Game 1 of the opening round of the playoff series between the Thunder and Rockets is right around the corner. To get a fuller grasp on the competition, we turn to the great Rockets site, The Dream Shake, to exchange thoughts on where we think the series is headed. One of their writers, BD34, was kind enough to give us some great insight. Check it out!
Trey Hunter: Do you think Harden benefits from playing the Thunder himself?
The Dream Shake: I do think Harden benefits from playing the Thunder as his inaugural playoff series maybe only because it helps bring severance and closure. He's had the Rockets on his back for a full season and he got them to the playoffs. The entire way he's bonded with a new core here in Houston (Their pre-game rituals have created legendary .gifs over on The Dreamshake) and he'll be tackling his old running mates with his new group. Should the Rockets steal a game or two I think it will really make an impact on Harden. He left Oklahoma City arguably as the guy who got them to, and subsequently disappeared in, the NBA Finals last year so I think he's got some red in his ledger he wants to wipe clean (Yes, an Avengers reference, I don't care) with a win. The flip side of the coin is that if the Thunder really stifle his production (Which in three games against Harden averages 29p/3r/4a against) I could see some confidence lost but if he didn't lose swagger off his Finals performance into this season, I can't see it lingering long term.
Trey: Could Harden translate those benefits into better team play for the Rockets?
TDS: In my series preview over on the Dreamshake I took a look at shot charts and how the Rockets play generally against the Thunder. The Rockets biggest problem playing the Thunder is intimidation. It's sad but the charts reveal that the Rockets settle right into the mid range game when Harden is on the floor and they fail to attack the rim as hard as they should. The same goes for when Lin's on the court. If Harden can play fearless and take it to that interior defense of Ibaka and Perkins then I think the team will play better. Lin needs to get aggressive attacking the rim as my analysis made him the biggest offender on the issue of aggression. Omer Asik is key to attacking the paint as the Rockets actually take and convert a higher percentage at the rim when he's the focal point (Oddly, eh? The guy is not offensively gifted but he's our safety blanket when we attack). I really don't see a way in which any benefit to Harden will substantially benefit the team simply because the Thunder have blown us out twice with Harden posting a solid game. The only benefit that could see the team improve is if failing to turn the ball over was contagious and I'm not sure it is with this young Rockets team and the way the Thunder scheme defensively against us.
Trey: What do you think Houston has to do to make the series more competitive than four or five games?
TDS: If I'm honest I think aside from intentionally injuring Durant and Westbrook, that's a tall order. Schematically if the Rockets pressure Russell Westbrook off the line and play Durant like they usually do you'll see that margin of victory the Thunder hold over the Rockets shrink from 16 to something like 8 or so, I believe. That says a lot for how hot the Thunder get when the entire Rockets defensive strategy is tailored around Kevin Durant (Who can blame them?). It just so happens that Westbrook excels at punishing Houston and the Rockets are hesitant to take it to the rack against Ibaka and Perkins. If Chandler Parsons goes iron man this series and sticks to Kevin Durant like glue that shooting percentage of Kevin's plummets down to about 31% but Chandler's offense doesn't get to shine, sort of cuts the nose to spite the face. This Rockets team is an eager bunch that wanted a tough match up in the playoffs and they got it. If they capitalize on the opportunity with aggression at the rim and fighting over screens I think you'll see five games. If we're lucky you'll see six.
TDS: Thunder in five. This is a team that was rebuild over the offseason and got a franchise player on the eve of the season. The fact that they're even in a position to potentially win a playoff game is a testament to the GM and coaching staff for their work.
Many thanks to The Dream Shake, who continue to do outstanding coverage of the Rockets' path to the playoffs.