You couldn't have scripted a better first round matchup. Mere months after he betrayed the Thunder and landed a payday in Houston, James Harden will be leading his rag tag bunch of Rockets into a stupendous battle with the Thunder.
Unfortunately for Houston, if history tells us anything, it's that this series will be quite short. The season matchup between these two teams involved three games. Two of them were unrelenting blowouts in which the Rockets were pretty much out of the game by the early fourth. The third was a Rocket win, but it took a Kendrick Perkins injury and a 12 point comeback late in the game.
That shouldn't immediately discount the Rockets, who have seen players come and go rapidly throughout the season. But they have maintained the same basic strategy through it all, and the Thunder can expose its' many holes. Read on for an analysis of every matchup, keys to a Thunder series victory, the complete series schedule, and a prediction.
|Omer Asik||Kendrick Perkins|
|"Asik and Destroy"||"Yung Hawg"|
|10.1 Pts, 11.7 Reb, 0.9 Ast, 1.1 Blk||4.2 Pts, 6.0 Reb, 1.4 Ast, 1.1 Blk|
Before you discount this matchup as irrelevant, it's important to note that Kendrick Perkins was injured during the only game that the Thunder lost to the Rockets this season. Moreover, one of the overarching reasons the Thunder lost that game was their loss of the rebounding battle. Perk doesn't provide a lot of boards on his own, mostly because he doesn't box out very well and tends to focus on defense. But he is definitely a factor in keeping the opposition off the boards, which will be extremely important in this series. When the Thunder are playing without Perkins, they generally start Thabeet at center, but he's only given token minutes at best. This results in them rolling out small lineups more often, thus leaving them more suseptible in the rebounding battle. But, in any case, the Rockets have the clear advantage here. Asik is a more skilled big, excelling at the pick and roll game and relishing in the pressure that Oklahoma City will put on Harden and Lin. He'll almost certainly get better stats than Perk, but how good Perk is in limiting Asik will determine who truly wins this matchup.
|Greg Smith||Serge Ibaka|
|6.0 Pts, 62% FG 4.6 Reb, 0.6 Blk||13.2 Pts, 7.7 Reb, 2.8 O-Reb, 3.0 Blk|
This matchup would normally have been a huge advantage for the Rockets. Obviously, Serge Ibaka is more talented than anybody they have at that position. But the Rockets were able to limit Ibaka in past matchups by putting an undersized forward on him. The forward would be quick enough to stay with Ibaka on the perimeter, limiting his mid-range shot and increasing the pace of the game. Offensively, the forward would be able to sneak away from the post-oriented Ibaka for some easy baskets. Fortunately for the Thunder, the Rockets are now playing Greg Smith at power forward. Smith is a fine player generally, having emerged as an undrafted diamond in the rough for Houston this season. But he's totally post-oriented, rarely shooting outside of the paint. As a back-to-the-basket player, he won't see a lot of success against the more athletic Ibaka offensively, and he likely won't have the foot speed to stop Ibaka defensively. It's all just speculation without Smith and Ibaka having played against each other at all, but if Houston does slide Parsons over to power forward, then go ahead and expect Ibaka to be limited at best.
|Chandler Parsons||Kevin Durant|
|15.5 Pts, 5.3 Reb, 3.5 Ast, 1.0 Stl||28.1 Pts, 7.9 Reb, 4.6 Ast, 1.3 Blk|
This battle is, perhaps, the most interesting to casual fans of the game. Both Parsons and Durant are long, athletic scorers who have excellent mid-range shooting ability. Both of them are guaranteed to light up the scoreboard every single night. But there's more defense in this battle than you might think. Both of the times Parsons has matched up with Durant this season, he's been able to limit him to under 50% shooting. Part of this is due to the fact that Parsons is just as big and just as mobile as Durant, which is the only recipe for truly challenging his shot. Another part is his excellent positioning, forcing Durant out of the post and onto the perimeter. In any case, Durant is still the better player. He almost always finds a way to keep his offense chugging along, while Parsons can have bad nights due to his limited ability to create for himself.
|James Harden||Thabo Sefolosha|
|25.9 Pts, 4.9 Reb, 5.8 Ast, 1.8 Stl||7.6 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 1.5 Ast, 1.3 Stl|
Everyone has their eyes on this matchup, and rightfully so. James Harden is THE key to getting the Houston offense going, and he struggles mightily against Oklahoma City. A lot of his plays are isolations or simple two man sets, so it's easy for pressure happy Oklahoma City to trap him in a corner and force a turnover or bad shot. However, he did have one very successful game against the Thunder. In that contest, he hit a ridiculous amount of threes against Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha is a bigger shooting guard, so he generally excels at guarding the drive rather than the shot. Harden's excellent shooting led to Oklahoma City concentrate on perimeter defense, letting him grab some easy buckets in the paint later in the game. Still, I don't think Harden will have that measure of consistent success against the Thunder. He simply has no go-to plays against their defense. Meanwhile, Sefolosha will likely exceed his averages against the Rockets, because he'll relish in the amount of pressure that's normally put on Durant and Westbrook. So even though Harden is the better player, I'm going to have to give the advantage to the Thunder.
