Though, during the regular-season, NBA MVP candidate Russell Westbrook and his Thunder found initial success opposite fellow MVP-contender James Harden’s 55-27 crew. However, Houston swept the teams’ three subsequent meetings, while upending Oklahoma City 137-125 March 26.
A minuscule seven-point margin in three prior contests was all that stood between Oklahoma City and Houston before the Rockets exploded for twenty made threes on 63/51/81 overall shooting that humbling afternoon.
Even so, Oklahoma City may have entered this no. 3 vs. no. 6 clash ahead 3-1 had Houston’s steady hand not proven enough to steal the crucial swing outings.
While underestimated during the pre-season, a re-shaped Houston Rockets’ offense flourished this year under Mike D’Antoni’s distinctive brand of space-and-pace perimeter focus. With career shooting guard James Harden shifted to floor general, his team led the league in both 3PM (14.4) and attempted (40.3), and ranked third with 25.2 apg. Meanwhile, Harden (11.2 apg) secured the league’s assist crown.
Conversely, lacking Harden’s bevy of secondary scoring options, Russell Westbrook’s (31.6 ppg, 10.7 reb, 10.4 apg) unprecedented 42 triple-double campaign, and scoring title, was required for Oklahoma City’s seventh playoff berth in eight seasons.
Tonight, from the Toyota Center, where Houston averages 117.2 ppg, resilient Oklahoma City will attempt to steal home-court advantage in this best-of-seven opening-round matchup featuring erstwhile superstar teammates turned dueling MVP front runners.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (47-35 #6 west) vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS (55-27 #3 west)
- Time: 9 PM ET
- Venue: Toyota Center
- TV: TNT, FSOK
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER SERIES SCOUTING REPORT
- OffRtg: #17, 105.0
- DefRtg: #10, 105.1
- NetRtg: #17, -0.2
- Pace: #8, 100.47
- Home: 28-13 (+/- +6.0)
- Away: 19-22 (+/- -4.4)
- 16-17 vs. Houston Rockets: 1-3 (+/- -3.8) (1-1 home, 0-2 away)
OKC ROTATION: REGULAR SEASON NUMBERS AND SERIES NEEDS
- Russell Westbrook: 34.6 MPG, 31.6 PPG, 10.7 REB, 10.4 APG, 42/34/84 split: Suffice it to state that Westbrook must maintain his dominant regular-season performance level, and gain considerable help, for OKC to potentially upset Houston.
- Victor Oladipo: 33.2 MPG, 15.9 PPG, 4.3 REB, 2.6 APG, 44/36/75 split: It behooves OKC’s second-leading scorer to overcome his lackluster final three outings vs. Houston —while re-capturing the 29-point swagger that brought his team an early-season victory vs. the Rockets.
- Andre Roberson: 30.1 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 5.1 REB, 1.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 46/24/51 split: In addition to providing lock-down defense opposite Harden, 8 ppg, and 30% 3PM is needed from Roberson to optimize OKC’s spoiler chances.
- Steven Adams: 29.9 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 7.3 REB, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 57/61 FG/FT split: Amid a protracted slump, Adams’ two-way resurrection is critical for OKC to exploit Houston’s vulnerable secondary-line of defense. Further, Adams must effectively frustrate both Houston’s pick-and-roll and the interior presence of Clint Capela.
- Taj Gibson (OKC numbers): 21.2 MPG, 9.0 PPG, 4.5 REB, 49/71 FG/FT split: Along the same line as Adams, OKC cannot flourish without Gibson providing pNr defense and front-line physicality.
- Enes Kanter: 21.3 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 6.7 REB, 54/13/78 split: Versus offensively potent Houston, Kanter’s volume scoring and ability to exhaust the Rockets’ interior is vital. Also, Enes’ defensive engagement must be maximal. Kanter cannot become a defensive liability opposite the NBA’s second-ranked offense.
- Doug McDermott (OKC numbers): 19.5 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 2.2 REB, 45/36/70 split: McDermott’s playing status for game one is currently in question. Though, when McDermott does find the floor, he must assertively and accurately shoot the three-pointer to ensure OKC doesn’t find itself mired in a 3-for-2 point exchange with the Rockets. McDermott’s porous DefRtg must also improve.
- Alex Abrines: 15.5 MPG, 6.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 39/38/89 split: Opposite Houston, sharpshooting rookie Alex Abrines is OKC’s reserve X-Factor. If Abrines rises to the occasion and opens additional space for Westbrook, the Thunder can mitigate Houston’s trap-heavy initial defensive scheme.
