With the Rockets' first playoff series in four years a mere hours away, The Dream Shake writers have begun asking ourselves some key questions about this match-up with the reigning Western Conference champions. Which players could step into the spotlight and have an impact in this series, where are Houston's biggest holes and does this team really have a chance to pull the monster upset? Here's what we had to say...
1. Which Rockets player could be an x-factor in this series?
Matt: Greg Smith. It's no question the Rockets are better defensively when Smith is on the floor. Guarding Ibaka is no easy task, but he can also help keep Durant and Westbrook out of the paint, so Houston needs Smith to stay out of foul trouble. His hyper efficient offensive game (63.6 TS%) also makes him a unique scoring option, as he's one of the few Rockets who can score with ease in the post.
Patrick: Jeremy Lin. The Rockets will need a number of players to step up if they want a chance at winning the series, and Jeremy Lin is the most notable of those. Though he has been inconsistent, outside of Harden, he has shown the best ability to play at an elite level at times, and he will need to play at that level.
Jesus: The Rockets bench play. The Rockets bench will have to be ready to play when called upon. Kevin McHale has an array of players to choose from and that should benefit Houston to avoid match-up problems. A veteran player like Francisco Garcia may see more minutes. His shooting touch and veteran savvy will give the Rockets an advantage when he's on the floor. And of course Carlos Delfino will have to bring his scoring to negate any points from former Rocket Kevin Martin.
Max: Omer Asik. Asik anchors the Rockets defense and creates fast break opportunities and transition baskets with his rebounding. If Asik gets in foul trouble the lane is wide open for Westbrook and Durant. His mere presence on the court will be vital.
2. Which Thunder player could be an x-factor in this series?
Matt: Thabo Sefolosha. Harden has struggled at times this year when guarded by elite perimeter defenders, and Sefolosha is certainly among the best. But the defensive specialist also put up a season-high 28 points the last time the two teams met and averaged 17.3 points on 62.5% shooting in three games against Houston this year. The Rockets cannot leave him open outside the arc.
Patrick: Serge Ibaka. The Rockets feast on getting the ball into the paint and either scoring there or tossing it out to three point shooters. If OKC can shut down the middle, they will make the Rockets extremely one-dimensional offensively. Serge Ibaka, with that extraordinary combination of length and athleticism can do that. That's why they chose to keep him this summer and why they are such a dangerous team.
Jesus: Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha is a stout perimeter defender and has played James Harden well, making the beard work hard for his shots. Harden did torch Sefolosha for 46 points on 19 shots in their last meeting. For his part Sefolosha scored nearly half that going for 28. That's what makes Sefolosha dangerous. He has the potential to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
Max: Serge Ibaka. This playoffs is Serge Ibaka's big moment to shine. His defense will be key to keeping James Harden from getting his points in the paint. If Ibaka is able to choke off Harden's drives the Rockets offense is in serious trouble.
3. How should this Rockets team attempt to defend Kevin Durant?
Matt: However they can. Parsons is Houston's only perimeter defender who possesses the length to bother Durant's jump shot and the speed to keep up with him off the dribble. But OKC will try to switch defenders, and Parsons will have to fight through screens to stay effective. They can't double Durant, because of OKC's other weapons, but if Asik is on the floor, they can prevent him from getting easy points at the rim.
Patrick: Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino are going to have to get right under Durant and try to disrupt him somehow, but it's really just going to take a lot of effort and a good amount of luck. I re-watched how the Rockets defended Durant in the season series, and Carlos Delfino did a surprisingly excellent job of staying in front of Durant and forcing him into tough jumpers. If Delfino can guard Durant for stretches, that will free up Parsons to potentially guard Westbrook at times, a strategy I'd endorse to keep Lin fresh.
Jesus: This is going to be Chandler Parsons main job. He's the Rockets best wing defender and has had some luck containing him during stretches. Parsons should force Durant to drive to the center where Omer Asik can help out. Durant will be hard to stop but at best Houston needs to contain him. Delfino and Garcia will probably spend some time guarding Durant as well.
