Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles against the Oklahoma City Thunder forward Andre Roberson (21) at Toyota Center. Rockets won 118 to 116. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Now that the regular season is over, some of the Space City Scoop staff discussed predictions for the Houston Rockets’ first round matchup with the Thunder.
The regular season is finally over, and it’s time to get to the games that matter. The Houston Rockets finished at 55-27 this year, 15 games better than most preseason predictions. That’s largely due to James Harden‘s spectacular performance all season. In fact, the Beard just finished what was arguably the greatest offensive season of all time.
After dominating the competition in 2016-2017, the Rockets have the pleasure and opportunity to host the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. Anybody who knows basketball predicts Houston to advance to the second round, but there’s been quite some debate as to what the series will look like outside of the end result.
In preparation for the first round, I got some of the Space City Scoop staff together and asked them about how they think the series will play out. Spoiler: I didn’t ask them their overall predictions because this is a Rockets site run by Rockets fans. That being said, we all are very confident that we’ll be happy with who wins the series. Instead, I asked a few more specific questions about the Rockets/Thunder showdown.
Well, let’s get started, shall we?
Next: 1. Who will be the best Rocket other than Harden?
Nov 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) shoots the ball in front of OKC Thunder center Steven Adams (12) and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
1. Other than Harden, who will be the MVP of the Rockets during the first round?
It’s silly to think that anybody else on the Rockets would take James Harden’s spotlight during this season’s playoffs. In the past, Dwight Howard played better in the postseason than the Beard, but times are different now. Harden is poised to put up a legendary playoff performance and has plenty to prove against his rival for the MVP.
That being said, basketball is a team sport. Though Harden or Russell Westbrook might have you believe otherwise at times, games can’t be won without effort from everybody. Who, other than the Beard, will have the greatest impact for Houston in the first round this season?
I think this question really gets at the crux of this team’s potential. Who does damage on any given night? Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Lou Williams. All have the ability to hit a hot streak and score 15+ in any given game–heck, any given quarter.
If I were forced to choose one, I’d go with Bev. Patrick needs to corral and pester Russell Westbrook to a degree that limits his ability to play his full game. Take something away. Strategically, I don’t know if that is reducing his open passing lanes, diving at his knees, or somewhere in between. Pair aggressive defense with knocking down open threes when Russ takes a (fine…well deserved) break, and Pat can swing the series.
The second best and my second favorite Rocket all season, Eric Gordon. He has established himself as the Rockets second go-to scorer, and I don’t see why anything will change now. Playing against a Thunder team that is average at defending the three, I am expecting a huge series from this year’s rightful Sixth Man of the Year.
Even though I think Harden will have the best playoff series of his career against Oklahoma City, someone who will have a huge impact is Patrick Beverley. He’s going to have to do a great job of containing Russell to stop the one-man show. No other team in the league has a defensive guard as intense and talented as Pat. He has a fire against Russ that cannot be matched and he will standout more than anyone not named James Harden.
Next: 2. What's Houston's biggest worry for the series?
Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; OKC Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) shoots against Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) in the second half at Toyota Center. Houston Rockets won. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
2. What’s Houston’s biggest threat during the first round?
Most fans and pundits agree that the Houston Rockets are the better team going into the first round, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Despite what Westbrook fans might say, the Thunder have a pretty solid supporting cast and can be dangerous if they all get going at the same time. Is there any significant worry that Houston won’t advance?
I don’t think the Rockets have too much to worry about for this series. As long as they play like they did for the majority of the season, they should be able to compete well against the worst team in the Western Conference playoffs.
Remember when Playoff Steven Adams was a thing, mate? 10 points, 7 rebounds, but really solid defense. How much will Russ engage him on offense? Will he remember how to rebound for himself and not his teammate? Will he have super cute stories to tell during practice?
If Adams can greatly outplay Capela, Houston might have something to worry about. Other than that, Westbrook is the only thing that really worries Red Nation.
Playing against the Thunder, the number one concern will be defending Russell Westbrook. If the Rockets can keep Westbrook under 24 points per game or so and keep him off the glass, then it should be an easy 4-0 sweep. Yet, if Westbrook can play just as well as (or better than) he has all season long, buckle up Red Nation–this series could end up being one wild and emotional ride.
Next: 3. Should any fringe players get significant minutes?
Dec 9, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Houston Rockets forward Montrezl Harrell (5) dunks the ball over the back of Thunder center S. Adams during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
3. Should anybody past the first eight guys on the team get any non-garbage minutes in the first round?
I wrote last week that, given Mike D’Antoni‘s history, he’d probably go with a pretty tight rotation in the playoffs. He’s gone with seven-man or eight-man units in the past, and there’s a good chance he does the same this series. That might not be the case if the best ninth man in the NBA weren’t hurt, but alas Sam Dekker‘s hand won’t be ready to go for another couple of weeks.
Honestly, I am hoping D’Antoni sticks to his idea of an eight-man rotation. The fast-paced offense that the main group runs when on the court together will make it one hell of a challenge for the Thunder. However, playing against a great rebounding team in Oklahoma City, I think D’Antoni may want to add Montrezl Harrell to his rotations as well. He’s small for his position, but his energy and tenacity is unmatched.
I think Trez will be able to provide good minutes off the bench against the Thunder. He could be a great defender at the four against Domantas Sabonis and could also really be a spark off the bench if Nene and Clint need rest.
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It’s a real shame Sam Dekker got hurt when he did, because I would have predicted some really fun minutes from him against the Thunder. That being said, I’m not sure I see anyone else down the row of chairs that Mike feels obligated to put on the court. Chinanu Onuaku has gotten some burn, but I haven’t been able to watch him closely yet.
The Houston Rockets have a team that’s built to succeed in the playoffs, even if Charles Barkley doesn’t think jump-shooting teams can win. The Thunder have a better squad than they’re given credit for, but the barrage of three pointers that Houston will throw at them will likely be too much to handle.
If the Rockets do as well as our staff thinks they can, the first round should be in the books in plenty of time for them to prepare for the next opponent. Bring on the storm, bring on the lightning, and bring on the Thunder!
Stay tuned to Space City Scoop for more first round predictions, including a feature with a writer from FanSided’s OKC site, Thunderous Intentions.