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3-on-3: Biased and Unbiased Opinions on the Rockets/Thunder Matchup

Jan 29, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 29, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
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Jan 29, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard R Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard J Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in what might be the most hyped first round series in years. Here are some thoughts on the matchup from both sides of the fandom fence.

It’s no secret that Space City Scoop is a Houston Rockets site. We’re all pretty biased towards our beloved James Harden and company. That isn’t to say we aren’t able to look at things analytically, but it’s tough to hide our true colors at times. So, to provide our readers with the most balanced content, I got together with some contributors for other sites in the FanSided Network to discuss the upcoming Rockets/Thunder showdown.

Representing Thunderous Intentions is their co-editor, Tamberlyn Richardson. She’s a former editor of Space City Scoop, actually, and helped me out a lot in the beginning stages of my writing career. Tamb, I’m excited to work with you again!

To provide an unbiased third opinion, Sam Casey will be taking part as well. He’s a contributor for The Smoking Cuban, the FanSided site for the Dallas Mavericks. We may be brothers, but our sports opinions couldn’t be more different at times. He doesn’t have a dog in this fight, so maybe his opinion will be the most trustworthy here.

Of course, I’ll represent Space City Scoop, home of the Houston Rockets within the FanSided Network. If you’re new around here, welcome to the club!

Okay, everybody, let’s get started with some Rockets/Thunder discussion.

Next: 1. What is your overall prediction for the series?

Mar 26, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard L Williams (12) shoots the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder center E Kanter (11) defends during the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Obvious question first: what is your overall prediction for the series?

In our 3-on-3 discussion we did in-house for round one of the playoffs, we didn’t discuss the overall outcome of the series. As a bunch of Rockets fans, I figured our answers would be too similar. That isn’t the case now, though, so we’ll start with the big question. Do the Rockets or Thunder prevail?

Tamberlyn Richardson

On paper, this series looks like a cake walk for the Houston Rockets. First of all, James Harden is a legitimate contender for MVP and a superstar in every sense of the word. Dig a little deeper and there are several other factors which point the needle strongly toward Red Nation. Mike D’Antoni has his squad jacking up 3-point shots (and making them) at an unprecedented level. Compare the two teams in terms of three point shooting and you can see a major discrepancy.

Houston’s top three perimeter shooters are Ryan Anderson (40.4%), Patrick Beverley (38.3%) and Eric Gordon (37.2%). For the Thunder, rookie Alex Abrines has the best efficiency (38.1%), followed by Victor Oladipo (36.1%), and Russell Westbrook brings up the rear (34.3%).

Also, Houston’s main sharp shooters get up 47% more threes than OKC’s core. In terms of the perimeter, the most noteworthy fact is the Thunder rank 30th in efficiency, 18th in attempts and 26th in makes. Alternatively, Houston ranks 15th in efficiency, but first in both attempts and makes.

If there is a true advantage for OKC, it’s their rebounding. They ranked first on both offensive and total rebounds in the regular season.

Overall, Houston ranks second in the league offensively, 18th defensively, and third in net differential (+5.4). The Thunder rank 17th on offense, 10th on D, and 17th in net differential (-0.2).

Keeping all these stats and factors in mind, games aren’t won on paper. Nor is the regular season performance indicative of what happens on the hardwood in the postseason. The Thunder have improved offensively since acquiring Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Furthermore, their roster is designed specifically for the postseason, especially in terms of their defense.

Ultimately, this series comes down to how each team addresses the other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Can the Rockets maintain their offense and perimeter scoring while stopping the Thunder’s fast break and compete with them on the boards? Can OKC force Harden right, shut down his passing lanes, excel at perimeter and transition defense, and dominate on the boards?

Whichever team manages to do the best job of the above task wins the series. Also, the longer the series goes (in my opinion), the better chance the Thunder have. I’m so torn on this series; I have constantly vacillated back and forth. My head tells me Rockets in seven, but my gut says if Westbrook gets to game seven–watch out.

Sam Casey

The Russell Westbrook versus James Harden debate is the most interesting and fun storyline of this NBA season. Now the fans get to watch the climax of the battle between these two MVP candidates in a playoff matchup. Experts will likely favor Harden’s Rockets over Brodie’s Thunder as Houston is the higher seed and has had more regular season success. However, many fans and analysts may favor OKC after Westbrook’s end-of-season hot streak.

In what may become the best individual series of the playoffs, I believe Houston will prevail over the Thunder. Today’s NBA is a guard’s league, and the guard play for Houston is significantly better than the Thunder’s. Outside of the Beard, Houston still has great guards on the floor. Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Patrick Beverley will dominate OKC’s weak backcourt. Besides Westbrook obviously, the Thunder have little guard depth. If Clint Capela, Nene, and the Rockets’ other big men can crash the glass hard and keep Enes Kanter and Steven Adams‘s impact in the paint to a minimum, Houston should be able to win a shootout between these two teams.

