Site Expert Picks: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Joshua Paredes, continued: Before the news of Russell Westbrook’s injury came out, I already felt like this series was close to a toss-up, with the presence of Harden giving the Rockets a slight edge. Under Coach Billy Donovan and the leadership of Chris Paul, the Oklahoma City Thunder surprised everyone this season, using efficiency on both sides of the ball to establish themselves right in the thick of things in the West.
With a defensive rating of 108.3, the Thunder finished the season seventh out of all 30 teams in points per game allowed while the Rockets finished 23rd. I’ve always been a proponent of the “defense wins championships” mantra whether your team can catch fire from the outside or not.
Still, seeing the kind of groove James Harden has been in this season stopped me from choosing the Thunder in an upset. The team with the biggest superstar usually wins a best-of-seven series, and that superstar belongs to the Houston Rockets.
The biggest concern I have for Houston, however, is how they will fare when Harden needs to take a breather. James does everything well on the court and is irreplaceable — and the Rockets will be without the only guy closest to being able to do that as Russell recovers.
I essentially have to predict how long Westbrook will be out before predicting the outcome of the series. Given Russell’s hyper-competitive nature, I’m giving him until Game 3 before he forces himself into the lineup, fully recovered or not. With that said, I think that will be just enough to avoid the upset.
Anthony Duckett, continued: The Houston Rockets’ first-round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder figures to be arguably the most intriguing matchup of them all for a number of reasons. For one, there’s very little separation between the two teams, as they each have an identical 44-28 record heading into the postseason.
In addition, the best players in the series have played for the opposing team at some point or another in their careers, with Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook having all played for their opening-round opponent. The Rockets played the Thunder three times in the 2019-20 season and went 1-2 in those games.
But that was essentially an entirely different season, as the two teams haven’t faced off in over seven months, which is nearly the normal length of an entire season. The Thunder have also not faced off against the Rockets’ small-ball lineup yet, and won’t have an answer for James Harden, who remains the best player in the series.
Expect the Rockets to let off a boatload of triples, with James Harden and Ben McLemore likely leading the way in treys. On the other hand, the Thunder’s three-guard lineup of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroeder present their biggest threat.
The Rockets will be relying on Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and McLemore to not only counter OKC’s guard trio but also to fill in for Russell Westbrook in the initial games of the series, which should bode well for their chances. We’ve seen Gordon’s ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, and McLemore and Rivers only need to provide steady contributions for one game apiece.
Although the loss of Westbrook is a gut punch, we’ve seen James Harden deliver with lesser parts than the Rockets have this season. Both teams are fairly even on the glass, as the Thunder average 44.8 rebounds compared to the Rockets’ 39.1.
The Thunder made 35.5 percent of their treys while the Rockets made 34.5 percent of theirs. Perhaps one of the biggest differences is in the points department, as the Rockets averaged 117.8 points per game, which was second-best, compared to the Thunder, who averaged 110.4 points, which was 23rd-best in the league.
With Mike D’Antoni’s future on the line and Russell Westbrook expected to return midway through the series, expect the Rockets to pull out a grizzly seven-game series win and advance to the next round.