With the NBA playoffs kicking off within the next 24 hours, many are anticipating an exciting and competitive spring of basketball. That competitive anticipation is greatly influenced by a highly competitive Western Conference, but one matchup in particular – Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder.
The three-seeded Houston Rockets will host the six-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in what should be an entertaining and highly competitive first round matchup. That’s thanks in part to their regular season success; The Rockets finished the year with a 55-27 record and the Thunder finished the season with a 47-35 record. With that in mind though, there are a number of factors and key statistics to keep in mind when picking the winner in this series.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Series Preview
While both teams run energetic, uptempo offenses, the Rockets offensive philosophy has generated more top-tier success; the Rockets were second in the league in points scored per game (115.3) behind the Golden State Warriors (115.9). Their high profile, uptempo and nearly unstoppable offense helped propel them to the third seed in what is a highly competitive Western Conference.
In their four meetings in the regular season, the Rockets were able to come out on top three times versus the Thunder. They did so by scoring at a high level.
By scoring 102, 103, 118 and 137 points in their four match-ups versus the Thunder, the Rockets put their ability to score at will on full display.
Posting point totals of 99, 105, 116 and 125 in their four games versus the Rockets, the Thunder showed an ability to match the Rockets’ scoring output as a team, when the matchup presented itself.
Harden vs. Westbrook
While both the Rockets and Thunder run high-profile, upbeat offenses, both of their offensive attacks are generated around their star guards.
For the Rockets, Harden is the heart and soul of their offense. In fact, Harden has posted some astonishing numbers in the 2016-17 season; averaging a career high in both points (29.1) and assists (11.2), Harden has showcased an ability to be a complete and unstoppable offensive force. Whether it’s scoring from the outside, driving the lane, playing in isolation, or even facilitating for his teammates, Harden has shown the ability to solely take over a game. What Harden lacks is defensive tenacity.
The Defensive End
Over the course of his career, Harden hasn’t been quite the force on the defensive end as he’s been on the offensive end. In fact, he’s struggled to the point where he’s a complete liability on that end of the floor for the Rockets. Westbrook is a great defender, though.
Unlike Harden, Westbrook is a defensive asset. Over the last three years, Westbrook has averaged at least 1.6 steals a game and has been a gnat on opposing offensive playmakers. That trait makes him unique, given his electric and unstoppable offensive attack.
The Triple Doubles
While he’s always been a threat on the offensive end, the 2016-17 season was a special and historical season for Westbrook. That’s because he averaged a triple double, but in a way deemed impossible before achieved.
Averaging a career high in points (31.6), as well as rebounds (10.7) and tying a career high in assists (10.4), Westbrook averaged a triple double and surpassed the great Oscar Robertson for most triple doubles in a single season (42). By attacking the rim at will, finding his teammates and hitting the boards, Westbrook showcased just how much of a physical specimen and unique player he is. The lingering question is whether the Rockets will be able to, at the very least, contain him.
While the Rockets do have gritty point guard Patrick Beverley – who’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA – at their disposal, there’s only so much the Rockets can do to stop Westbrook. With him finally having the chance to lead the Thunder into the postseason (thanks to the departure of Kevin Durant via free agency), the NBA fan can put money on Westbrook playing with a motor and mindset like never before. Can Harden match that production without the energy?
While he’s not the off the walls, physical specimen Westbrook is, Harden has the ability to be a quiet assassin. He can play above the rim, but Harden is capable of getting the ball and sinking a shot when the Rockets need a bucket. He’ll have it back up that notion though come playoff time.
Harden’s ability to match Westbrook’s offensive output though won’t be the only thing to keep tabs on.
Big Men Production
While Harden and Westbrook are the beat that keeps their teams running, both the Rockets and Thunder have big men who they can rely on to score the ball; however, more so the Thunder.
While they do have veteran big Nene and third year center Clint Capela, the Rockets are thin down low, in terms of scoring. The Thunder though have a plethora of bigs they can rely on, one being Enes Kanter.
The 6’11” Kanter is and has been a presence in the paint on the offensive end. Averaging 14.3 points as well as 6.7 rebounds off the bench, Kanter gives the Thunder an inside scoring option, and a player who can stretch the floor; Kanter has the ability to stick midrange jumpers. In addition to Kanter, the Thunder also have stretch four Domantas Sabonis, as well as veteran forward Taj Gibson (acquired from the Chicago Bulls).
Given their options in the paint on the offensive end, the Thunder have a clear advantage down low. Do they have that same advantage out on the perimeter though?
Supporting Cast Production
While both Harden and Westbrook will put the Thunder and Rockets’ defenses to the test, both squads have the perimeter defenders to limit the damage.
With shooting guard Victor Oladipo as well as the lockdown defender that is Andre Roberson, the Thunder possess the necessary weapons to throw at Harden and the Rockets. They’ll be faced with the challenge of facing more than just Harden out on the perimeter, though.
In addition to Harden, the Rockets possess a number of legitimate and viable scoring options, one being Gordon.
While he’s adept to being a great defender, Gordon is also a scoring option for Houston. averaging 16.2 points a game, Gordon can assist Harden with the scoring load. Guard Lou Williams and forward Ryan Anderson do the same.
Much like Gordon, Williams (acquired at the trade deadline from the Los Angels Lakers) is a scorer. Coming off the Houston bench, Williams gives the Rockets a scoring punch by contributing just under 15 points a game. Anderson also helps with the scoring load, but more so as a three-point specialist.
Averaging 13.6 points a game, Anderson gives the Rockets a frontline scoring threat. What makes Anderson so important though is that he led the Rockets in three point shooting percentage last year (40.3%). Overall, Houston will give the Thunder quite the challenge out on the perimeter, quite possibly an overwhelming one. Will The Rockets be faced with that same quagmire though? The answer is no.
Perimeter Struggles for OKC
Outside of Westbrook, the Thunder don’t possess all too many scoring options, or perimeter threats. While they do have Oladipo who plays second fiddle to Westbrook in terms of scoring, the Thunder have an underwhelming amount of options out on the perimeter.
When it comes to playing out on the perimeter, swingmen Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant and Doug McDermott (who was acquired from the Chicago Bulls) carry the load for Oklahoma City; Abrines leads the group shooting 38.1% from beyond the arc. After them though, the Thunder don’t have any go-to scoring options who can drive the line. That will hurt them big time when matching up against the Rockets.
While the Rockets and Thunder will make for an interesting series, it’ll be Houston that ultimately comes out on top in this series. With a more proven and well rounded offensive unit, the Rockets have the ability to overwhelm the Thunder defensively. While the flip side is that Westbrook could do that on his own, he alone cannot carry the Thunder to a series victory. With that in mind, expect Houston to come out on top in seven games.
Game one of this series will air Sunday night at 9:00 PM Eastern time on TNT.
James Harden Houston Rockets (Photo by Mark Downey Lucid Images/Corbis via Getty Images)