fortunately for the Thunder, Reggie Jackson came up big on Saturday night. After scoring just six points in Game 2, he tallied 14 points to help extend the series advantage to 3-0.
The second-year guard out of Boston College played aggressively, going 6-of-6 from the foul line including a pair to extend the lead to three with eight ticks remaining.
Credit goes to the Rockets for keeping it close, but luck is the residue of design, as the saying goes, and a fortuitous roll on a Durant three-pointer helped sink Houston into a virtually insurmountable hole.
A Coming-Out Party for the Whole Team
You can be forgive if at some point during this series, you turned to your friend and asked, "Who the heck are these guys?"
Everyone knows James Harden and Jeremy Lin, but most fans could not pick the rest of Houston's rotation out of a lineup. After a Game 1 blowout, they've hung with OKC for two straight games despite Lin averaging only 4.3 points for the series.
As it turns out, the guy who injured Westbrook has been played pretty well. Beverley is averaging 11 points, six boards, 4.3 dimes and 1.3 steals per game.
Houston also has a pair of swingmen that can vex defenses. One of them is Chandler Parsons, who improved by leaps and bounds in his second season out of Florida and has averaged 15.7 points per game in the playoffs.
Carlos Delfino is the other threat. He's contributing 10.7 points per game, and the erratic shooting guard (40.1 percent shooting) has found a home in Houston's run-and-gun scheme. He's also one of just two Rockets to reach 30 years of age.
Francisco Garcia is the elder statesman at 32, and he's chipped in a tidy 8.7 points over 17 minutes per game.
Center Omer Asik rounds out Houston's potent rotation. The 26-year-old has quietly developed into one of the best young centers in the league, and he's posting 7.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in this postseason.
They've Done Too Much, Much Too Young
The Thunder are not an old team, but they are an experienced team. It's easy to forget that three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant is still only 24 years old; Serge "Iblocka" is just 23.
But they've nurtured a young core over several seasons, which always pays off in the playoffs.
Durant, Ibaka, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha have each been with OKC for 43 playoff games over the previous three seasons. Kendrick Perkins has seen 37 of those games in the last two years. And then there's Derek Fisher, who has played in a staggering 232 postseason games in his career.
Obviously, Houston can't match anywhere near that level experience. Harden, of course, cut his teeth with the Thunder, and Delfino's 39 playoff games makes him the second-most experienced Rocket.
They've played valiantly, but they'll still be fending off a sweep in Game 4.
The Rockets have thrown multiple defensive looks at the Thunder, frustrating their potent offense at times. Houston's defense has played well in the series, considering they ranked 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions during the regular season.
The Houston Rockets mixed up their starting lineup, switched their defense and found a way to give the Thunder a serious scare.4/25/2013, 10:17:06 PM
But OKC ranked third in defensive efficiency. And they know what it takes to win in the playoffs.
As Houston matures and gunslinging general manager Daryl Morley continues to craft his roster, the Rockets will only get better.
Houston needs to keep refining their personnel, and some veteran leadership could go a long way. They will threaten to leapfrog the L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs for Western Conference prominence in the next two or three years, but they don't quite have what it takes yet.
It's not that the Rockets are too young to beat OKC; they're too inexperienced.
The playoffs are a different animal, and Houston is getting a master class in closing out postseason wins from the Thunder.
Games 2 and 3 were each decided by one-possession margins, and the Rockets will be scraping out wins in close playoff games next year.