In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #3 seeded Houston Rockets (55-27) will take on the #6 seeded Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35). The Rockets won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Sunday at 9:00 PM EST on TNT.
When looking at this series, what stands out most to your average NBA fan is the matchup between Rockets guard James Harden and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Both guys are in the MVP conversation and both at one point played on the same team in Oklahoma City along with Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. This reunion of sorts between Harden and Westbrook will be fun to watch as they go about trying to show which one of them is the more deserving MVP candidate.
Statistically speaking, both players have had phenomenal years. James Harden is averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 44.0% from the field, 34.7% from three-point range, and 84.7% from the foul line. Russell Westbrook has become the first player to average a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson, averaging 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. Even if they hadn't been teammates before, just from a statistical standpoint it should be fun to watch these guys go at it. This is one of the best backcourt matchups we've seen in a playoff series in quite a while.
When looking at the both the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder as whole, it is clear that the Rockets have more weapons than the Thunder. Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, and Trevor Ariza all average in double figures for the Rockets, giving James Harden plenty of offensive weapons to turn to. Plus, the Rockets also have a fantastic perimeter defender in Patrick Beverley, who has the capability of frustrating Russell Westbrook and making things harder on him than he'd like.
The Thunder on the other hand have only three additional guys scoring in double figures in Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams. Adams is much more of a banger and enforcer down low, so it really is just Oladipo and Kanter who give Russell Westbrook the scoring relief that he sorely needs. The harsh reality for the Thunder is that they have to rely a lot more on Russell Westbrook than the Rockets need to rely on James Harden, which puts all the more pressure on Westbrook to deliver the goods in this series.
If there is anything I can say that should give Thunder fans some hope, it's that Russell Westbrook might be a super human and the Rockets' jump shooting style could come back to haunt them. Russell Westbrook is having perhaps the greatest regular season in NBA history and has proven himself capable of carrying his team on his back. If there's anyone that can carry a team on his back against a team like the Rockets, it's Russell Westbrook.
As far as the Rockets' jump shooting style is concerned, these guys shoot a lot of threes. They've made more threes than the 2015-16 Warriors did and have also attempted more threes in the process. In the playoffs, things always get more tight and it gets increasingly tougher to win by hitting jumpers. The old expression "live by the three, die by the three" seems to be the Rockets' motto. So far, it has served them well, but there's always the chance that they start to get cold and the Thunder capitalize in transition. The Rockets' risky style of play always puts things up to chance and should give the Thunder a lot of hope that they can find a way to pull off the upset.
While it is true that the Rockets live by the three and play a risky style of basketball, I still have them coming out on top in this series in seven games. I think this will be a back and forth series, but what will ultimately decide this series is the Rockets having home court advantage and more weapons. If this series goes to a Game 7, I think James Harden has a big game and his supporting cast plays big as well. Don't get me wrong, it would not shock me to see Russell Westbrook go into the Toyota Center and pull off the upset. If there's anyone who can do it it's him. It's just that the odds are not in his favor.
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