I predict that Houston will win in six games, with one of their four wins being a blowout. Westbrook will steal a couple games that will come down to the wire where he’ll outplay Harden in the clutch, but even him becoming a human wrecking ball won’t be able to stop the flurry of threes that Houston will rain down upon their opponent. In the end, Moreyball is more efficient for the NBA today than the old school hero-ball that’s become the Thunder’s staple.

Ben Casey

I don’t think the outcome of the regular season series between two teams is always a good indicator of how a playoff matchup will end. That being said, it doesn’t bode well for the Thunder that their only win against Houston in the regular season came in November before Beverley joined the lineup. Even without his nemesis on the floor, it took some of Russ’s best heroics of the season to pull his team to victory.

Since that mid-November matchup, the Rockets have beaten OKC three straight times, capped by a blowout in their most recent game. OKC’s top-10 defense allowed Houston to throw up a whopping 137 points on the board that night.

Oklahoma City’s defense is one of the best in the league, but good defense usually loses to good offense. The Rockets’ offense is one of the most prolific in league history, with a record number of made threes this season. Andre Roberson will probably do a great job limiting Harden’s shots, but there are too many other outside threats for the Thunder to keep up. If the Beard can’t get his shot to fall, he’s able to dish to Anderson, who can go for 20+. If he’s off, EG and Lou are just as much of a threat. The list goes on and on.

Russell Westbrook’s greatness will be enough to steal a game or two, but the “give him the ball and get out of the way” technique won’t be consistently effective in a playoff series. My prediction is the Rockets win in five games, with OKC’s one win coming in the second game of the series on Houston’s home floor.

Next: 2. How many total triple-doubles on the series?

Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; OKC’s Russell Westbrook (0) drives against James Harden (13) in the second half at Toyota Center. Houston Rockets won 118 to 116. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook and James Harden finished first and second in triple-doubles this season. How many such stat lines will we see for this series total?

The fact that we’re even asking this question is a testament to how great the NBA is these days. Triple-doubles are supposed to be rare, a two or three occurrences each postseason kind of thing. With two guys going head-to-head in a playoff series, each responsible for multiple 50-point triple-doubles this year, it’s special. No matter who you’re rooting for, enjoy the greatness of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Ben Casey

I predict that there will be five triple-doubles on the series, one per game. As much as I’d like to see the Houston Rockets win the series and for Harden to dominate Westbrook on a personal level, it probably won’t happen. Russ will take his hero-ball tendencies and increase them to Ultra Annihilation Level, getting a triple-double in four of the five games. Harden will lead his team well throughout the series, but won’t quite reach 10-10-10 most of the time.

However, the Beard is a good enough player to get a triple-double once if you give him five tries, even without taking matters into his own hands to the point that Westbrook will. He’ll get a triple-double in the Rockets’ biggest win of the series, whenever that is.

Tamberlyn Richardson

With the NBA promoting this as the MVP showdown and so focused on triple-doubles, the narrative is in place for Harden and Westbrook to each set playoff records for triple-doubles.

However, the funny thing is I could just as easily see the two MVP candidates not having any trip-dubs on the series. Both players will make adjustments and when push comes to shove, may take matters into their own hands. Read that to mean: they both become high volume shooters as opposed to facilitators when it comes down to it.

That said, the Thunder utilize Westbrook’s rebounds to push fast breaks and the Rockets offer Harden a plethora of 3-point sharpshooters. Therefore, it’s reasonable to predict both will average double-doubles and still have no problem lighting up the stat sheet. I’m going to err on the side of caution and say they each get two triple-doubles. Editor’s note: isn’t it ridiculous that erring on the side of caution is predicting they get two triple-doubles each? That should be the wildest take possible, but instead it could be selling them short.

Sam Casey

Westbrook averaging a triple-double has captured the interest of NBA fans across the country, which ironically has cast a shadow over the insane number of triple-doubles Harden himself has posted. Both MVP candidates have had insane seasons in which they have carried very heavy burdens of their teams’ success. With the two coming together in a first-round battle, the number of triple-doubles could be historic.

I believe that both teams will combine for seven total triple-doubles, with Westbrook being responsible for four of them. Betting against Russ getting a triple-double is a losing bet, as he has shown that he can get them regularly. As for the other three, I think Harden will be responsible for two, and Patrick Beverley for the last. P-Bev has been the swiss army knife for Houston all season, and he is the kind of player to really step up during the playoffs. One game he’ll go off and get a triple-double.

Next: 3. Who would win if both Harden and Westbrook sat out?

Nov 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; E Gordon (10) drives against Thunder guard V Oladipo (5) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

3. One question that’s come up alongside the MVP discussion asks which of the Rockets and Thunder would be the better team without their superstar. If Russ and Harden both sat out for this series, who would win?

One of the things that’s been said all year by Westbrook-for-MVP people is that Harden’s support is much superior to Westbrook’s. The sentiment is that the Rockets have great shooters who could still be great shooters without the Beard on the floor.

