It's the Beard vs. the Durantula now.
After a domineering 29-point victory in Game 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked to be in for a breeze of a series. Then the Houston Rockets battled back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 2 behind a 21-2 run.
Houston came up just short, but they headed back to Texas with a modicum of confidence from the narrow loss. OKC also lost Russell Westbrook in that game.
The Rockets would have won Game 3 if Kevin Durant didn't get an incredibly fortuitous shooter's roll on a last-minute three-pointer.
In Game 4, KD didn't even take the final shot. That honor went to Serge Ibaka, who blew the easy game-tying layup and then crumpled to the court in terrific fashion. For a time, the "Serge Protector" was inconsolable.
Houston dodged the sweep and played its third straight solid game against the reigning Western Conference champs. While the Rockets snatched themselves a slice of momentum with Monday's win, no NBA team has ever come back from down 0-3 in a series.
The Rockets have shown tremendous promise against OKC, but it's only a consolation prize for next season. The Thunder are unlikely to fumble away a win on their home floor.
Game 5 Time: Wednesday, May 1, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
Series Record: 3-1 Thunder
Game 5 Key Storyline: Can OKC Regain Their Swagger at Home?
How bad was Game 4? Well, the Rockets and Thunder combined for 44 turnovers, doubling their total from Game 3. With Jeremy Lin sitting out due to a bruised chest, Houston grabbed their first win of the series in a tilt that went to the wire.
James Harden scored just 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting and committed 10 turnovers. That's right, 10! Somehow, he made up for it with five steals and a block, finishing with a team-high plus-nine rating. Durant coughed up seven turnovers of his own as Oklahoma City failed to close out.
A very efficient 40 points (15-of-27 and 6-of-11 from downtown) from Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino helped propel the Rockets past OKC. They also trapped Durant above the three-point line and force him to give up the ball for the last shot of the game.
Reggie Jackson (no, not the one from Naked Gun) has been a decent fill-in for the injured Westbrook with 32 points in two games, but he's only dished four assists as the starting point guard. Westbrook had 14 dimes in his two starts.
Durant has become OKC's point forward, orchestrating the entire offense. He posted the team-high for assists in Games 3 and 4, and scored 79 points in the process. It's up to him to get everyone involved and dispatch the Rockets for good.
Series Star So Far: Kevin Durant
Durant is averaging 42 points per game, more than any other player in the series. And he's filling up the old peach basket with 33 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting.
Beyond his scoring, he's second on the team with eight rebounds a night and has racked up a team-high 23 dimes.
After emblazoning a Sports Illustrated cover with his desire to no longer be No. 2 (via Ben Golliver), he's lost his own No. 2 on the team. Now, it's basically all up to him to lead OKC back to the NBA Finals.
Projected Starting Lineups
Rockets: Patrick Beverley, PG; James Harden, SG; Francisco Garcia, SF; Chandler Parsons, PF; Omer Asik, C
Thunder: Reggie Jackson, PG; Thabo Sefolosha, SG; Kevin Durant, SF; Serge Ibaka, PF; Kendrick Perkins, C
Rockets Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Jeremy Lin (chest), questionable
Thunder Injury Report
Russell Westbrook (knee), out for season
Rockets Will Win If...
They shoot efficiently and don't resort to chucking up three-pointers.
In Game 3, Houston shot 43.4 percent from the field and 12-of-37 from downtown; they lost by three points. In Game 4, they shot 48.7 percent and 12-of-27 on three-pointers, winning by a deuce.
Their normally erratic defense (they ranked 16th in defensive efficiency during the regular season) has played very well at times, including holding the Thunder to 38 percent shooting in Game 3. With a mix of zone and man-to-man, the Rockets have OKC out-of-sync.
Add Westbrook's absence to that, and all Houston has to do is hit their shots.
Houston must also diversify their scoring to keep the Thunder guessing on defense. Parsons actually led the Rockets in their only win of the series, scoring 27 points and flirting with a triple-double (10 rebounds and eight assists).
The Rockets proved they could spread the ball around in Monday's win, as six players scored at least nine points and three guys scored more than Harden. In their Game 3 loss, Harden scored 30 but only two starters scored in double-digits.
Good ball movement, shot-selection and a diversity of scorers would deliver a shocking road win for the Rockets.
Thunder Will Win If...
They play better defense.
In the two games at Chesapeake Energy Arena, OKC held the Rockets to under 40 percent shooting from the field. Then they headed to Houston and nearly lost both games as they tried to out-shoot a team stacked with shooters.
The Thunder boast a top-notch defense (third-fewest points allowed per 100 possessions in the regular season), but it hasn't looked like it at times in this series. Thabo Sefolosha and Ibaka need to set the tone for defensive intensity and make the Rockets work for every bucket.
Whether it's Lin or Patrick Beverley, OKC must pressure the ball, throw plenty of help defense at Harden and force the Rockets into contested jump shots.
If they can make Houston's offense stagnate and settle for looks on the perimeter, they'll be lighting the Red Auerbach cigars on Wednesday night.
The Thunder won't let this one slip away.
What is your series prediction?
Ibaka will morph into Iblocka to avenge the shame of his blown layup, altering all shots in his path and swatting at least four. He'll also heat up from the mid-range on his home court after managing just eight points on Monday.
KD is a sure bet to at least match his uniform number in points.
Kendrick Perkins might come out of hiding, but the Thunder don't need him. At least not yet. Once they get past the Rockets, OKC will have to deal with the winner between the Memphis Grizzlies and L.A. Clippers.
Against a more stout opponent, it will be interesting to see how much the Thunder miss Russell Westbrook.
Prediction: Thunder 111, Rockets 100