The depth of sub storylines within this series is amazing.
Houston swapped out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook for a variety of reasons, but the perception of their relative durability was certainly among them. Now, heading into their playoff series, it is Westbrook who will miss some or possibly all of it with a quad strain, while the 35-year-old Paul played 70 games this season and looks fit as a fiddle.
Chris Paul holds grudges, so expect him to seek revenge on the team that assumed he was finished.
Westbrook, if available to return from his leg injury, will face off against the franchise he thought he would spend his entire career with. Can he avenge his consecutive round 1 exists?
And then we have the continuation of the James Harden playoff slander. Can he finally put together a run to the NBA finals? We get our first glance at that in this round one matchup.
So let’s get into the series’ most important questions, X-factor, and biggest matchup.
One Big Houston Question: Westbrook’s health
Westbrook went down with a strained right quadricep muscle in the seeding games. The Rockets announced that he would miss “the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer.”
If he misses the first two games, I think the Rockets could survive the injury. Harden is more than capable of dropping a 50 point triple double once or twice to ensure a Rockets win. But the “possibly longer” is giving me huge reason to hold off on declaring the Rockets series winners.
This is a 4 seed vs 5 seed matchup where neither team has a home court advantage. These two teams had drastically different expectations this season, but the level of play between the two isn’t all that great. If you remove Westbrook form the entirety of the series with this injury, the Thunder become a real threat to knocking off the Rockets.
Westbrook has averaged 31.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game on 51.1 percent shooting from Christmas Day through the season’s suspension on March 11. He been even more explosive since the Rockets went all in on small ball and traded Clint Capela.
The 5-out offense the Rockets are running is so effective because of Westbrook’s ability to attack the rim and finish efficiently. Remove him from the equation, the Rockets fall back on only James Harden to create for others, and score.
They become stagnant and kind of ordinary again. They’re no longer title contenders in my eyes.
Houston needs Westbrook to make that title run, but maybe also to escape round 1.
One Big Question for OKC: How to defend James Harden
This seems like a question the entire NBA has been asking for the past 5 years, but its the Thunder’s turn to figure it out.
Harden has quietly posted one of the most impressive offensive seasons in recent memory. He is averaging 34.4 points, 7.5 assists per game on 44 % shooting and 35.5% from three point range.
He continues to perfect new moves, often inventing new moves in the process. His ability to efficiently score from 3 levels, as well as getting to the line at will, makes him close to unstoppable.
The Thunder do have versatile defenders to throw his way. The best of their defenders happens to be Andre Roberson, who recently returned to the court after a 2 and a half year journey to recovery. If Roberson is at his best he would be the guy to shadow Harden all series long. But Roberson has not been back long so it is yet to be seen if Billy Donovan will push his work load.
I expect to see multiple guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort, will be given cracks at defending Harden. Dort is not a name the casual fan is familiar with, but he has been used by the Thunder to get defensive stops in crunch time.
SGA is also a plus defender, averaging over a steal a game and almost a block per game.
I am not sure of Roberson’s ability or stamina as of now, but anything he could give defensively will help tremendously. But we also know there is no stopping Harden. You just have to make life difficult for him. Make him hit contrasted jumpers. When you foul him, make sure he feels it.
Maybe the best tactic is make him exert energy on the defensive side so he isn’t all fresh to take 25 shots a night.
X-Factor: Can Steven Adams dominate with size?
Of course the single major factor in the series is if Westbrook is able to play. But we can’t analyze injuries.
So the X-factor on the court will be Steven Adams.
The Rockets have gone all in on small ball in a way the league has never seen. 6’5″ P.J Tucker is the starting center for the Rockets. Robert Covington, standing 6’8″ is the tallest player who receives big playing time.
Adams, standing 6’11” weighing 265 lbs, is a component of the game the Rockets can not account for. He isn’t the dominant scorer of a Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis, all of which give the Rockets issues. But Adams has the size and ability to give the Rockets nightmares over the course fo a 7 game series.
BY simply dominating the glass, both offensively and defensively will give the Thunder so many opportunities than the Rockets. If Adams grabs an offensive board he will have an easy two points each time.
The issue for Adams will be on defense. P.J Tucker and company will be posted up in the corner waiting on a catch and shoot 3. Adams, who is at home defending the typical big men, and pick and roll situations, will now find himself trying to close out on shooters.
That is the dilemma the Rockets 5-out offense creates for typical bigs in the league.
If Adams is unable to contest the 3 point shot, the Thunder are in trouble. At the same time if Adams can do a good enough job at contesting shooters, and is able to dominate the boards, there is a chance OKC pulls out the upset.
Depth is an issue both teams face. Outside of Harden and Westbrook nobody scares you on the Rockets.
For the Thunder, they’re not as top heavy. Chris Paul of course runs the show, but they have a 3 guard system that is top tier. CP3-SGA-Dennis Schroder can give teams fits offensively with their quickness and playmaking.
Oklahoma City’s ability to scale up for the playoffs has been underrated all year. Their 7 man rotation is quite good. The 3 guards previously mentioned, plus Danillo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Terence Ferguson and Luguentz Dort is an impressive and well mixed rotation.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about how they would find enough scoring to match Harden and Westbrook’s likely 75 point totals. But without Westbrook in the conversation, I could turn that scenario around and ask the Rockets where they will get their scoring from.
If Westbrook were healthy I would have the Rockets winning the series in 5 games. But with his health and availability in question I have backed off that take.
Assuming Westbrook is out, I have the Thunder upsetting the Rockets in 7 games. Of course this all depends on Westbrook’s health, so don’t hold me to this prediction.