Harden’s MVP supporters have said the exact opposite. They claim that Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo are better than anyone on the Rockets’ roster and that Westbrook just doesn’t engage them often enough. So lets’ take that narrative to the highest degree. If Harden and Westbrook decided to take the first round off, what would be the end result?

Sam Casey

Evaluating the casts around Harden and Westbrook is very interesting, as I believe their teams have about the same amount of talent. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Victor Oladipo are all excellent NBA players and great helpers for Westbrook. These three players are capable of leading a good team, and would likely have better production from an increased role if their leader were not active.

When evaluating Houston’s roster, they have a great cast of role players, including two Sixth Man of the Year candidates. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams are prolific scorers who can stretch the floor with their shooting skills, facilitate an offense, and get to the rack. Clint Capela and Nene have done an an excellent job anchoring the middle and form an above-average post duo. Add in 3-and-D specialist Trevor Ariza, and the Rockets squad is very capable of playing at a high level without Harden.

Were these two teams to face each other in a playoff series without their superstars, I think Houston would emerge victorious. Shooting, spacing, and guard play are emphasized in the NBA today, and the Rockets can run and space the floor far better than OKC. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter would give Houston fits on the block, however it wouldn’t be enough. With the lack of point guard depth behind Westbrook, PG play would be a major weakness for the Thunder. In this theoretical playoff series, the Rockets take it in five games.

Ben Casey

As I previously stated, OKC fans like to think that their team would be nothing without Russ. They claim that he is the entire team while Harden is just a facet of his. They point to sharpshooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon joining the team, saying their marksmanship gives them an upper hand. It makes sense on the surface–Houston does shoot the ball more accurately than OKC. However, that thought process leaves out an important statistic.

The Rockets have great shooters, but they don’t have shooters who are capable of creating their own shot. In fact, according to NBA Miner, Houston’s top three three point shooters (other than Harden, who’s second on the team in three point makes) rely on someone to create their shot for them for the vast majority of the time. 68.2% of Gordon’s shots come from assists, and that pales in comparison to Anderson’s 75.6% and Ariza’s 81.3%. So yes, the Rockets have shooters. But no, they don’t have shooters whose games could easily translate to creating their own shots.

That being said, the Thunder and Rockets are pretty evenly matched without their superstars. Houston boasts better backcourt units, but OKC would dominate inside.

I’d bet on the Rockets in a seven-game series without Harden or Russ simply because the NBA’s trends show that a good backcourt will beat a good frontcourt most of the time. Patrick Beverley is a serviceable point guard on offense, and Mike D’Antoni is a better coach than Billy Donovan, at least for today’s three-heavy schemes. Rockets in seven bloody, hard-fought games.

Tamberlyn Richardson

Interesting question. Let me start by reminding Houston fans that I previously wrote for this site.  During that time, I was adamant that Harden deserved the award in 2015 (Curry’s first MVP year). Those who recall articles from that period will know I’m a huge advocate for MVP meaning “most valuable” to their team. No one will ever convince me James Harden shouldn’t have won 2014-15 MVP. He earned it by carrying his team through a season where Rockets players spent more time on the disabled list than on the court.

That said, I feel just as strongly about Westbrook deserving the award this season. Though, granted, I’ll be less upset if Harden usurps him then I was when Curry beat out Harden.

If you remove Harden from the Rockets, in my opinion Houston could still compete for a playoff seed and not necessarily just the bottom two spots. I think, because of D’Antoni’s high octane, perimeter heavy offense and the personnel on the roster, they would fall in the middle ground with the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers.

Conversely, removing Westbrook from the OKC Thunder would put the squad squarely among the lottery bound bottom feeders. Without Harden and Westbrook, the Houston Rockets would win in five.

Next: In conclusion...

Mar 26, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and OKC’s Russell Westbrook (0) shake hands after a game at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

So, everyone’s in agreement that the Houston Rockets are the overall better team in this first round series.

With both Harden and Westbrook capable of otherworldly feats on the court, nothing is set in stone for the most hyped first round matchup. Harden could go cold and revert to his defensive lapses. Westbrook could get out of control and overshoot on every attempt. Injuries could always ruin the series, leaving fans to speculate into eternity.

More from Space City Scoop

That in mind, the Houston Rockets will likely see the second round this season. Their system is just built around Harden better than OKC’s is built for the Brodie. Either way, though, it’ll be as entertaining as basketball can be, and I’d strongly suggest tuning in.

A big thanks goes to Tamberlyn Richardson and Sam Casey for taking part in this piece. They have informed opinions and are each doing great work for their respective sites. Visit Thunderous Intentions for more Thunder coverage and The Smoking Cuban for all things Mavs.

It’s finally here, y’all. The 2016-17 season was a thing of beauty for Rockets fans, and the playoffs have a chance to be as well. Now, we get to watch the Beard and the gang compete in the games that matter.

Next: NBA Playoffs 2017: A Comprehensive First Round Preview

The first game between the Rockets and Thunder tips off tonight at 8:00 p.m. CT. You can catch the game on TNT or on ROOT Sports SW. Go Rockets!

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