The Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 29-point blowout win in Game 1, then clumsily stumbled to a 3-0 series edge. Though they lost Russell Westbrook in Game 2, a pair of three-point victories put them on the cusp of the second round.
But James Harden wasn't going out like that. With some help from Omer Asik's double-doubles, Harden led the Houston Rockets to two consecutive wins, including a huge one up in Oklahoma.
The onus is on OKC to prove their quality and advance to a tough pairing with either the Memphis Grizzlies or L.A. Clippers. The Rockets' pockets are full of house money, and they accrue more and more league-wide respect with each game.
If the Thunder don't return to basics and solve the Westbrook vacuum, they'll find themselves in an unfortunate position previously encountered by only three other teams: playing a Game 7 after leading 3-0.
Game 6 Time: Friday, May 3, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Series Record: 3-2 Thunder
Game 6 Key Storyline: Can the Rockets Keep It Up?
Since Game 1, the No. 8 seed Rockets have played the reigning conference champs to the wire in every game. They followed two narrow losses with a couple of gritty victories, suddenly making the Thunder look mortal on both sides of the ball.
Houston coughed up Game 3 even though they limited OKC to 37.9 percent shooting. The Thunder prevailed behind near perfection from the foul line (28-of-30) while the Rockets clanged eight of their own free throws.
The two teams put up nearly identical stats in Game 4, including 22 and 20 turnovers apiece for Houston and OKC, respectively. Ten of those were committed by Harden, who scored just 15 points, but blossoming young forward Chandler Parsons bailed him out with 27 points, 10 boards and eight dimes.
Harden avenged that dreadful game by hitting his first seven three-pointers in Game 5 and finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and a team-high plus-16 rating.
Kevin McHale has thrown a mix of defensive looks at OKC, switching between zone and man-to-man. That has been just enough to frustrate the Thunder and keep games close.
Add to that the disarray that has befallen OKC's offense—which could be characterized as Durant and four spectators—and Houston just might have enough to pull off the history-making comeback.
Series Star So Far: Kevin Durant
Though his effectiveness may be muted without Westbrook by his side, Durant has still been the best player in this series by a wide margin.
For better or worse, OKC's offense has come to revolve around their new point forward.
Durant is posting 33.6 points on 48.6 percent shooting, plus 7.8 boards, 6.0 assists, 1.2 steals and a block per game. That actually gives him more dimes than James Harden, who he's also shooting nearly eight percent better than.
Projected Starting Lineups
Thunder: Reggie Jackson, PG; Thabo Sefolosha, SG; Kevin Durant, SF; Serge Ibaka, PF; Kendrick Perkins, C
Rockets: Patrick Beverley, PG; James Harden, SG; Francisco Garcia, SF; Chandler Parsons, PF; Omer Asik, C
Thunder Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Russell Westbrook (knee), out for season
Rockets Injury Report
Jeremy Lin (chest), questionable
Thunder Will Win If...
They play better defense.
While Durant and Westbrook's offensive circus grabbed headlines, the Thunder allowed the third-fewest points per 100 possessions during the regular season.
Houston shot worse than 40 percent in the first two games but better than 40 in the past three. Clearly, subtracting Westbrook's athleticism (and his three-steals-per-game playoff average) has opened up better looks for the Rockets.
Now, the Thunder have to put their big boy pants on and buckle down.
Kevin Durant is still one of the league's best defenders with his pterodactyl-like wingspan. Thabo Sefolosha can play defense on the wing with the best of them.
Serge Ibaka has more blocks than a Lego factory, and even rookie Reggie Jackson has exhibited tremendous effort on D, notching two steals and two blocks in his last two games.
The only sour note has been Kendrick Perkins' ineffective play; he scored just two points in Houston's two wins and racked up a minus-30 rating in 25 minutes of those games.
OKC rolled out a previously unseen hack-an-Asik strategy in Game 5, but the big Turk shot 13-of-18 from the line. Scott Brooks should not resort to such gimmicks, and instead get out his clipboard and help his charges play better defense.
Rockets Will Win If...
They continue to get balanced scoring.
In Game 4, the Rockets had six players with nine or more points. In Game 5, six players scored 10 or more. In both games, they also shot better than 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from downtown.
Bizarrely, after outscoring OKC by 22 points in the paint for their first win, Houston got smoked there by 16 points on Wednesday; they still won by seven. So it doesn't necessarily matter how they get their points, as long as they run their offense and get quality looks.
Patrick Beverley and Francisco Garcia combined to score 57 points in Houston's victories, bolstering the electric Harden.
Carlos Delfino pulled a disappearing act in Game 5, and the Rockets will need him to get in on the act and take pressure off the other role players. Backup point guard Aaron Brooks is making a name for himself in these playoffs, proving a capable scorer and ball-handler in limited minutes.
The Rockets can't just rely on the virtuosity of James Harden. They need Asik's efficient production to continue, along with the same from their swingmen.
Houston may have youth, speed, athleticism and a bevy of sharpshooters, but the Thunder have too much playoff experience to let this one slip away.
One thing is for sure: Kevin Martin cannot shoot 1-of-10 from the field as he did in Game 5. The Thunder must supplement Durant with effective support on offense, but better defensive effort is their chief need.
As Serge Ibaka returns to the site of his heartbreaking missed layup in Game 4, he will play with singular determination. Look for a double-double from him along with a handful of blocks.
OKC's elder statesmen—KD, Ibaka, Sefolosha and Fisher—won't shrink from a chance to close out the series out on the road. As the Thunder continue to adjust to life without Westbrook, they will put the soaring Rockets to bed.
Prediction: Thunder 104, Rockets 98