We’re less than 48 hours away from the Thunder’s opening round vs the Houston Rockets. While the Thunder are certain underdogs against the 3rd seeded team featuring MVP candidate James Harden, we can’t help but ask, does OKC, led by their own MVP candidate in Russell Westbrook, have a chance?
WTLC’s writers R.K. Anthony, Chris Hanneke, Bobby “Last Chance” Chancellor, Joshua Broom, and J.A. Sherman decide to verbally fight in the shade to see what OKC’s chances really are in the season of the Westbrook.
1. The Rockets won the regular season series, 3-1. To what degree is that a predictor of this series, and how will these games play out in comparison?
Bobby: I don't think the regular season games are a predictor at all, but they are very informative. When games are decided by a single possession, it often falls to variance to decide the winner (see Jerami Grant's game-saving block that got miss-called as a foul, allowing Nene to shoot the go-ahead FTs). Additionally, we should see some rotational changes. Semaj Christon likely won't average 14 minutes a game against them in the playoffs.
However, the regular season games did show us some key statistics that could decide this series. If Houston shoots 76% on contested shots, I don't see the series lasting long. If Andre Roberson is in first-half foul trouble, we aren't likely to win the game. And if Houston can run freely in the PnR game, the point totals are going to get ugly.
Chris: It’s hard to look back to any previous years because, well, let’s just say the team is different these days. But I remember going into the Western Conference Finals last year with OKC having lost all four games to the Warriors and looking like they had no conceivable way of stopping the juggernaut.
Then, they outplayed them for the better part of six games and were it not for an out-of-body experience by Klay Thomspon in Game 6, would have won the series.
OKC was competitive with the Rockets in the first three games this season (winning the 1st), and even in the blowout loss was really only undone by a poor stretch where Russ was on the bench. The Rockets rely heavily on their shooting, and they’re really really good at it, but there’s a chance OKC finds that playoff gear under Donovan – now in his second playoffs – and shots don’t fall for Houston, and that's all it would take for this thing to be relatively even.
All of that is to say, I wouldn’t read into the regular season contests any further than “OKC can hang with the Rockets.”
Sherman: I’m sure that most Rockets fans will look back to the last game between the two teams as the definitive answer to this question, but I think the first three games are a closer approximation to what we might see. The Rockets are better, no doubt, and by a significant degree. As much as like we like to wax poetic about things like unfulfilled potential that then manifests, the truth is closer to NFL coach Bill Parcels’ mantra - “you are what you are.” And through 82 games, the Rockets are better at closing out teams by a 3-1 margin as compared to the Thunder.
But that’s ok. It isn’t something to be afraid of, just aware of. What OKC needs to remember is that in 3 of those games, they were a small competitive advantage away from winning 2 more of them. Tip those scales, absorb the inevitable blowout loss that will come (my guess is in game 1), and then weigh the balance.
R.K. : I have never felt that last season’s run in the playoffs was an accident or an anomaly. I think it was carefully scripted from the day camp began until the final day of the regular season and when the playoffs began, Donovan took everything learned to that point and put his best team on the floor and took on all comers.
I think that same strategy is about to play out this weekend. Obviously, without Durant and Ibaka, this is a very different team than the one Donovan went to war with last season but I think Billy knows what this team is capable of, have a solid game plan, and put it in their hands to go out and execute. Whether this young team is capable of maintaining their composure and doing that through a seven game series is yet to be seen.
Donovan has tinkered with line-ups and rotations this season just like last year and now its time to put that data to good use. Simplify the schemes, tighten up, and go to work.
Obviously something that will be very very different (pardon the Donovan turn of phrase) will be the rotation. When the Thunder played Houston on March 26th, eleven players saw playing time. That will probably decrease to 9 but other than the obvious list of characters, the last 2 spots may be a surprise.
Broom: Given the nature of the teams' latest encounter —which of their four 16-17’ meetings provides an optimal reflection of each squads' “extremes”— and with victory just escaping OKC in two of the remaining three contests, I'd state that Oklahoma City is up against it.