|Jeremy Lin||Russell Westbrook|
|13.4 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 6.1 Ast, 1.6 Stl||23.2 Pts, 5.3 Reb, 7.4 Ast, 1.8 Stl|
Russell Westbrook is probably the only player who has seen a consistent level of success against the Rockets. He can run the floor extremely well and excels in the transition game, so there's that. But Jeremy Lin can also easily get trapped behind screens, so Westbrook can usually take advantage of that and get to the paint for an easy layup or foul. The only real flaw with Westbrook's game against the Rockets is his tendency to succumb to pressure and fall asleep on defense. He can pass out of pressure pretty well, but he often bites off more than he can chew in the paint, getting the ball stolen. Defensively he's adequate when he's on point, but he has a bad reputation for torpedoing himself into stands on offensive plays, arguing about calls, or lazily running back. Lin, as a smart player, takes advantage of this as much as possible. He's also exceptional at trapping Westbrook behind screens and getting open shots. However, despite his penchant for getting open, he doesn't hit as many shot as he should. He also gets clobbered in the post, and works off-ball far more than a point guard should. Don't get me wrong, he can have alright games, and his performance is generally a good indicator of how the Rockets are doing. Still, he's not nearly as consistent as Westbrook, so the Thunder have the advantage. (For the record, I'm still amazed that I just classified Russell Westbrook as "consistent.")
|Terrence Jones||Nick Collison|
|5.5 Pts, 3.4 Reb, 0.8 Ast, 1.0 Blk||5.1 Pts, 59% FG, 4.1 Reb, 1.5 Ast|
Terrence Jones is probably the biggest mystery in this matchup, because he's never really played against the Thunder. He only emerged as a viable option for the Rockets in the last 8 games of the season, despite having been drafted 18th by the Rockets last Summer. Jones did an admirable job replacing Donatas Motiejunas, who was really inconsistent and struggled to rebound. Ironically, the last 8 games of the season saw the Rockets struggle, but Jones definitely wasn't the reason behind that. He's a more consistent scorer and reliable rebounder than Motiejunas ever was. Furthermore, he's competent at running the transition game and can isolate against players down low. He's also an asset defensively, showing the ability to guard those much bigger than he. On the flip side, Collison will need to make sure that Jones doesn't become an X-Factor off of the bench. Collison is a pretty good defender, so I wouldn't worry too much. His only weakness is against players who can shoot, and Jones can't really hit consistently outside of 12 feet. Nevertheless, this matchup definitely goes to the Rockets.
|Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia||Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher|
|"Cabeza", "Flaco"||"K-Mart", "Old Faithful"|
|CD: 10.6 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 2.0 Ast
FG: 5.5 Pts, 38% 3PT, 1.6 Reb, 1.1 Ast
|KM: 14.0 Pts, 43% 3PT, 2.3 Reb, 1.4 Ast
DF: 5.3 Pts, 93% FT, 1.1 Reb, 1.4 Ast
The Thunder have a big defensive weakness when it comes to their bench wings, and could be dismantled if the other team had an athletic player to break them down. Fortunately, the Rockets don't harbor a player like that. Both Delfino and Garcia mostly function as shooters for the ballhandlers to pass to. Delfino's a decent ball handler himself, but he's not a real assist threat. Garcia is probably a better shooter than Delfino, and will make the Thunder pay if they leave him open. On the other side of the coin, Kevin Martin is a dynamic scorer who should have no problem lighting up Houston's backup defense, as long as he's set up properly. Fisher, on the other hand, has had an atrocious regular season. He did have an exceptional playoff performance last year though, and could provide some clutch shooting, gutsy defensive plays, and decent ball movement. Unfortunately, his defense and shooting are so far gone that it's hard to know if he can still be effective. Still, because of the power of Kevin Martin and the Rockets general ineffectiveness, the advantage goes to the Thunder.
Backup Point Guards:
|Patrick Beverley||Reggie Jackson|
|5.6 Pts, 2.7 Reb, 2.9 Ast, 0.9 Stl||5.3 Pts, 2.4 Reb, 1.7 Ast|
Patrick Beverley was yet another diamond in the rough find for Rockets GM Daryl Morey. After spending many years in European leagues, he finally joined the NBA at the beginning of this year. Just released from Spartak St. Petersburg, he was probably intended to be a third string developing point guard. Yet he ended up impressing the team so much that he almost immediately replaced Aaron Brooks as the backup point guard option. He's got an excellent ability to make decisions on the fly, and is perfect for setting up the Rockets' array of shooters. Scoring-wise, he's helped out a lot by his quickness and hustle, but he's not an excellent pure shooter, and he's too small to be a factor in the paint. Reggie Jackson isn't as experienced as Beverley, but his future is similarly bright. He's a lot better at getting into the post, and he can hit an array of floaters. His three point shooting and ability to distribute definitely need work, but his scoring ability may be the key on a weak Thunder bench. Nevertheless, the advantage goes to the Rockets.
