Western Conference 1st Round: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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Oh the sweet taste of revenge… How good it must feel? How badly James Harden wants it on his former team?  In terms of extra motivation.. Damn, Harden is full of it in this one. It will be extremely interesting to see the former Big 3 of Oklahoma going up against one another for the next 4-7 games. They say it’s all business, but I’m hoping for some trash talk, some friendly chatter on the court between the former teammates. It’ll be a fun series, and I don’t think anybody could’ve asked for anything better when Los Angeles took the 7th seed instead of Houston. Let’s break it down.

How Houston Wins:

Houston has to get out in transition on the Thunder. It’s their biggest strength offensively – their ability to run up and down the court and get shots quickly. It’s very hard to score on OKC in the half court as they only give up 96 points a game and force a solid 15 turnovers a game as well. The Thunder are tough and extremely strong defensively. The Rockets aren’t efficient in the half-court, therefore, the smart thing to do would be to run. With the pace high, the Rockets can play their game and maybe get some of their youngsters a boost of confidence early.

On the other end, Houston has to take care of the ball. It is essential if they want a chance at beating OKC. They are worst in the league at 16.4 turnovers a game and we all know that when OKC gets out in transition with the finishers they have there is no stopping them. It’s almost a contradiction – to play fast and take care of the ball, but the fact of the matter is if the Rockets want to win, they’re going to have to do both. They need to play like the Nuggets who get up and down just as much as the Rockets but take care of the ball. There is a method to their madness and Houston needs to honor every possession in this series. Another forte of the Rockets is scoring inside off of strong drives to the basket or off of quick cuts backdoor and off of movement. They score 46 a game this way and will need to be ready to go to the basket hard against the best shot blocker in the league in Serge Ibaka and the meanest guy in the league in Kendrick Perkins.

Specifically, Jeremy Lin needs to take care of the ball. He tends to be very careless with the ball… Especially against stronger and quicker defenders like his opponent Russell Westbrook. They need him to have a big impact on the series to help out James Harden score the ball. He was given a huge contract this summer and now it’s time to prove his worth. Like the Knicks, the Rockets live and die by the three. They need to be efficient from behind the arc in this series for a chance of winning. They can’t settle, rather attack the defense and see if things open up that way. Too much of the time the Rockets settle from deep especially against tougher interior defenders. The Rockets as a team all have to be ready to step up. They’re going up against a Thunder team who have been to the playoffs for the past few years and made it to the Finals in the last. They know what to expect, besides Harden and Asik who saw limited time in the playoffs with the Bulls, nobody on their roster has seen the playoffs. They’ll need to be ready for the big stage. Who’s going to step up other than Harden for the Rockets? Someone is going to have to be that guy, because OKC’s defense is going to be centered entirely around taking Harden out of the game so they need their role players to step up.

How Oklahoma Wins:

Oklahoma wins by stopping the Rockets in transition. They know that Houston scores 19 a game in fast break situations and will need to take that out of their offensive game because in the half-court the Rockets have yet to prove that they can be effective consistently. Additionally, the Thunder have to beat the Rockets with defense. You aren’t going to beat the Rockets offensively, because the Rockets score better than anybody else in the league. They need to lock down and be tough down low. I think Kevin Martin should play limited minutes in this series to be honest to have a better chance at diluting the effectiveness of James Harden. Sefolosha is a very strong one on one defender and will have a better chance at affecting Harden defensively than Martin. He is the center of their offensive game so to limit his impact would take away their offense. The biggest thing for OKC is to run them off the three point line. The Rockets live and die by the three attempting 29 threes a game and making 11. They love to play from deep and they can really kill teams when they’re hitting shots. The Thunder have to be physical with them on the perimeter and close out hard to every shooter to prevent them from getting in a rhythm.  The Thunder have to take advantage of their match-ups offensively. Jeremy Lin does not play defense, it’s as simple as that. Russell Westbrook has to identify that go at him the entire time. I think the X-factor offensively could be Serge Ibaka. When he’s making shots on the perimeter and finishing down low and giving the Thunder a viable third option to score the ball they are virtually unstoppable. The same goes for Kevin Martin, he has to come into this series with a chip on his shoulder. James Harden used to be in his shoes and helped take this team to the finals. Kevin Martin needs to be that guy off the bench to hit threes, and be that burst of energy that Harden used to be. Ultimately, the Thunder don’t have much to worry about, Houston gives up about 103 points a game and expects to win on their offense. The Thunder are just as good offensively and that much better defensively. They’ve beaten the Rockets by an average margin of 26 points a game in their three wins this season. Nobody around the league can guard KD, so don’t think Chandler Parsons has a good chance either. He needs to come out aggressive and not settle for jump-shots but attack the heart of the defense and try get Asik into foul trouble early. Without him there aren’t many guys on the Rockets who are a threat to alter or block shots down low and without Asik in the paint, the driving lanes are that much more open.

Who Will Win?

I’m going with the Thunder on this one. I don’t think the Rockets can expect to beat the Thunder solely on their offense because the Thunder are essentially the Rockets but with a defense and an extra star. I think the Rockets are too careless with the ball to win in the playoffs and with all the experience and firepower of the Thunder it should be a quick one for OKC.

Final Prediction:

Thunder in 5. I think the Rockets can squeeze one at home with a big game from beyond the arc but the Thunder should take this one rather easily.

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