However, this battle isn't quite David vs. Goliath. Though, as seeding indicates, OKC has scant margin for error.
Houston can afford two subpar performances; OKC cannot. Therefore, an Oklahoma City series win would equate to a mediocre upset.
The next week will determine if Russ can sustain his historic output over a legitimately difficult post-season matchup.
2. How will Russ vs Harden fare? And on a scale of 1-10, how sick are you of the MVP debate at this point, and to what degree does it matter in the grand scheme?
Russ vs Houston - 36 pts on 45-37-80 splits, 9 ast to 6 tov.
Harden vs OKC - 20.5 pts on 34-23-79 splits. 12 ast to 6 tov.
Beverly, for his reputation on defense, hasn't ever been able to defend Westbrook well with any consistency. Even in the game when his dirty play injured Russ' knee, Russ still owned him in the second half on one leg. I'm taking OKC to win the MVP matchup here.
I'm tired of the MVP debate, but mostly because it has brought out the worst in people. Trying to diminish what players have done because it doesn't fit your narrative is ridiculous. Acknowledge greatness, don't try to bring it down. Put me at an 8.
Chris: It’s obviously the big storyline and rightfully so. No two players did more for their teams this year and – surprise – they’re the two top MVP candidates. Andre Roberson has always proven to be as good as anybody in the league at defending Harden, and this is a great chance for him to showcase those abilities on the grandest stage.
For Russ, even though I’d never argue that he was hunting stats simply for the sake of hunting stats, it will be interesting to see if he plays a little more responsibly now that the triple doubles aren't a factor. He’s always been driven by his will to win more than anything, and when you strip away the stats element, he could reach a different level of superstar play that could at least more approach that “efficient” model that has worked so well for Harden and the Rockets all year.
As for the MVP debate, I could lie and say I’m sick of it, but the truth is I check Twitter constantly to see what the latest storylines are surrounding the two. And I’d absolutely love it if Russ treated this series as a preemptive statement to anyone that didn’t vote for him, just so it’s super awkward in two months when the votes are released and he potentially beat Harden and – gasp – Kawhi in back-to-back series. We can dream, right?
Sherman: The funny thing about the “Harden is more efficient!” argument is that, while it may be true in the general sense, it definitely isn’t when it comes to playing the Thunder. He’s only had a couple games where you could say he played at an All-Star level. Generally speaking, OKC tends to defend him pretty well, but get undone when the Rockets go full spread and victimize OKC’s bad 3-point defense. Meanwhile, Russ does what he does.
Which is not to say that the Rockets are easier to shut down. With Houston this year, you’re trying to slow down an offensive system. With the Thunder, you’re trying to slow down Westbrook. The two are not the same. But then again...which one is easier said than done?
But even as Westbrook and Harden are the centerpieces and hold all the intrigue, I’m so done with this MVP debate with a score of 11 on the 1-10 scale. Even in the aftermath of #35, it is the one thing that has tainted what has been a breathtaking closure to this silly season. And most of all, I hate how the debate has somehow become a zero-sum game. as to argue that whatever what one’s pick might be, that the only way to validate it is by tearing down all the others. I was hoping we were a little more enlightened than such binary thinking.
R.K. : In the first 3 match-ups, Harden shot 29%, 16 of 55, then broke out in game 4 and shot 53%. Overall he shot 34%, 8% under his season average. Westbrook shot 45%, 46 of 103 in all 4 games, 2% above his season average. In assists however, Harden averaged 12.3 assists while Russell averaged just 9.3. Turnovers were virtually identical. Harden commited one more than Westbrook in the 3rd game but the other 3 were mirror images of one another, 6-6, 8-8, 5-5.
This series could come down to two things. Can Robes get his wheels back and shut Harden down like he did in the first three regular season meetings and can Russ win the assist battle. If Russ can stay within 1 assist of the bearded one, thats 4 to 6 points the Thunder pick up and had the Thunder done that in the regular season, this series could be 3 to 1 Thunder and not the other way around.
