With the Thunder and Rockets set to square off, here’s what you should watch for.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden have spent the entire season battling for MVP honors, and now we get to watch them face off in hopes of pursuing a title.
This series is expected to bring a showcase of elite performers with lots of numbers to fill the stat sheets. I’ll be breaking down the x-factors, along with the keys to victory.
Both teams will face a number of challenges in this opening round series, so let’s jump right in.
Keys To Victory For The Rockets:
Containing Everyone Not-Named Russell Westbrook
The idea of completely halting the production of Russell Westbrook seems unrealistic at this point.
In the four previous meetings with Houston this season, Westbrook has averaged 36.3 points per game while shooting 44.7% from the field and 37.1% from three. These averages from the series are all greater than his overall average on the season. Furthermore, his points per game total against Houston is the fourth most that he has averaged against opponents against which he has faced at least three times this season.
Conclusion: Westbrook plays very well against the Rockets, and nearly everyone else for that matter.
He is going to contribute greatly to the Thunder’s efforts regardless of the defensive looks that Rockets will throw at him. So, their first step on defense should be to limit the supporting cast of OKC. According to Darren Yuvan of SB Nation, “…In the games in which Westbrook has over a 40 percent usage rate, the Thunder are just 18-21. That means when he’s getting his teammates involved more (under a 40 percent usage), the Thunder are 27-13. If the Rockets can make Westbrook think he has to win this series by himself, then Houston comes away with an easy win.”
Getting Their Shooters Involved
During the regular season, the Rockets’ 115.3 points per game was good for the second highest average in the league. This was in large part due to their success in shooting the ball from three. With a league-high 14.4 threes made per game, Houston will need to continue producing numbers in bunches in order to conquer OKC.
With Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Sixth Man candidate Eric Gordon, and more, the Rockets have the ability to shoot lights out and put this series away before the Thunder realize what hit them.
Competing In The Rebounding Category
One key area the Rockets must try to limit the Thunder is on the boards. Oklahoma City was the best rebounding team in the league this year, and if Houston can out rebound them in this series, there’s little reason to believe they won’t win with ease.
Don’t let the rebounding figures of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter fool you. Adams’ 7.7 rebounds per game and Kanter’s 6.7 are not accurate figures of their ability to crash the glass. With Westbrook averaging a triple double during the regular season, this forced the two big men to often box out their opponents in order to make room for Westbrook, rather than grabbing a majority of the boards like traditional post players do. As they showed last year during physical playoff series with San Antonio and Golden State, the team can change the entire course of the game by creating extra possessions due to their athletic rebounders.
Good thing for Houston is that they ranked eighth in the league in rebounds this year. Rockets’ big men Nenê and Montrezl Harrell, and Clint Capella will all be players to watch in this matchup. To avoid a first round upset, the team will need to try to contain OKC’s greatest strength.
X-Factor For The Rockets: Patrick Beverly
Despite the potential destruction that Westbrook is set to cause in the series, the Rockets’ best chance at stopping him is point guard Patrick Beverly.
Of course, this individual matchup brings some history, and a lot of animosity:
From a physicality standpoint, Beverly and Westbrook never seem to disappoint in head-to-head matchups. However, the numbers show that Beverly’s defense on Westbrook may be the closest thing they have to affecting him. Take a look at the differences in his numbers with Beverly on/off the court this season:
The Rockets’ point guard clearly negatively affects Westbrook offensively. While Westbrook has typically scored more in situations involving Beverly, his field goal percentage from three and overall takes quite a dip. In other words, the numbers are still there for the MVP candidate, but the efficiency is hindered by Beverly’s defensive presence. The sample size is small, but with nearly an equal number of minutes played with Beverly on/off the court, the numbers seem to be significant.
Keys To Victory For The Thunder:
Limiting Three-Point Shooting
The Rockets’ greatest strength this season has been their ability to knock down the long ball. OKC will have to do an excellent job of defending Houston’s shots in order to steal this series. Forward Andre Roberson will be the one facing the challenging task of defending Harden. However, during the regular season series, Harden’s numbers were significantly affected by Roberson’s defensive prowess.
This leaves players like Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, and others to defend the rest of the team’s weapons. With so many deadly shooters, the Rockets have the ability to execute big scoring runs in just a matter of minutes. They are going to give the Thunder trouble if they don’t properly contest on defense.
Furthermore, they are going to need athleticism to contain Houston’s offense. With Harden playing the role of facilitator this season, the Rockets are able to make quick passes, and open up the floor for their players on the offensive end. OKC will need to close out properly and be ready to work as a unit defensively if they hope to see the second round.
Getting The Big Men Involved Offensively
To advance, Oklahoma City will have to go toe-to-toe offensively with Houston, who has looked like an offensive juggernaut this season.
This is going to require more than just Westbrook, Oladipo, and Kanter’s scoring efforts. While Kanter’s average of 14.3 points per game this season has provided the team with well-needed low-post offense, it alone won’t be enough to get past the Rockets. The team will need a resurgence from Adams and a greater output from mid-season acquisition Taj Gibson. Since the All-Star break, Adams has seen his scoring decrease by nearly three points per game, but this is in large part to his reduction in shot attempts. The Thunder don’t have many quality three-point shooters on the team, which means that they have to establish an offensive presence in the paint if they want to free up outside shots for one another.
On top of playing physical defense, the Thunder will likely need to score over 100 points every game of the series to compete with the Rockets. In order to consistently accomplish this, the big men of Oklahoma City will need to carry more of the load scoring-wise.
Having The Bench Players Hold Their Own
As confirmed by Westbrook’s massive numbers in the stat sheet, the Thunder’s scoring production has not been spread around much between players. The combined scoring average of their bench members that have played at least 30 games this year is only a mere 32.6 points per game. Remarkably, Westbrook averages 31.6 points per game by himself. Without hardly any consistent scoring coming from the bench, it will be extremely difficult for the Thunder to keep up with the Rockets offensively.
Two of the team’s most promising bench members are forward Doug McDermott and rookie guard Alex Abrines; both are shooting the ball quite effectively on the season. These are the two key players that OKC should look to get the ball to whenever most of their starters are not in the game. If either McDermott or Abrines can find a rhythm in the series, the Thunder could prove to be dangerous.
X-Factor For The Thunder: Victor Oladipo
Aside from the Thunder’s need for production from the post players, and the bench, perhaps the most important key for the team rests on the shoulders of Oladipo.
This Sunday will be the first playoff appearance of his career, and for his team to defeat the Rockets, he’ll need to make the jump into the elite category of shooting guards.
After previously being the primary scoring option for the Magic the last few years, Oladipo has made the transition into a secondary role on offense. In multiple games throughout the season, the Indiana product has displayed his ability to lead the team when Westbrook is not in the game. During a recent game against the Timberwolves, Oladipo registered 20 points and six assists for the Thunder. He also impressed audiences with his willingness to take the final shot for the team which resulted in a go-ahead basket.
If the Thunder want to take the next step into the category of elite teams in the Western Conference, Oladipo is the one who can take them there. There’s no better platform for someone to make a name for themselves than in the playoffs.
Projected Outcome: Rockets Win In Six Games
I expect the Rockets’ offensive firepower to be too great for the Thunder to match. Most of the games should result in close outcomes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if each team won at least one game on the road. After losing one of the top five players in the league last summer, Oklahoma City has little to be ashamed of following this season. However, the Thunder will need another year to find their identity as a team, rather than just Westbrook defining it for them. Expect OKC to give Houston a challenge during this series, though.
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