NBA Playoffs Preview: Rockets vs. Thunder
This is the one we've all been waiting for.
In the NBA playoffs, most first-round series are elementary. By design, the top half of each bracket is markedly stronger, and often, the first round can feel like a bit of a waste of time. Parity in the league (and particularly in the Eastern Conference) in recent years has livened things up a bit, but still, you're generally trying to pick a wild upset, as opposed to seeing a battle of best on best.
Occasionally though, the basketball gods look down on us and smile. They bless us with a first-round series so monumental that it makes everything that comes after feel a little less grand in scale. An up-and-coming team meets a real contender, or a team that's better than their record falls into the lower half of the bracket because of injury (but is healthy for the playoffs). That, or we're treated to a crazy comeback. Think the Bulls-Celtics series from 2009 or the Clippers-Rockets series from 2015.
This could be one such series.
Linked forever via their former status as teammates, and especially this season by an MVP debate for the ages, you could really cross off "Rockets" and "Thunder" and rename this thing what it's meant to be called: Harden versus Westbrook.
Championship Odds: 4.9%
Oklahoma City Thunder
Championship Odds: 0.8%
Regular Season Series - Rockets 3, Thunder 1
Houston took the season series, but there were some very close contests.
The Thunder narrowly took the opening game on November 16th, 105-103. Harden had one of his worst shooting performances of the season, going just 4 for 16 from the floor and managing only 13 points. He did contribute 13 assists as well, but it wasn't enough to stymie OKC, led by 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists from Westbrook. Victor Oladipo also put up 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in that contest.
On December 9th, the teams met again, and this time Houston eked out the victory, winning 102-99, even though Westbrook was more flame than man, putting up his seventh straight triple double, with 27 points and 10 rebounds and assists.
Harden shot poorly again, just 6 of 23 from the floor but still managed to help his team win, thanks to 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 12 assists while making, making 7 of 8 from the line.
On January 5th, the Rockets squeaked out a 118-116 victory, despite Westbrook going off for 49 points, while shooting 8 for 15 from three. In a rare turn of events, he managed just 8 rebounds and 5 assists to accompany his huge point total, while Harden turned in a 26-point, 12-assist, 8-rebound effort to lead his team to victory. He was 6 for 16 from the floor, a better effort than the previous two games but still less than ideal.
The final meeting between the teams was on March 26th, and it was the first large margin of victory. Houston cruised a 137-125 win, and the final score doesn't represent how much of a blowout this contest was.
How the Rockets Can Win
Houston just needs to keep doing what they've been doing all season long: riding Harden. If Harden and the Rockets can manage to shoot the ball the way they did during the regular season versus the Thunder, this series is going to be over fast.
Houston was just 15th in the NBA in three-point percentage this season, at 35.7%. However, they maximized that average number by attempting a league high (and NBA record) 40.3 three-pointers per game, 6.4 attempts higher than the second place Cleveland Cavaliers. Their 14.3 makes per game also led the league, as Moreyball took full flight.
Against Oklahoma City, the Rockets were even better, shooting an average of 15 for 40 from deep over their four meetings (37.5%). This number was buoyed by the final game, where Houston went 20 for 39 from beyond the arc, but given that that was the most recent meeting between these two teams, Houston has to feel pretty good about their season-long game plan working versus this particular opponent.
Rockets Player to Watch - Clint Capela
Beyond Harden, the key contributor for Houston will be Clint Capela. The Thunder just slightly out-rebounded (51% to 49%) the Rockets during their meetings this season, but Capela missed one of those games. In 22.3 minutes in the games he did play, Capela put up 12.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 62.5% shooting, with a 23.6% rebound percentage that easily led both teams.
Capela had a team-best net rating of 11.4 versus the Thunder, which is even more important when you consider that Montrezl Harrell and Ryan Anderson posted team-worst net ratings of -3.2 and -4.1 respectively, while Nene wasn't much better at a 0.8.
Capela has emerged as a legitimate two-way rim running big man this season, and this playoff series could expose him even more to a national audience.
How the Thunder Can Win
They'd need Westbrook to submit a performance for the ages, but even that might not be enough.
It's not hard to believe in a man who just averaged a triple-double for the entire season, but Westbrook threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Rockets this year. He averaged 36.3 points, 9.7 assists, and 9.0 rebounds against them and shot more efficiently than his season-long numbers by making 44% from the floor and 37.1% from three. He made 3.3 triples per game and added 1.7 steals. And the Thunder still lost three of their four games.
Some might say that Harden's wrist injury could be a key to the series, and if it's significant enough that he couldn't play at all, that's true. But as noted above, Harden shot just 16 for 55 in the first three meetings between these teams, and Houston still went 2-1. While Harden's scoring is important to the Rockets, it's his play-making that they'd miss the most if he went down.
To win, Westbrook might need to trust his teammates more so that he can get some help, but nothing we've seen this season suggests that's likely to happen.
Thunder Player to Watch - Enes Kanter
A guy he could look to is Enes Kanter, who was one of the few positive Thunder players against the Rockets this season. He averaged 18.5 minutes over the four games and had a team-leading 4.9 net rating.
Given the aforementioned struggles of every Rockets big not named Clint Capela, it might behoove the Thunder to try and get Kanter some more floor time during this series, especially given that Steven Adams was a -7.4 on the season.
Kanter also managed a team best 19.9% rebound percentage and combined that with a 62.5% effective field goal percentage and a 70.9% true shooting percentage, all numbers superior to Adams'. Adams is still the better all-around player, but Kanter matches up with the mobile Rockets better. I'd bet on his minutes increasing during the series.
If Harden is fully healthy, the Rockets might be the best threat to the Golden State Warriors in the West, just in terms of style of play. Westbrook is going to give Mike D'Antoni's team everything they can handle, but ultimately, it's hard to see it being enough.
It might be more fun if they suspended the MVP trophy over center court and turned the thing into a ladder match instead, but something tells me that's unlikely.
What is likely, according to our algorithm? A Rockets victory, and a quick one.
According to our algorithms: Rockets are 66.83% favorites.
My final prediction: Rockets in 6.