On the MVP question.... really?!? After a 5 part 6000+ word monolithic write-up on the subject? I’m all in, 150%. I guess you would have to have lived in this town before MAPS to understand where I am coming from, but Westbrook winning the MVP, considering the events of the past 9 months, would be 5 times bigger than Durant’s win. Doing something historic is one thing, but doing it in the face of so much adversity is heroic and deserves the award. (Not to mention I think it would be a hell of a selling point to potential free agents this summer.)
Broom: Three. I’m not saying the MVP narrative is irrelevant, I’m saying that it is a minimal distraction from what this series is ultimately about, what every other contest is about, winning.
3. OKC comes into this series with a lot of if's...what are your biggest 'if,' and what happens if it comes true?
Bobby: If OKC can defend the initial PnR action, this is going to be a long series. If they can't, it's over in 5. A lot of the problems here happen with the help being late rotating. Help defenders need to be prompt and decisive. Don't give the Rockets multiple ways to beat you.
Chris: If Andre Roberson contains Harden the way he has in the past, this could be over more quickly than we expect. On the other side of the coin, if there’s a game where the refs pick on him early and he gets in foul trouble, OKC could be in real trouble.
Basically, if Roberson is on the floor and defending without fouling (no need to get mad at the refs just yet), OKC could pull off the upset.
Sherman: IF the Thunder recognize where their size advantages are, they can win. The Rockets are pretty good at trapping the ball high and not allowing an offense to get engaged. But even in the latest blowout, we saw that once OKC got past the first line of defense, Houston’s interior is vulnerable.
Here’s the problem - OKC and their fearless PG are not the most patient bunch. Westbrook wants to attack-attack-attack, and while that works against defenses that don’t have time to prepare, the Rockets have shown that they can game plan against Westbrook’s attack. He will produce offense for himself, but they were able to take away the secondary options.
R.K. - My biggest “if” is also the biggest man on the roster. Steven Adams. The Thunder can’t win with a soft Adams on the court. Heck, they can’t win if he is soft even part-time. The Thunder need the fully engaged, 48 minute man-imal we all know Adams is capable of being and hasn’t been, especially in the latter stages of the season. I don’t know if it will take Darko Rajakovic elbowing the Funaki in the solar plexus in the middle of practice and telling him to go shoot free throws or what, but the Thunder need the beast from down under in order to succeed in this series and any going forward if they get past the Rockets. As much as the Thunder rely on Westbrook, they need my man Steven Adams stepping up and dominating the paint almost as much.
My next “if”. Robes’ knee. I don’t care what the naysayers think, the Thunder count on Andre Roberson containing the oppositions best scoring threat. The Thunder are going up against a Rockets team that shoots three pointers in record numbers so it is imperitive the Thunder’s perimeter defense not falter and Robes sets the mark.
Number 3 “if”. Patrick Beverly. Russ cannot let Beverly get into his head with the 3 or 4 little dirties he will pull each game.
If Robes is healthy and Adams can regain his 2015/16 playoff form, the Thunder have a shot. Those two are capable of making momentum changing defensive plays that the young guys can feed off of when their shots aren’t falling. The Thunder have a lot of regulars that have never tasted playoff basketball and they will need a defensive rock, or rocks, to lean on from time to time. When things get rough, and they will, Russ has to be there to help get them back on track by staying locked in from the opening tip until the final whistle every night.... but then, it’s been that way all season, so he’s ready.
Broom: I’ll chase R.K.’s sentiment and state that Steven Adams must out-perform Clint Capela, and every Houston big generally, for OKC to advance.
This bit from a recent playoff-roundtable in which I participated best sums my answer to this question:
“In a fairly undeniable observation, one of Morey's finest recent decisions was letting Howard walk in favor of developing Capela. There is a certain beauty in the Capela/Harden high pNr set.
With that said, I think Oklahoma City is in trouble if Steven Adams fails to emerge from his recent decline -- last 11 games, 48/48 FG/FT%, 8.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg.
Curiously, Adams' once staid bravado has been replaced with apathy as well as a deficiency in pick-and-roll coverage.