- Domantas Sabonis: 20.1 MPG, 5.9 PPG, 3.6 REB, 1.0 APG, 39/32/65 split: While minutes may become scarce for Domas, the time he finds himself on-court must resemble his initial regular-season outings. The Thunder will require Sabonis to shoot well from the mid-range, and provide valuable spurts of defensive intensity with the second unit.
- Jerami Grant: 19.1 MGP, 5.4 PPG, 2.6 REB, 1.0 BPG, 46/37/61 split: Grant can provide situational value by adding a timely corner three, or weak-side block. However, in these stretches, a defensively efficient Grant must emerge as well.
- Semaj Christon: 15.2 MPG, 2.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 34/19/54: Lacking reserve point-guard depth, Christon can best contribute by offering Westbrook a precious few minutes of rest each half while not burying the team.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER KEYS TO VICTORY:
- Run Houston off the line: This is much easier said than done given the Rockets’ prolific ability to generate three-point looks within their spread offensive set. Though, it is worth attempting.
- Penetrate Houston’s initial defensive plane: Once Houston’s effective ball trap is penetrated, scoring against the defensively (#18 DefRtg) limited Rockets becomes much simpler.
- Halt the Rockets’ side pick-and-roll action: OKC cannot fall victim to Houston’s side pNr set as they did in the teams’ final regular-season meeting. It is incumbent upon OKC’s defense to communicate, and rotate.
- Don’t allow Houston’s secondary and tertiary scorers to flourish: Again, this goes back to the OKC defense both communicating and rotating effectively.
- Free throws: Keep the Rockets (20.3 FTM #2 NBA) and Harden (881 attemps #1 NBA) off the line. Meanwhile, OKC must make important free throws in close contests.
- Stay composed, Russell: Westbrook is a bit prone to big-game panic. If this occurs vs. Houston, a short series may become inevitable.
HOUSTON ROCKETS SERIES SCOUTING REPORT
- OffRtg: #2, 111.8
- DefRtg: #18, 106.4
- NetRtg: #3, +5.4
- Pace: #3, 102.54
- Home: 30-11 (+/- +8.9)
- Away: 25-16 (+/- +2.7)
- 16-17 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: 3-1 (+/- +3.8) (2-0 home, 1-1 away)
HOUSTON ROCKETS REGULAR SEASON NUMBERS
- James Harden: 36.4 MPG, 29.1 PPG, 8.1 REB, 11.2 APG, 44/34/84 split
- Trevor Ariza: 34.7 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 5.7 REB, 2.2 APG, 40/34/73 split
- Eric Gordon: 31.0 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 2.7 REB, 2.5 APG, 40/37/84 split
- Patrick Beverley: 30.7 MPG, 9.5 PPG, 5.9 REB, 4.2 APG, 42/38/76 split
- Ryan Anderson: 29.4 MPG, 13.6 PPG, 4.6 REB, 41/40/86 split
- Lou Williams: 25.7 MPG, 14.9 PPG, 3.0 REB, 2.4 APG, 38/31/86 split
- Clint Capela: 23.9 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 8.1 REB, 1.0 APG, 1.2 BPG, 64/54 FG/FT split
- Nene Hilario: 17.9 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 4.2 REB, 1.0 APG, 61/58 FG/FT split
- Troy Williams (Houston numbers): 23.2 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 4.0 REB, 1.0 APG, 50/38/85 split
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS/INJURY REPORTS
The Oklahoma City Thunder list Doug McDermott (Knee) as questionable vs. Houston. The Houston Rockets list Sam Dekker (Wrist) as out vs. Oklahoma City.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
- Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
- Shooting Guard: Victor Oladipo
- Small Forward: Andre Roberson
- Power Forward: Taj Gibson
- Center: Steven Adams
- Point Guard: James Harden
- Shooting Guard: Patrick Beverley
- Small Forward: Trevor Ariza
- Power Forward: Ryan Anderson
- Center: Clint Capela
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: +7
While Oklahoma City kept things competitive in the regular season vs. Houston, the oddsmakers still favor Mike D’Antoni’s group by a sizable margin for tonight’s series opener.
However, even as Houston enjoys favorite status, they are not a team minus conspicuous flaws. For Oklahoma City to extend its season past an expected first-round exit, Billy Donovan must locate and repeatedly exploit these weak links in the Rockets’ high-octane engine.
This can be best accomplished by slowing James Harden while committing to sustained perimeter defense and bruising interior play. Though, for such a plan to work, Westbrook must join both Roberson, and Oladipo in a lock-down defensive effort.