There could not be a better match-up heading into the NBA Playoffs. Yes, it is the Houston Rockets facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. In reality, it feels as if the series will boil down to James Harden going toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook. Which MVP candidate gets the edge over the other to propel their team forward?
Houston found great success in the regular season, enough to lock up the number three seed out west. In doing so, they will have home court advantage throughout their duel with Oklahoma City. Home court advantage is crucial in this series as Houston has found much success at the Toyota Center, going 30-11. On the flip side, Oklahoma City has struggled on the road all season posting a 19-22 road record.
There is no doubt that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will dominate this series. It will be the supporting cast’s from both teams that will determine the outcome.
The Rockets roster is fully loaded with shooters, and they have no intention to hide their style of play. Leading the NBA regular season in three-pointers attempted (shooting 1,181 of them), expect to see Houston let it fly. Also, they have posted the second-highest scoring output throughout the NBA this season averaging 115.3 points per game.
For Oklahoma City, they will look to penetrate inside with slashers and get it into their bigs in the post. The Thunder have been able to get stellar performances from Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and rookie Domantas Sabonis down low. The combination of those three (and Russell Westbrook), have resulted in Oklahoma City leading the NBA in team rebounding this season (46.6 per game). Wing players such as Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo create the ability to cut towards the basket while offering high-percentage looks at the rim.
In the four games in which these opponents have faced one another in the regular season, the Rockets have been able to come out on top in three of them.
1. November 16th, 2016- Houston Rockets – 103 @ Oklahoma City Thunder – 105
2. December 9th, 2016- Hoston Rockets – 102 @ Oklahoma City Thunder – 99
3. January 5th, 2017- Oklahoma City Thunder – 116 @ Houston Rockets – 118
4. March 26, 2017- Oklahoma City Thunder – 137 @ Houston Rockets – 125
Furthermore, the Rockets added offensive firepower when they acquired Lou Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline. As a result, they obtained another ball-handler as well as a consistent shot-maker which has gone a long way in improving this Houston side. We all know they can score in bunches and rattle off points with the best of them, but can they keep that hot shooting going when it matters the most?
The Rockets have found the perfect marriage in Coach of the Year candidate Mike D’Antoni and their MVP candidate James Harden. By making Harden the primary ball-handler, he has been able to examine the defense and pick them apart with his uncanny ability to find his teammates. Harden increased his assist total from 7.5 assists per game the previous season to a league-high 11.5 assists per game. While surpassing a career-high in assists, he was also able to achieve career highs in both points (29.1) and rebounds (8.1). Similar to how D’Antoni ran his offense in Pheonix with Steve Nash, those same concepts are being made manifest with Harden in Houston.
Oklahoma City came into the season knowing they would not be among the West’s “elite” teams. However, they did know that Russell Westbrook was ready to unleash a ferocity for which the NBA has never seen. Due to Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City was expecting to see a regression in total wins. Billy Donovan is to be given a lot of credit for pulling this team together and allowing them to embrace the Russell Westbrook show. He and the team know they go as Westbrook goes, and they are fine with that. Consequently, Oklahoma City doesn’t scare teams from the perimeter (ranking 30th in three-point percentage at 32.7%). Rather, the Thunder would prefer to attack your interior and come at you that way.
Seeing as how Hoston has been able to go into Oklahoma City twice already this season and post 100 point performances in both, they do not appear to let being on the road affect their level of scoring output. If Houston can carry over their regular season success against Oklahoma City into the playoffs, expect to see the Rockets advancing to the Western Conference Semi-finals. However, if the Thunder can limit the Rockets offensive production coupled with high percentage looks on the offensive end, look for an Oklahoma City upset.
Buckle-up and get ready for ‘The Beard” versus “The Brodie”.