Season Series: Thunder 2-1
November 29: Rockets 98-120 @Thunder
December 30: Thunder 124-94 @Rockets
February 21: Thunder 119-122 @Rockets
The storylines could not be laid out more neatly. It took the final game of the regular season for the plot to thicken, and here it is. From the return of the $80 million beard to a tussle of the second and third-best offenses in the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are expected to light up the playoff skies with fireworks in store.
Racking off at least 119 points in each of their three regular season meetings, the Thunder can expect such production to continue in the playoffs. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are not the type of players who slow down their pace and drop off during the playoffs. If I am Coach Scott Brooks, I will immediately recognize that Omer Asik is Houston’s solitary post presence. Armed with this knowledge, Brooks must instruct Durant and Westbrook to penetrate on every possible possession, get Asik in foul trouble, and force Coach Kevin McHale’s hand at the vastly inexperienced trio of Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, and Thomas Robinson.
The Thunder are also expected to thrive on numerous corner threes coming from Ibaka, whose range has stretched out that far back (35.1% from downtown this season) and Kevin Martin, who would like nothing more than to stick it to his former team. The Thunder can do no wrong in terms of matchups. Insert Kendrick Perkins, the bruiser who will make James Harden work for his shots. Throw in Nick Collison for an added shot of offensive post moves. Unleash Hasheem Thabeet sparingly for the extra length to frustrate Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons.
Thabo Sefolosha will have his hands full containing Harden, which is news for the Thunder, because on the other end, Harden will be spending a lot of time fronting Durant, a mismatch in every sense of the word. The Thunder’s scouting report is clear as day: Houston only takes three-pointers and layups. Prevent those two from happening and the Rockets will be left with perimeter jumpers, the equivalent of basketball purgatory for Daryl Morey.
Harden will be the sole indicator of Houston’s feast-or-famine evenings. His game is as bipolar as it gets. He can have 37 points on 16 shots in one game, followed by 17 points on 19 shots in the next. Harden is sure to continue his foul-baiting exploits, but in a physical series, the Thunder can get away with a couple of bumps without any whistles being blown. The job falls on Jeremy Lin, Carlos Delfino, and Patrick Beverley to free themselves up for looks at the top of the key or along the elbow.
The Rockets are virtually playing four-on-five offensively with Asik as a massive offensive liability. Moreover, Houston needs to maximize their possessions and cannot fumble the ball away the way they had during the regular season, having led the league in turnovers with 15.8 a game. In the same light, Houston must force Oklahoma City into errors (5th, 14.6 per) on the other side of the floor to initiate transition attacks where the former is most efficient.
The Thunder must forcefully impose their “big brother” stance on the Rockets if they want to make quick work of them. None of the Rockets are defensively capable of staying in front of Durant and Westbrook for four quarters. Only a 40-point aberration from The Beard could swing a game in Houston’s favor, nothing more.
Prediction: Thunder in 5