Against Houston and Capela, Adams must return to mid-season form, or things could quickly turn in Houston's favor.”
4. Do you trust Billy Donovan in this series?
Bobby: I'm reserving judgment here. If I see McDermott and Abrines playing together, no. If I see Semaj at all, no. If he plays the starters 40+ minutes a night, then yeah, I can get behind that.
Chris: If I see that lineup where he leaves Christon in to play off the ball with Westbrook in the 4th quarter, then I will have my concerns. If I see that smallball Russ/Oladipo/Roberson/Grant/Gibson lineup in the 4th quarter? I ‘ll feel a lot better. Stay tuned.
Sherman: Intellectually, no. I’m still not sure he developed any semblance of an offensive system this year outside of a very football-esque “Russ run right, Russ run left, Russ run up the middle” style of play.
Emotionally though? As much as my brain wants me to, I can’t dismiss what I saw last year in the playoffs where OKC went from an underwhelming regular season team with a mediocre #35 to a wrecking ball of a squad that also featured a mediocre #35.
I hate the fact that this is the hope that I cling to, but there it is, and it’s all I got.
R.K. - 2015/16, yes, I trust him. A better question would be do I trust the rookies and 1st time playoff kids.
Broom: Due to his consummate game-planning vs. SAS in last year’s semis, cautiously. Though, that tenuous upvote could change rather quickly.
Bobby: I never pick against OKC. I just don't. I have an irrational optimism that, no matter the obstacle, it can be beaten. I'm going OKC in 6.
Chris: It just seems too good to be true that Russ could actually pull this off. The Rockets offense is too high-powered and the Thunder just have too many moments where their youth gets the best of them. If they could somehow limit those 4-minute stretches where things tend to get away from them and they're forced to make up a double-digit deficit the rest of the way, then I trust Russ to keep up his sensational play in clutch time to pull out some games.
Unfortunately, I just think the Rockets will score too much and the young Thunder will make too many mistakes. Rockets in 5.
Sherman: Thunder in 6.
The real question is, why?
This is how I see it going down, and it will be similar to their victory over the Spurs a year ago. Last year, the Spurs were 12 games better than the Thunder in the regular season with a dominant defense and double-digit point differential. They wrecked OKC in game 1 (You can look it up). And at that point, everyone figured that OKC’s run was over and they’d probably lose Durant in the offseason due to such a poor showing (here is where I want to swallow my own head).
The Thunder responded by taking game 2 on the road with a finish you could probably call a “We got Dion Waiters!” kind of moment.
The Thunder went on to win the next 3 out of 4, shocking the Spurs, but one key element, and this has been true since 2010, manifested. It is this: OKC tends to get better as series go on. They get smarter, more aggressive, tending to assimilate the other team’s strengths along the way.
So even as I expect OKC to kind of get blown out in game 1 and everyone ready to declare the series over and Harden supporters to preemptively scream that MVP voters just pulled an Olajuwon in 1995, I won’t be too distraught.
Because then something will shift. I think. And everything will change.
The only thing I haven’t quite worked out yet is that this time around, OKC obviously doesn’t have...Dion.
R.K. : I’m going to go at this prediction business like I did last season and answer a question by asking one. What do the Thunder have to do in the post-season to be regarded a success?
Obviously winning a championship seals the deal, but let’s be realistic. The Thunder are the #6 seed going up against the #3. They are not going to be favored going into this series, NumberFire only gives the Thunder a 33.17% chance of advancing. So what if they push it to seven, or actually win it? It could happen and when it does, there’s going to be “some ‘splaining” to do”.
Broom: Of the teams seeded ahead of OKC, three are stylistically prone for an Oklahoma City upset. Unfortunately, Houston is not one of those collectives.
But as we’ve witnessed in numerous playoff battles, one transcendent player can change the event’s outcome.
If Russ mirrors 06’ Wade vs. Dallas, 07’ LBJ vs. Det., or 11’ Nowtzki vs. Miami, the Thunder can stamp a pass into the second-round. And, until Houston proves otherwise, I have to give OKC a fighting chance based on Russ’ historic season.