Bottom of the Bench:
|Donatas Motejunas, Thomas Robinson, Aaron Brooks, James Anderson||Hasheem Thabeet, Ronnie Brewer, Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins|
|"Donce", "T-Rob", "AB", "Humble James"||"Hasheem the Dream", "Corey Brewer", "Didn't That Guy Go to Bishop McGuinness?" "The Big Ticket"|
NOTE: It's not known who OKC will choose for their final playoff roster, with several of the players having been in and out of the D-League. However, it's a safe bet that both Thabeet and Brewer will make the roster, with the final two spots being up in the air. I went with Orton and Liggins, because of experience.
None of these players will get regular minutes, but quite a few of them could see spot minutes here or there, and turn the tide of a game. Donatas Montejunas fell out of favor at the end of the season, but he'll be used in situations where size is a factor. Thomas Robinson and James Anderson are auxiliary swingmen, potentially used if the Rockets want to go small and jack up shots. Their percentages are poor though, so they probably won't see time ahead of Delfino or Garcia. Aaron Brooks won't see time unless Lin or Beverley are injured, but he could be a huge factor is his old talent is still there. The Thunder use their bench much less regularly, but Brewer and Liggins are the most likely to see time in this series, as a lock down defender on a Rocket who happens to be giving the Thunder trouble. Thabeet could see time as well, if Brooks wants to go big. Orton, Lamb, and Jones will probably never see the floor, barring injury or a blowout. All in all, the Rockets have the stronger bench, because of experience and regular minutes seen during the regular season.
|Kevin McHale||Scott Brooks|
Reg. Season: 118-124
Reg. Season: 234-147
1 Western Conference Championship
Kevin McHale is a coach who hasn't ever been to the playoffs, so there's that. But he's done an excellent job of incorporating new players into his lineup, and his team has generally improved since Day 1 of this season. Scott Brooks is a steady coach who has seen his team benefit from rock solid lineups and traditional roles. Brooks isn't likely to change his lineup, but Kevin McHale doesn't really have the tools to exploit or go toe-to-toe with the Thunder. So the advantage goes to Brooks.
Keys to the Series:
1. Contain James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
This is, by far, the most important thing the Thunder can do if they want to end this series. The Rockets are full of scorers, but they've proven they can't make up for poor performance from their stars. This is especially true when the Thunder offense is firing on all cylinders. Harden is an isolation-heavy player, relying on his good court vision, ability to hit tough shots, and efficient scoring spots to get him through tough spots. Lin, on the other hand, loves to run around the court and find open spots while working off the ball. They key to shutting them both down is massive pressure. This doesn't necessarily mean forcing turnovers, but it does mean frustrating them enough to give the ball up or take bad shots. It also means crowding the paint, because neither of them are physical enough to plow their way through every time. As long as the Thunder can accomplish that, the hit they'll take from the bad perimeter defense they'll incur will be minimal.
2. Diversify Your Offense, Don't Let Houston Leave the Weak Side
The Thunder gave up a 12 point lead late in the fourth when they last played the Rockets. Here's Why: Their offense sucked. All they did was isolate Durant on one side or let Westbrook recklessly drive the ball into the paint. This allowed Houston to load up one side of the floor and force the dynamic duo into some terrible shots. Meanwhile, guys like Thabo Sefolosha, who had 28 Points on the night, were totally ignored. The Rockets will try to trap you, and try to make you isolate. As long as the Thunder can shift the ball around to different players, the offense will come.
3. Keep Serge Ibaka Involved.
Serge really struggled during his first two encounters with the Rockets, scoring well below his averages. He was limited by the transition game and smaller defenders that he had to deal with, only finding success when the Rockets finally put a bigger, slower defender on him. The Thunder should keep running the transition game for sure, but with the Rockets now starting Greg Smith, they should really look to get Ibaka involved while they're in a half-court set.
4. Stay Awake on Transition D.
This one's simple. The Rockets love to catch teams napping. They'll make really gutsy outlet passes up the floor, and aren't afraid to pull up for a three while you're protecting the paint. In order to counter this, the Thunder need to stay on their toes and make sure to pick up their assignment when running down the floor.
5. Keep Dominant on the Boards.
The Thunder dominated the Rockets on the boards during the first two regular season contests, but were nearly equaled in the third game and lost. This is mostly because Kendrick Perkins was out with injury, but the Thunder need to stay vigilant nonetheless. They can weather a bad offensive night as long as they play a big lineup and win the possession game. The Rockets don't shoot nearly well enough to overcome that most nights.
The Thunder win in 4. The Rockets are a fine team, and they're only getting better. But with all of the rapid change in their roster, they're still getting adjusted to new personnel. Moreover, they simply weren't built to beat the Thunder. Harden and Lin are nice players on their own, but neither are athletic enough to beat their matchups, and the Rockets don't move the ball enough to overcome the Thunder's pressure. Plus, there's the fact that they struggle on the boards, which will really kill you against the Thunder. They've beaten OKC before and I can see them putting together a win under the right circumstances. But, it would really take a sublime offensive performance to do so, and I don't think the team is playing at that level right now.
How do you think the series will go? Vote in the poll, post a comment!