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NBA Playoffs, Game 5 Preview — No Nene, So Now What?

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Of all the major sports, the NBA's postseason is the most like a marathon, with twists and turns, ups and downs, and chess moves galore. (The NHL's postseason is rather lengthy as well, but we are in Houston, so for purposes of this post, the NHL does not exist.) Rare is the postseason run where the basketball gods don't plunk some significant obstacle in the way of ultimate success.

Truth be told, the biggest obstacles the remaining teams have to ultimate success are the Golden State Warriors' four-man nucleus and LeBron James in Cleveland. However, let's pretend for a minute that the Spurs, Rockets, Celtics or Wizards could slay a dragon. Well, then, the Rockets just got their first real taste of the basketball gods giving them a middle finger, with backup center (and crucial rotation piece) Nene suffering a torn groin muscle in Sunday night's win.

Is losing Nene a proportional response to the Spurs losing Parker?
Heading into the postseason, this question would have sounded like crazy talk, comparing the impact of the Spurs losing starting point guard Tony Parker (six-time All Star, four-time NBA champion) to the Rockets losing backup center Nene (solid leader, low post scorer and great all-around guy), but that was before Nene established himself as Houston's only really solid, in-control option in the low post during the postseason. With Nene on the floor, the Thunder and the Spurs have had to at least pay attention to the paint in the half court as an area where the Rockets can hurt them without James Harden driving into the teeth of the defense. This is a tough one to answer until we see what Mike D'Antoni's answer is to filling Nene's minutes, but we do know that the Spurs, even in their win in Game 3 but especially in Game 4, looked a little out of sorts offensively. In Game 4, their shot selection was questionable at best. It makes you wonder how much they miss Parker calibrating their half court sets and his overall stewardship of the offense. Parker is probably the bigger loss, but the Rockets will miss Nene.

So will we see Montrezl Harrell...AT ALL?
Twitter has a funny way of finding random causes célèbres. Montrezl Harrell has been glued to the bench this postseason, so naturally Rockets fans are wondering, "Why are we not seeing any Montrezl Harrell?" People love his energy, his athleticism, his dunks, his hair...so with Nene out, for many Rockets fans, it wasn't a question of IF we see Harrell, but FOR HOW MANY MINUTES we see Harrell. I'm not certain those fans should be counting their chickens quite yet. D'Antoni's adjustment in Game 4 after Nene went down was to move Ryan Anderson to the five and just go small. If that works again, and the Rockets are knocking down shots, it's more likely we see Dekker take over Nene's vacated minutes at the four with Anderson sliding over to the five. If indeed Harrell does get some time now, history tells us he will shake rust off quickly, as many times this season, he would go from DNP-CD one game to material contributions the next game.

Other than Harden, and with Nene out, if you can pick one Rocket to give you his A+ game in Game 5, who is it?
The obvious answer, in Nene's absence, is Clint Capela, considering he is the only true big on the roster who sees rotation minutes. If Capela doesn't play well, then the Rockets will probably need to shoot about 50 percent from downtown in order to win the game. If there is one player whose performance seems to have become a barometer for team performance, it's the least-tenured Rocket on the team, Lou Williams. In the three postseason losses, Williams is averaging 8.7 points per game (and that includes a 22-point game in the one OKC loss). And in the six wins, he is averaging 16.3 points per game. Having Eric Gordon as a second creator with Harden and as the lead guy with Harden on the bench has been huge, but adding a capable Gordon to both mixes takes this team offensively to a scary, scary level.

GAME 5 PREDICTION: Spurs 103, Rockets 101

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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