Well, it’s finally here.
For months, fans and analysts alike have debated a hotly contested MVP race led by this series’ two biggest stars: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Now facing off in the first round of the playoffs, the two superstars will look to extend their historically great seasons for a few more weeks. While the regular season saw the third-seeded Houston Rockets take three of four games from the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’d be nearly impossible to count out Westbrook and his never-say-die attitude. The pair of former teammates could combine for a double-digit triple-double total, but this series will swing on the contrasting styles of play around them.
#3 — Houston Rockets
In one corner, there’s James Harden, the inventive left-handed assassin that’s a threat from every spot on the court. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Westbrook’s tidy triple-double count, Harden still managed to stuff the box score all season, averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a staggering 11.2 assists per contest, a league-high. Sporting a record of 55-27, however, it’s hard to pin the Rockets’ success on just Harden’s MVP-worthy campaign. Firing with reckless abandon alongside Harden are Sixth Man of the Year candidates Eric Gordon and Louis Williams, the perennially great sharpshooter Ryan Anderson and the defensively stout Patrick Beverley.
Orchestrated by Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets surrounded Harden with some of the league’s most lethal shooters after letting Dwight Howard walk in unrestricted free agency last summer. Almost immediately, the previously underwhelming roster blossomed. Under D’Antoni, the Rockets have embraced their long range inclinations and attempted an otherworldly 40.3 three-pointers a game, an NBA record, en route to becoming one of the best offenses in league history.
In fact, the Rockets led the league with 14.1 three-pointers made per game, a mark that blows the Thunder’s 26th-ranked average of 8.4 out of the water. Should Houston take care of business from deep, that alone may bury the lower-seeded team in this series.
And yet, for all that scoring firepower, the defense was often an entirely different story. Middling at best, the Rockets’ defensive rating came in at 106.4, good for 18th in the NBA and even with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. For a team that has championship aspirations, their defensive shortcomings should certainly be a cause for concern.
But first, a Westbrook-sized obstacle lies ahead of the Rockets. This is a defensive assignment that’ll fall squarely on the shoulders of Beverley, a tough-nosed guard willing step up to the Thunder’s out-of-this-world floor general.
For the Rockets, their gameplan should be simple enough: let Westbrook get his. It sounds silly, perhaps, but even during some of Westbrook’s most heroic regular season performances, he couldn’t always pull it off against some of the league’s elite franchises. Of Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles, nine of them came in a loss. So, if Houston takes care of business from behind the arc, the Rockets will only need to outlast Westbrook, not drive a wooden stake through his heart.
#6 — Oklahoma City Thunder
For the Oklahoma City Thunder and the enigmatic Westbrook, the plan is far simpler: get Russell the ball and get out of the way. From game-winning buzzer-beaters to legendary triple-doubles, Westbrook has undeniably achieved one of the best individual seasons in NBA history. Usually overpowered and outgunned, the Thunder often needed every point, rebound and assist from Westbrook to stay within striking range on most nights.
In return, of course, Westbrook averaged the first triple-double in league history since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson did in 1961-62.
After Kevin Durant’s unceremonious departure last summer, a new ruthless Westbrook emerged from the ashes of a broken-hearted franchise to lead the Thunder to a better-than-anticipated 47-35 record. Without the services of long-time shot-blocking stalwart Serge Ibaka, the Thunder relied on the talents of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo to buoy Westbrook’s one-of-a-kind efforts — something that often ran in hot and cold streaks.
Jumpstarted by the trade deadline acquisitions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott from the Chicago Bulls, the Thunder finished the season 14-10 and should feel confident heading into the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. If Westbrook’s unmovable mass can help the Thunder steal a game on the road, all bets are off in what should be one of the playoffs’ highest scoring series.
Similarly to Beverley, the Thunder have a defensive answer for Harden and his name is Andre Roberson, a legitimate candidate to be selected to his first-ever All-Defensive team this awards season. Roberson is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and if he can impact some of Harden’s fluid effortlessness, the series has potential to go down as a classic.
Elsewhere, the banging bodies of Adams and Kanter will need to take advantage of their opportunities against Clint Capela, Nene and Anderson in the paint, but most of the Thunder defenders will also struggle to chase the latter around the arc — setting up nicely for a clash of opposing frontcourt strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the Thunder will need a major sidekick to step up consistently throughout the series if they want a chance of upsetting one of the league’s elite offenses — we’re looking at you, Oladipo.
Who Wins Game 1?
Although the Thunder certainly have the ability to cause a disruptive series, it won’t be on Sunday. With the aforementioned Anderson finally back in the swing of things after missing six games toward the end of the regular season, the Rockets’ second-highest paid player could be a difference maker in Game 1. As exhibited throughout the season, it’s tough to bet against Westbrook in these high-intensity moments, but the series will still swing on the help he receives and Roberson’s cagey defense on Harden.
The two superstars will both notch triple-doubles, but the discrepancy in the three-point shooting may be too much to overcome on the road for Oklahoma City. Look for the Rockets to capitalize on their homecourt advantage in an emotional (and tight) series opener.
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