Two games still remain in the regular season, but we already know the end result. After this weekend, the Rockets are locked into the West’s No. 3 playoff spot and the Thunder into the No. 6 seed… which means a showdown in the first round between MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook, beginning next weekend.
That pairing will undoubtedly drive the headlines, of course. But the reality is that this matchup is unlikely to be decided by the two point guards alone. My expectation is for both to be similarly brilliant and post numerous 30-point triple-doubles, just as they’ve done throughout the regular season.
Meanwhile, it’s the remainder of the two rosters around Harden and Westbrook — and philosophically, the great contrast between Houston’s speedy, slightly undersized squad with elite shooters and tenacious veterans vs. OKC’s vast array of long, athletic wing defenders and physical rebounders — that will likely dictate how this series goes.
At first glance, here are my five early priorities for the Rockets to succeed vs. Oklahoma City:
5.) Making 3-pointers from the four spot. On paper, the Thunder might seem to be the perfect foil for Mike D’Antoni’s pace-and-space offense — given their size and physicality on the interior with the likes of Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, Enes Kanter, and Domantas Sabonis. There’s a reason Oklahoma City ranks is near the top of the league in all rebounding categories. However, as with most of the NBA’s size vs. speed matchups, the easiest way to combat the mismatch is to essentially shoot the bigger team out of it. Ryan Anderson missed the most recent OKC game with a sprained ankle, but Trevor Ariza started opposite Gibson as a “small ball” power forward... and his superb shooting (24 points, 9-of-11 FG, 6-of-8 on 3-pointers) essentially forced Billy Donovan to stop using his bigger lineups. Even though Gibson shot 6-of-7 from the field, he played just 17 minutes (and backup Sabonis only 10 minutes) due to their inability to contest on the perimeter. Essentially, it's strength on strength — and if Anderson and Ariza make their shots at the four spot, the odds are good that Houston's strength will win out.
4.) The return of “Playoff Pat.” The Rockets had one loss to the Thunder in their four meetings, and it was the game in November before Pat Beverley returned to the lineup from his preseason knee injury. Yes, there’s definitely a correlation there, considering that Westbrook might be the most difficult player to guard in the entire NBA — and no one else on the Houston roster has the lateral quickness to move with him side to side. But beyond that, the upside for the Rockets is that it’s tough to gauge the true value of Beverley’s bulldog defense in the regular season. Quite frankly, if “Mr. 94 Feet” lived up to that nickname every possession over the grind of an 82-game regular season and the numerous back-to-backs, his body would break down. But we have seen “Playoff Pat” in spurts, such as the Clippers blowout in March when Doc Rivers called him the best player in the game — and in the win Houston secured over Oklahoma City in December, when he locked up Westbrook in the closing seconds.
In a playoff setting, with the enormous intensity in each arena and more time off between games than in the regular season, it’s reasonable to expect “Playoff Pat” moments to come on a more frequent basis. Facing a point guard in Westbrook posting a historic season, it would be a welcome development for the Rockets in this series.
3.) Matching up in the middle. In four games vs. the Thunder, backup center Nene is averaging 14.2 points per game on 76.7% shooting (!!!) in just 19.5 minutes. Against physical, traditional bigs like Adams and Kanter, this is the kind of matchup where you'd expect the 34-year-old veteran to shine — and he's done it. Due in large part to that, the Rockets won three of those four games. The variable, however, could be starting center Clint Capela. In three games vs. Oklahoma City, Capela is averaging 12.3 points (62.5% FG) and 9.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes — which on the surface represents commendable production. However, we’ve seen lowlights for Capela against physical front lines, such as recent matchups with the Blazers and Warriors. The good news is that after taking Friday’s game off for rest, Capela returned in Sunday’s big win over the Sacramento Kings and played his best game in weeks — posting 18 points (8-of-8 FG) and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes. Most impressively, his +28 plus/minus figure was the best on Houston’s entire roster. The Rockets know what they’re likely to get from Nene, but at his age and with a long injury history, expecting anything more than 24 minutes or so per game is a stretch. The other 24 minutes are up for grabs. Personally, I think the Rockets would love for Capela to step up and earn all of those minutes himself. But if he doesn’t, I don’t think D’Antoni would hesitate to use the undersized Montrezl Harrell in spurts — particularly given Harrell’s unique ability at the center spot to switch defensively onto Westbrook after a pick:
In short, we have a good idea on what Nene is likely to give the Rockets in this series. But as for Capela and Harrell, and how much each will play? Stay tuned.
2.) Getting production from non-Harden creators. It's no coincidence that when the Rockets were at their most efficient vs. Oklahoma City — the 137-125 win in late March, including a 79-point first half — Lou Williams (11-15 FG, 31 points) and Eric Gordon (8-of-15 FG, 24 points) were both in peak form. The difference between the Thunder and most playoff teams is a unique combination of overall team length and a brilliant wing defender in Andre Roberson. That means that for the Rockets on offense, the game plan is more complex than simply counting on Harden to drive and either score or dish. Oklahoma City doesn't have to commit to double-teams in the same way that most teams do, and because of that, the Rockets aren’t likely to get the high volume of open 3-pointers that they do in most matchups. To counter this, Houston needs production not just from shooters, but from creators who are able to generate their own offense even if Harden doesn’t draw a full double-team. After Harden, Gordon and Williams are clearly the two best creators. Each has been inconsistent down the stretch of this season, but they were excellent in the most recent matchup — and they’re the two top contenders for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award for a reason. If they bring that form, it should go a long way toward helping mitigate the impact of Roberson and Oklahoma City’s impressive length covering Harden.
1.) Harden playing like the MVP. As with Houston’s entire season, the Rockets will only go as far as their MVP can take them. There's only one true All-Star on the Houston roster, and for the Rockets to get past Westbrook’s individual greatness and especially past great teams like San Antonio and Golden State, they need Harden at his best. In his first two games vs. the Thunder in November and December, Harden shot a combined 10-of-39 from the field with 14 turnovers. As a result, the Rockets had one loss and a very narrow win in which they held on for dear life. The length of Roberson defending one-on-one coupled with the size of Adams as an interior helper appeared to give Harden fits. But in his most recent two games vs. OKC (in January and March), Harden was a much more efficient 14-of-31 from the field with three fewer turnovers. Both were Houston wins — the latter in blowout fashion, and the former on an incredible game-winning pass from Harden in the final seconds.
On my Locked on Rockets show last week, I asked NBATV analyst Brian Geltzeiler if he believed Harden had turned a corner vs. Oklahoma City. He believes Harden has, citing an increased willingness by James not to “force the action” and instead allow the game to come to him. If that’s the case, and the Rockets have Harden at his usual efficiency with shooting percentages and limiting turnovers — and assuming no lingering issues with his injured left wrist, of course — it’s hard to see a route for the Thunder to win this series. The Rockets (54-26) have consistently led Oklahoma City (46-34) by close to eight games in the standings all season, because they’re simply the better team. And even if the series is tight, Game 5 and a hypothetical Game 7 would both be in Houston. If Harden is himself, expect the Rockets to move on.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
The Rockets and Thunder will open their playoff series on Saturday or Sunday at Toyota Center. Listen to all of the action on your home for the Houston Rockets, SportsTalk790!