Like a kid waiting patiently for Christmas Day, basketball fans all over the world are celebrating the start of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Unfortunately, many of the matchups appear to be one-sided and somewhat predictable, so they do not offer a lot of excitement. That is definitely not the case for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. One of the major storylines throughout the season has been the MVP battle between the league’s two primary contenders in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and while both players definitely have their merits and reasons for being deserving of the award, each player’s fanbase will argue heavily in favor of their respective superstar. All media votes for MVP have been turned in, but the award will not be announced until later. For now, basketball fans will have to enjoy the series-battle between two of the league’s youngest and most exciting superstars and their teams.
Regular Season Series
The Houston Rockets won the season series 3-1, and while the final meeting was a blowout in favor of Houston, each of the first three games was decided by no more than three points.
- November 16, 2016: The Thunder picked up a win in Oklahoma City in the first matchup of the season with the Rockets. At the time, Oklahoma City had lost its previous four games, while Houston had won three of its last four. The Thunder jumped out to a lead early in a high-scoring first quarter, but the Rockets stormed back to take a 5-point lead into the fourth quarter. With only seven seconds left in the game and Oklahoma City leading by three, the Thunder inbounded the ball to Russell Westbrook, who instead of trying to run the clock out, went straight to the basket for one of his early MVP moments as he posterized Clint Capela to drive home the dagger. FINAL OKC 105 – HOU 103
- December 9, 2016: The second meeting of the season for the Thunder and the Rockets also came in Oklahoma City, but the Rockets would be the victor in this one. Much like the first matchup, Houston entered the fourth quarter with a lead, and Russell Westbrook did everything he could to bring the Thunder back, but his efforts were not enough to get the win. With under nine minutes to play and Oklahoma City trailing by 12 points, Westbrook managed to score 11 points and bring the Thunder within 1, but Trevor Ariza hit 2 free throws 5 seconds left to put the Rockets up by 3, and Anthony Morrow missed a three at the buzzer, tying the season series at 1-1. FINAL OKC 99 – HOU 102
- January 5, 2017: The third matchup between Oklahoma City and Houston started off like the first game, where the Thunder jumped out to an early lead, but the Rockets stormed back in the second quarter to take a 9-point lead into halftime. Houston continued to maintain their lead as they entered the final quarter up by 12, but the second unit managed to cut that to 8 before Westbrook checked in with just a little over seven minutes left in the game. Russ scored 9 of his game-high 49 points in the next five minutes and his teammates chipped in with another 9 points to put the Thunder up by 2 points with a couple minutes to play. Oklahoma City could not hold on to the lead, however, as the Rockets hit 4 free throws and the Thunder could not hit a shot. FINAL OKC 116 – HOU 118
- March 26, 2017: The final game of the regular season series was the only one that was not close at all. Houston shot a ridiculous 20/39 (51.3%) from three, and they led from start to finish, by as many as 25 points at one point. Despite having one of their best offensive games of the season, the team played some of its worst defense of the season, and the Rockets’ sharpshooting was too much to overcome. FINAL OKC 125 – HOU 137
Keys to the Series
- Protect the Perimeter: For the regular season, the Thunder was fairly average at defending the three, allowing 35.6% from behind the arc (14th in the NBA). Against Houston, however, Oklahoma City has allowed the Rockets to make 40% of their attempts, which is especially bad when the Rockets shoot a league-leading 40.3 three-point attempts per game. Simply put, Houston has talented shooters at nearly every position, both in the starting lineup and on the bench, so Oklahoma City needs to do everything they can to not just defend perimeter shots, but the Thunder needs to make a concerted effort to run shooters off the three-point line and force them to adjust their offensive scheme.
- Own the Interior: The Thunder and the Rockets are very similar when it comes to their abilities in the paint. Oklahoma City ranks 1st in the NBA with 49.9 points in the paint, while Houston is 6th with 46.7 points in the paint. The Thunder is 29th in opponent scoring in the paint allowing 47.5 points down low, while the Rockets are 30th allowing 49.0 points. Lastly, Oklahoma City ranks 1st in rebounding with 46.6 rebounds per game, while Houston is 8th with 44.4 rebounds per game. Through four games in the regular season, the Thunder edged out the Rockets 206-198 when it came to points in the paint, and Oklahoma City outrebounded Houston by an average of 2.5 rebounds per game. The Thunder does not have the talent to keep up with the Rockets in terms of shooting the ball, so if Oklahoma City wants to get a leg up on Houston, they’re going to have to use their size and strength down low.
- Backup from the Bench: All eyes will be on Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but the real story of this series is going to come from role players. Houston has one of the better second units in the NBA with their bench scoring 39.0 points per game (5th in the NBA). Oklahoma City is pretty average in terms of backup scoring with 36.1 bench points per game (14th in the NBA). In the four meetings in the regular, James Harden was only the leading scorer for the Rockets twice, and Houston averaged five other players in double-digits per game. Oklahoma City was led by Russell Westbrook’s scoring for all four games, and the Thunder only had 3 other players per game score in double digits. James Harden undoubtedly has the better supporting cast, but the Thunder have what the Rockets do not. Stealing from Enes Kanter in his recent contribution to The Player’s Tribune entitled Russ, “We’re the team with Russell Westbrook on it.” Westbrook does a lot statistically, but one thing he does that often goes unnoticed is that he encourages his teammates, and he makes them better. Westbrook’s counterparts will have to step up in this series and do their part because Russell can only carry the team so far.
Article written by Zack Low. Follow @TheThunderGuys on Twitter and Instagram.