“For what might’ve been the most anticipating matchup featuring two of the NBA’s leading scorers, this certainly resulted as a series which ended far too soon…”
The Houston Rockets (4-1) will advance to the Western Conference Semifinals after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. Houston will face the San Antonio Spurs, which will be an even greater test for the second-highest scoring team in basketball.
And for sure, it wasn’t exactly “effortless” for Houston to defeat Oklahoma City. Even after blowing away the Thunder 118-87 in game one, the final four outcomes were decided by just six points or less.
For anyone who gave insight prior to this series, it wasn’t just a season-long rivalry between James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Two of the NBA’s leading candidates for the Most Valuable Player award, but also, an ongoing friendship for which has lasted for many years. There was no way that aspect alone would determine who wins.
The Thunder were simply outmatched by a Rockets team with more capable offensive weapons, and whether you have an MVP candidate on your roster or not, a supporting cast is what will elevate your chances of advancing. This series proved every facet of that.
However, even though the Rockets came out on top, it surely won’t define who wins the Most Valuable Player award. For an obvious reason, it’s due to it being the postseason, instead of the regular season.
But furthermore, I think the individual head-to-head matchup between Harden and Westbrook might tell the story of how close it really is.
- Harden: 33.2 points 6.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 3.6 personal fouls, and 5.6 turnovers — on 41% field-goal, 24% three-point, 90% free-throw, and an effective field-goal percentage of 56%
- Westbrook: 37.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 3.2 personal fouls, and 6.0 turnovers — on 39% field-goal, 26% three-point, 80% free-throw, and an effective field-goal percentage of 43%
While both players still managed to put up superstar across-the-board lines, each team threw their grittiest and most capable defenders at them, leading to such mediocre percentages. While Thunder swingman Andre Roberson was the only “true” primary defender on James, the Rockets were granted with both Trevor Ariza — and more notably Patrick Beverley — to contain Russell throughout the series.
As the Rockets will face the Spurs in the Semifinals, Harden will have a more difficult matchup against forward Kawhi Leonard. Unlike Westbrook, Leonard is certainly a different animal. While being another MVP candidate, Kawhi won’t have much of a problem having the opportunity to defend Harden for every chance he gets.
Surely enough, he will.
Therefore, prior to the series, the Rockets have some cleaning up to do (on both ends of the floor) if they’re to prevail in a seven-game series against the number-one defense in the association.
HOUSTON MUST IMPROVE THEIR OFFENSIVE CONSISTENCY.
All throughout the first-round, the Rockets had many of their key players struggling from the field. Credit to the Thunder for keeping up their defensive intensity, and going up against an even tougher defensive team, a la San Antonio — simply won’t help Houston’s case.
To support Harden, the Rockets were able to find great production from their two leading scorers off the bench. Lou Williams (18.8 PPG) and Eric Gordon (13.6 PPG) were the second-and-third leading scorers for the Rockets, as it was much needed.
Houston was also able to gather some great performances from fourteen-year veteran Nene, as he looked unstoppable in pick-and-roll sets with Harden, and was finding inside opportunites. A playoff career-high of 28 points (12-12 from the floor; tied for most FG without a miss in postseason history) and 10 rebounds, turned out to play a large role — in a critical game four victory in Oklahoma City. The Rockets must continue exploring more opportunities to keep getting Nene (as well as Clint Capela) involved, as they move further.
But in hindsight, Houston will simply need a much better series shooting the basketball. Especially from the three-point line.
***The Rockets currently have the LOWEST three-point shooting percentage amongst all sixteen teams (48-169; 28%) in the postseason***
And for one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA, the Rockets are where they are because of it. If there’s two struggling players who you could easily point-out, starting forwardsTrevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson might not be a terrible place to start.
Both Ariza and Anderson combined to shoot just 6-for-30 from the three-point line against Oklahoma City, which is simply inexcusable. They also averaged under double-figures while also shooting under 35% in round-one, can provide elite spacing at both forward spots. The Rockets’ chances of winning a seven game series against any remaining team immediately falls in jeopardy, if their top three-point options aren’t connecting on open looks.
Houston and San Antonio will kicking off next Monday, we should see a more consistent Rockets team. But with such a more difficult (and more experienced) opponent such as the Spurs, Houston’s odds of winning the series are doubtful.