The Rockets have home-court advantage over Oklahoma City in round one. All the focus will be on Russ Westbrook and James Harden, but what will be the difference-makers in this series?
The probable top-2 finishers in the MVP race are set to meet in the first round of the playoffs. This is the kind of drama that should be reserved for the Finals. It doesn't seem fair.
The prominent storyline of this series is Harden vs. Westbrook, and rightly so. They've been unbelievable all year long. While it's begun to look like Westbrook has taken over the MVP pole position, James Harden has had an unprecedented season of his own. We all know it, we've all paid attention to the league this year, and we know that either team in this series will only go as far as their star can take them. With that in mind, let's look beyond just "Who's better?" between those two and look at the teams.
In four regular season matchups, three were decided by 3 points or less, with the fourth being a 12 point Houston win. The Rockets took three of the four overall, splitting the road games and winning both in Houston. The first three games, however, came in the first half of the year, meaning that the MVP race hadn't heated up yet. The fourth was that 12 point win.
Pundits have been pegging the Rockets for a possible stumble in the postseason, but they've been awfully good. James Harden has had a wrist problem and Ryan Anderson battled an injury as well, which have contributed to the late-season slacking. In games which those two have been healthy though, this has been a dominant team.
Houston is favored, so in order to win this series they'll have to simply keep doing what they've been doing. To break that down a bit, here are three keys to taking this series in convincing fashion.
1. Keep shooting
The Rockets are famous for launching more threes per game than any other team in the NBA. They shot an absurd 40 threes per game in the regular season, but they only connected on 35.7% on them - 15th in the league. With such talented shooters out there, Houston just has to keep firing them up.
Between only Ryan Anderson, James Harden, and Eric Gordon, you're looking at about 25 three point attempts per game. All of those guys can get hot, and surprisingly James Harden is the least efficient of them. He got cold down the stretch with the wrist injury, which was likely a factor, but we all know he can go 8-13 from deep on any given night.
This is what they've lived on and this is what they should continue to live on.
That's going to win the Rockets a few games.
2. Win the turnover battle
This sounds like advice for a football game, but Westbrook and Harden have the two highest totals for turnovers in NBA history. They beat the next highest number by more than 60...and that previous highest total was by James Harden last year.
In short, there are going to be turnovers all over this series. If the Houston defense can force them instead of committing them, that's a big win. It'll be close though: Houston ranks 25th in turnovers committed and Oklahoma City ranks 24th. Both teams give it away a ton. Similarly, Houston allows 17.5 points per game off of turnovers vs. the 16.9 allowed by the Thunder.
Basically, both of these teams are going to give the ball away. The question is whether Houston can corral it just a tiny bit. The Rockets cleared 20 turnovers seven times over the course of the regular season. Remarkably, they went 4-3 in those games.
The Thunder cleared 20 turnovers seven times in the regular season as well. They went 3-4 in those games. That could be the difference in this series.
3. Keep Westbrook a shooter
Easier said than done, of course, but it's still a key. Russ Westbrook is not a great shooter. However, Russ Westbrook really likes to shoot the ball. For Houston, the key will be sagging off of him while still not giving him the lane to drive inside. Sure, he averaged 10+ assists on the season, so he can get the ball to whoever is open, but if you're the Rockets, you'd rather have Andre Roberson and Russ Westbrook's outside shot be a threat instead of Westbrook drawing and-1s all day.
In the 11 games that Russ shot 12 or more three-pointers, the Thunder were just 4-7. That's what the Rockets need to go for.
Again, this isn't easy, but it must be the game-plan.
The good news for the Houston Rockets is that they can slip a little and still take control of this series. Harden can have a 10 turnover performance in a win, Anderson can miss his shots in a win, and Lou Williams could struggle off the bench in a win. It's possible for Houston because the Thunder are too reliant on Westbrook. If he slips at all, they slip.
Prediction: Houston controls the series easily, winning in five games.