The Oklahoma City Thunder stormed into the postseason with an impressive 60-22 record in the regular season that secured them home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs. They somehow managed to go unnoticed this year thanks to Miami's incredible 28 game win streak. Throw in the fact that the San Antonio Spurs were the 1 seed all year, the Lakers pushed the self destruct button and rose from the ashes, and everyone was questioning the Thunder management for trading James Harden; and you can understand why the Thunder managed to fly under the radar for a team that won 60 games and outscored it's opponent by 9.2 points/game.
The Houston Rockets took an entirely different path into the postseason. For most of the year they scratched and clawed their way to victories that many people had them losing. But with James Harden acquired in an off-season trade, the Rockets managed to take off and land themselves a spot in the post season. Although they had two chances to clinch the 6th and 7th seed, the season has to be viewed as a success because the team brought playoff basketball back to Houstonians that have been craving it since the Rockets were eliminated by the Lakers in the second round of the 2009 playoffs (Yao Ming was still playing at 100%, that's how long it has been).
With Oklahoma City looking toward an (almost) inevitable rematch with the Heat in the NBA Finals, the Rockets will have to make history and pull off an upset for the ages if it wants to get past the first round. This is how the starting 5 for each team will match up against each other.
This is the match up that Oklahoma City will exploit the most. Jeremy Lin is one of the faster players in the league, but he is nothing compared to the athletic ability of Russell Westbrook. I expect many shouts from Rockets fans to put in Patrick Beverely instead of Lin by the end of this series. Which I can understand, but Russell Westbrook may be the best point guard in the league and anyone will have a tough time stopping him in the post season.
Advantage: Oklahoma City-Russell Westbrook
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. James Harden
This is the match up that the Rockets need to exploit the most. Sefolosha is a great defender, but I think Harden's offensive skills will be able to overcome his defensive ones. For Houston to have a chance at even making this series reasonable, they need Harden to play smart basketball. Wednesday night in Los Angeles was not smart basketball. He can't afford to wind down the shot clock until there are 7 seconds left, try to make a move, and when it's not there kick it out to Lin or Parsons or Delfino for a desperation 3 point shot. If it's not there, he needs to pass the ball sooner and move around to create space and get the ball again for all I care. I just know that if I have to watch the Rockets blow a game because Harden wants to play hero ball against his former team I am going to lose it.
Advantage: Houston Rockets-James Harden
Kevin Durant is not nice. He is going to make Chandler Parsons wish he was still in college. If there wasn't a certain player called Lebron James in the league, Kevin Durant would definitely be accepting his first MVP award from David Stern during these playoffs. I could go on for days about how good Kevin Durant is, but I believe he will show us just how good is is over the next two months of playoff basketball.
Houston fans will claim that Parsons is a great defender, and on most nights he is, but going up against Kevin Durant in a playoff series is far more difficult than going up against Kevin Durant in a regular season game.
Advantage: Oklahoma City-Kevin Durant
I have no idea who Houston will be playing to start the games against Serge Ibaka, but my best guess is Terrence Jones because he was getting significant minutes in the final few games of the season and seemed to be gaining more confidence with every game he played. Regardless, Ibaka will wipe the floor with whoever Kevin McHale decides to sacrifice that night. Ibaka's shot blocking ability make him a dangerous match up not just for whoever is playing PF for the Rockets, but for the entire Rockets team. I expect Jeremy Lin and James Harden to be frustrated on multiple occasions every game by Ibaka's athleticism and shot blocking skills.
Advantage: Oklahoma City-Serge Ibaka
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs Omer Asik
This is the closest match up on the court in my opinion. Perkins is a great defender and thrives on making the opposing centers life a living hell, but Asik has a surprising amount of offensive skill that will give Perkins one or two headaches throughout the course of this series. Couple that with the likelihood of Perkins sitting out the entire 4th quarter because he is such an offensive liability, and I could easily see Asik having a very good series. That could all crumble though if he gets in foul trouble early and forces McHale to sub in one of the young guns on the bench, which would then result in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking it to rim on every single offensive possession (at least that's what I would tell them to do if I was Scott Brooks).
Advantage: Houston-Omer Asik
Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets
Houston won't roll over easily, but Oklahoma City won't let this get to six games. Their starting five is just so much better than Houston's at the moment and it will not be hard for them to send James Harden and the boys on a early vacation. Don't count out James Harden to win a game by himself with a crazy 50/10/10 night though because he will want to show off his talents on a national stage and prove that he can lead a team by himself to the Oklahoma City management that thought they could cash in on him and not lose a step in the quest to get back to the NBA Finals.
FINAL PREDICTION: Thunder in 5
CRAZY HOUSTON HOMER CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT!!!
Scott Brooks decides that he would rather lead a team with James Harden and good role players, than wait for the inevitable doom that is the Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant situation. He tanks the first round and gets fired on the spot, where he is greeted by Leslie Alexander who automatically offers him a return to the team he won an NBA Championship with in 1994.
Hey, a guy can dream right?