6 Takeaways from Monday Night's Gritty NBA Playoff Action
It was win-or-go-home time for two of the teams in action Monday night, as both the Brooklyn Nets and Houston Rockets found themselves one loss away from elimination.
The Nets started the night's festivities hosting a Chicago Bulls squad holding a 3-1 advantage in their best-of-seven series. A deflating triple-overtime loss on Saturday wasn't easy to swallow, but Brooklyn could ill afford even the slightest lapse in focus.
The Atlanta Hawks tipped off against the Indiana Pacers a little while after. Indiana opened the series with back-to-back double-digit wins, but Atlanta looked to carry over some momentum from its 21-point win in Game 3.
The night wrapped up in Houston, where the hometown Rockets hoped to avoid a sweep by an Oklahoma City Thunder squad playing just their second game without Russell Westbrook (torn meniscus) in four years.
Would any team be able to secure a second-round spot? And who, if anyone, would be sent packing?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about Monday's sleeves-rolled-up three-game schedule.
Where Brooklyn At?
Still in the playoffs thanks to the 110-91 win Monday night.
With double-doubles from both Brook Lopez (28 points, 10 rebounds) and Deron Williams (23 points, 10 assists), the Nets forced a Game 6 back to the Windy City on Thursday (8 p.m. ET on TNT).
Brooklyn could have been plagued by the hangover from Game 4's crushing defeat. The Nets had a 12-point lead with under three minutes left in regulation Saturday afternoon, but a crunch-time Nate Robinson eruption led to the 142-134 Bulls win.
The Nets captured the early momentum in Game 5, but a strong third quarter from the Bulls sliced Brooklyn's lead to four points entering the fourth. Consecutive baskets from Marco Belinelli brought the deficit to one with 8:16 left in regulation, but Brooklyn scored 25 of the final 32 points to ease into the series lead.
Williams balanced his scoring and distributing duties, eliciting double-digit efforts from five of his teammates. Lopez commanded the interior, reaching 10 rebounds in regulation for the first time in 10 games.
But Brooklyn doesn't win this game without the strong play of its supporting cast.
Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries combined for 25 points and 23 rebounds. And Gerald Wallace chipped in with 12 points, five of which sparked Brooklyn's victory-securing run.
The only Brooklyn constant in this series has been its inconsistency. But it's still just two wins away from its first second-round playoff appearance since 2007.
Josh Smith might not be with his hometown Atlanta Hawks beyond this season, but thanks to the free-agent-to-be's masterful performance Monday night, this season just got a little bit longer for his Hawks.
This was clearly the good J-Smoove, the one capable of silencing the laughter over his max-contract desires (via Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
He poured in a game-high 29 points, snagged a team-best 11 boards and rounded out his stat line with a trio of steals and a blocked shot. He was also the biggest reason that Indiana's All-Star Paul George misfired on 10 of his 16 field-goal attempts and negated his two assists with four turnovers.
Meanwhile, Al Horford battled foul trouble and still wound up with 18 points, and Kyle Korver (19 points, 5-of-8 from deep) and Anthony Tolliver (nine points, 3-of-3) cleared up space for Smith and Horford to go to work near the basket.
But for every Indiana run—the Pacers sliced a 17-point halftime deficit to five with less than two minutes left in regulation—Smith became the stabilizing force in Atlanta's offense.
Indiana has a horde of bruisers it can throw at Horford. The battle-scarred George Hill presents a challenge for the improving but still green Jeff Teague.
But Josh Smith is a matchup nightmare for any defense, even against one of the finest the league has to offer. As long as he allows himself to be one, that is.
A Thunderous Absence
The Thunder had this game right where they wanted it.
Despite a blazing 38-point third quarter for the Houston Rockets, the Thunder had weathered the storm and a trio of failed crunch-time isolation looks for James Harden gave Oklahoma City the ball, down two, with 12.1 seconds left in regulation.
The stage was set for the latest round of Kevin Durant heroics. The former three-time scoring champ had already tallied a game-high 38 points behind a blistering 12-of-16 performance from the field (and 13-of-15 showing at the charity stripe).
But everyone inside of Houston's Toyota Center knew what was coming.
The Rockets tasked Francisco Garcia with stopping the MVP candidate, and he survived a hesitation dribble and a shot fake without sacrificing defensive position. Having picked up his dribble, Durant had to look for a teammate, and the closest one was his point guard Reggie Jackson (i.e. not the injured Russell Westbrook).
