2. The Houston Rockets have the best player.
The NBA playoffs are about superstars. Sure, having a balanced rotation and bench depth helps in the playoffs, but Robert Horry won his seven championships because of the star power of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Tim Duncan, not because of the seven points per game he averaged over his career.
James Harden is the best player in the series hands down. Chris Paul has been a nice story, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a future All-Star, and Dennis Schroder may end up the Sixth Man of the Year, but James Harden is an MVP and multiple-time scoring champ.
Sometimes basketball is simple. James Harden is the single biggest difference-maker in the series. He is averaging 32 points per game against one of the league’s best defenses. He cannot be stopped, at best contained. He can play out of any hole and carry a team wire-to-wire. Houston has him, and Oklahoma City doesn’t. In James Harden we trust.
1. They hold the Ace in the hole: a Russell Westbrook return.
Every hero has a hero that saves the hero. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Kareem had Magic. MJ had Bill Murray in Space Jam, and James Harden has Russell Westbrook against the Thunder. The Rockets have played the Thunder to a 2-2 series without their second-best player and the second-best player in the series.
Russell Westbrook’s return looms as the definitive moment of the series. What is most terrifying for the Thunder is how Westbrook is apt to harness the emotion of the moment. Imagine the fire and fury Westbrook will play with if the Rockets find themselves trailing the very team that jettisoned him in the offseason.
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A Westbrook return for the Rockets will swing the series in their favor. He’s their ace in the hole, their Tonto, their Bill Murray.