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Thunder's Loss To Houston A Blessing In Disguise

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Some call the Rockets' two-point win Monday night a fluke while others say the sky is falling.

The reality is, Oklahoma City's Game-4 loss in Houston is actually a blessing in disguise.

The Thunder has played the past two games without Russell Westbrook after depending on him for the previous 439. They're going through a crash course on how to run an offense without the most dependable floor general in the NBA.

RELATED: Thunder Falls Short In Houston

Think long-term for a minute.

Once OKC finally does away with Houston, the test run is over. The Thunder's next game will either be against the Clippers or Grizzlies; two well-oiled, talented teams that are tough and consistent.

Both the players and coaches could really use another 48 minutes to get some things sorted out.

Let's start with the good news.

Reggie Jackson has taken his new role and run with it. Getting the start in Game 3, Jackson played well in his 25 minutes. 3-6 shooting for 14 points and just three turnovers was an excellent effort for a guy with minimal big-game experience. Then he took it to another level Monday night, scoring 18 points in 36 minutes while committing only two turnovers. His efficiency wasn't great (7-18 shooting) but his aggressiveness was encouraging.

The Thunder needs him maintain that fearless mindset because there are only a few guys on the team that have 20+ point potential, and Jackson's one of them.

RELATED: Don't Stop Believing: Thunder Proves Season Far From Over

Another encouraging sign is Derek Fisher's shooting touch – the old man's still got it. After struggling through the regular season with OKC, he's regained that clutch touch he's known for under the playoffs' bright lights. Fisher is 8-13 from deep in this series; a huge boost as the Thunder scrambles to make up for the lost production of Westbrook.

More good news: how about Kevin Durant's willingness to put the team on his back without a second thought. KD has been sensational, dropping 41 and 14 in the Game 3 win, while shooting 12-16 for 38 more points in Game 4. He's not only proven he can handle the point-forward position while Jackson and Fisher sit, he's also shown he's fully capable of shouldering the scoring load for long stretches.

But there are two areas from which Oklahoma City can really use this extra game to benefit: on-court familiarity for the players and roster management for the coaches.

While Jackson and Fisher have played well, the rotation still has a new feel to it. There are just some things that take time. Knowing when guys are going to cut or where they like to catch the ball on a post-up; these are things that come with having played together.

From the coaching perspective, Brooks and his staff have some tough decisions to make in the rotation. For instance, take Kevin Martin. OKC's sixth man has been sensational during the first halves of the past two games, but completely invisible during the second halves. Is that his fault, or is there something Brooks can do about it?

In Game 3, Martin shot 3-5 for 12 points in the first half. Then, despite Kendrick Perkins' ineffectiveness, he had to wait until the four-minute mark of the third quarter to re-enter the game. He subbed in for Perkins and shot 0-6 the rest of the night.

In Game 4, Martin shot 4-9 in the first half for 14 points. Once again, Brooks elected to start Perkins in the second half and wait until the 5:41 mark to finally let Martin play. Martin only attempted two more shots the rest of the night.

Perkins finished Game 4 with zero points, four turnovers and -17 +/- in just nine minutes of play. With Westbrook out, Brooks may have to loosen his reliance on the regular rotation and let a hot-shooting Martin attempt to stay hot by starting him in the second half.

Then there's figuring out a role for DeAndre Liggins, who gave OKC an energetic 14 minutes off the bench in Game 4. Liggins isn't much of a scorer, but is a terrific defender and rebounds very well for his size. He's essentially the guard-version of Nick Collison. So how many minutes should he get, and which other guys does he fit with?

These are all questions that the Thunder coaches now have another 48 minutes in which to figure out the answers.

Another reason an extra game helps is to keep the team fresh. The Clippers/Grizzlies series is already guaranteed to go six games, and there's a darn good chance it's going seven. Had the Thunder swept Houston Monday night, odds are OKC would've had to wait at least an entire week before playing again. The last thing the shorthanded Thunder needs is a rusty performance against a talented, rested and confident team in Game 1 of the second round.

Game 5 in Oklahoma City will have the feel of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The animosity toward Patrick Beverly and James Harden is going to have Chesapeake Arena in a frenzy for the ages.

But while the atmosphere will be wild, Game 5 will go a long way to help settle the Thunder's lineup moving forward.

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