Any chance of getting the ball back was lost when Jackson fumbled the pass, and the second-year guard raced toward the basket. Awaiting him was Houston's 7'0" center Omer Asik, who legally went vertical to challenge the shot. This left an opening for Serge Ibaka on the offensive glass, but the big man could not convert on a point-blank put-back attempt.
The buzzer sounded, and the scoreboard read 105-103 in favor of Houston, at least delaying its postseason departure until Friday.
Without Westbrook, Durant was tasked with initiating the offense throughout the contest—a role that cost him countless offensive chances as he dished out six assists and lost seven turnovers.
But such is life now for the Thunder, at least as far as the 2013 postseason is concerned.
No Beard Required
If I told you before the night started that both the Rockets and Thunder were going to hit triple digits and Houston would emerge victorious, where would you have placed James Harden's point total?
Thirty would've been a given, right? Even 40 wouldn't have sounded outlandish.
Houston did manage to win, and Harden did manage a double-double. But it wasn't quite the double-double he had in mind.
He scored 15 points but missed eight of his 12 field-goal attempts (and all four of his three-point looks), including one on each of the Rockets' final possessions that could have put this game away. His other double-digit category was even more unflattering, as he managed to stumble his way into 10 turnovers in 35 minutes over work.
But the Rockets managed to endure a rough outing from their lone All-Star and live to see another playoff day.
Chandler Parsons scored a team-high 27 points, finishing two assists shy of a triple-double (10 boards, eight dimes). Omer Asik, he of the game-saving defensive play, bullied the Thunder interior for 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) and 14 rebounds. Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino combined for 38 points and eight three-pointers.
This was a victory worth celebrating, but one that should lead to a lengthy film session for Kevin McHale. Despite having so many different players rolling on the offensive end, Houston's decision to dial up three straight isolations for Harden to close out the contest nearly cost it the game.
General manager Daryl Morey may have finally found his coveted star in James Harden, but the Rockets can't forget about the other talented players he's added during his six years at the helm.
When Nate Robinson's running the offense, games like this are inevitable.
For 36 minutes, the Bulls played the Nets to a near draw at 77-73. Twelve minutes later, Chicago found itself on the wrong end of a lopsided scoreboard, 110-91.
With Kirk Hinrich sidelined by a bruised left calf that could cost the Bulls starting point guard more than just Game 5 (via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune), coach Tom Thibodeau was forced to reach deeper into his rotation.
The trigger-happy Robinson got the lion's share of the minutes and his results were, at best, inconclusive. He led the team with 20 points, but struggled to bother the bigger, stronger Deron Williams on D.
With Derrick Rose (torn ACL) still missing in action, Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis) still limited, and Richard Hamilton still trapped in Thibodeau's doghouse, the Bulls looked gassed by the time the fourth quarter arrived. Robinson, Luol Deng and Carols Boozer each logged over 40 minutes in the contest.
Chicago somehow connected on its first five field-goal attempts of the fourth, then shot just 3-of-12 the rest of the way. The Bulls' last field goal came at the 4:15 mark, and its final point came on a Jimmy Butler free throw with 3:47 left in regulation.
The good Nate Robinson showed up late on Saturday to give Chicago a commanding 3-1 series lead. But a prolonged run brought Robinson's limitations to the forefront.
The Indiana Pacers compiled the third-best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference (49-32) on the strength of their suffocating defense and dominant post play.
Neither of those elements factored into Game 4, leaving Indiana mired in a now-three-game series with Atlanta.
The Hawks shot 44.6 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from the perimeter, both increases from the Pacers' regular-season numbers (42.0 and 32.7, respectively). Truth be told, this game shouldn't have even been as close as it was if not for an atrocious performance at the free-throw line by the Hawks (25-of-38, 65.8 percent).
Indiana's box score shows a balanced offensive attack, but one that was perhaps more balanced than it needed to be. Four different players attempted at least 11 field goals, with Roy Hibbert bottoming out that group despite hitting 55 percent of his attempts (6-of-11).
The big Georgetown product has averaged 15.5 points and 13.5 field-goal attempts in Indiana's two wins, and just 11.0 and 9.5 in its two losses.
The shot disparity wouldn't have looked so glaring, but his teammates simply were not executing their chances. Paul George shot 6-of-16, George Hill went 4-of-15 and David West 5-of-14.
Hibbert was battling foul trouble throughout the game and racked up five personals, but he still played 31-plus minutes—just two fewer than in Game 1 when 17 shots came his way.
There's a lot to be said for diversifying an offense, but sometimes it's as simple as feeding the hot hand.