Max: I hate the sound of Carlos Delfino guarding Durant, but the Rockets can't have Chandler Parsons expending all of his energy on Durant. I expect to see McHale move assignments back-and-forth. Ultimately I think the Rockets lack the personnel to contain Durant & Westbrook for 48 minutes
4. What is Houston's biggest weakness in this series?
Matt: Two big weaknesses in this one: perimeter defense and stagnant offense. Lin will get scorched by Westbrook, forcing McHale to offer up a heavy dose of Beverley, and Houston does not defend the 3-pointer well (22nd in the league), so Sefolosha, Martin and others are probably licking their chops. Offensively, the Rockets have to move the ball more and get away from isolation plays which killed them in their last two regular season losses.
Patrick: The primary weakness that will likely doom the Rockets is the inability to generate consistent offense out of a half-court set as games go along. If the Rockets aren't getting buckets via the pick-and-roll, there are few wrinkles they can throw at teams.
Jesus: Stagnant Offense. This is Houston's biggest concern heading into the playoffs. What happens when the fast break points aren't there? Can the Rockets half-court offense generate enough points to stay withing striking distance of a win? This past season proved the Rockets can play at break-neck speed, but in the playoffs every possession counts and the tempo favors a half-court game. It might be the time for the stars of the team to shine and don't be surprised if Chandler Parsons shines the brightest next to Harden.
Max: The Offense: The Rockets inability to find points when three pointers are not falling and James Harden is not getting to the line. The offense has looked sickly in the last two weeks. There's little reason to think it's been righted since the loss to LA.
5. How can the Rockets pull the upset?
Matt: The 3-point line. When the Rockets' shooters are killing it, they're essentially unstoppable. They have to push the tempo offensively, keep the ball moving and give their shooters open looks. But it isn't all on Harden. Parsons, Delfino, Lin, Beverley, Jones and Motiejunas have to hit perimeter jumpers when they get open looks, especially from the corners. If they don't, the floor spacing will shrink and Houston could get swept.
Patrick: The biggest way to pull the upset is just to hope that everything swings the Rockets way with regards to getting hot from three. Outside of that, the Rockets have to keep the ball moving in transition and not allow Oklahoma City and their bigs to get set up on defense. If they can keep the pressure on OKC, they'll have a shot in this one.
Jesus: Three-point shooting and James Harden. Harden alone will get Houston one win on his own. It'll be something to the tune of 35 points or more, but can he repeat a performance like that every game? This is where the Rockets three-point shooting comes in. Houston needs to launch the three and hit enough of them to keep pace with Oklahoma. If Houston has it going from the outside it opens up the game for Harden and Jeremy Lin to drive the lane.
Max: Three pointers have to be falling. Our bench has to score big. Greg Smith/Terrence Jones need to make the team better defensively. James Harden and/or Jeremy Lin need to show some end of game clutch.
6. What is your final prediction for the series?
Matt: Thunder in six. Harden's postseason return to OKC will make for compelling basketball, but even if he and Parsons play out of their minds, it probably won't be enough to usurp the reigning Western Conference champs. The Rockets will surprise some by shooting lights out to steal a couple of wins, but Westbrook (averaging 23/8 against Houston this year) will dominate this series and Houston will have a couple of ugly games offensively.
Patrick: OKC in six. I predicted a few days ago that the Thunder would take it in 5 because I don't have confidence in the Rockets to win two in a row at home, but thinking it through now, I believe the Rockets have a good shot at stealing Game 1 on the road today. In the end, however, OKC is just too powerful and will almost certainly take this series.
Jesus: Thunder in 6. Ultimately the Rockets are going to falter through no fault of their own. Houston is a young team on the rise and needs to pay its dues. This playoff loss will help make Houston better in the long run. Kevin McHale will also learn from this experience from a coaching perspective, he has plenty of playoff experience as a player so this isn't unfamiliar territory for him. In the end the Thunder have too much firepower in Durant and Russell Westbrook not to mention Serge Ibaka's rise as a scorer.
Max: Oklahoma City in six. I'm giving the Rockets a game here. I think there will be two games where the Rockets shoot lights out from three and hang a 120 on the board.
So, there you have it. All four writers agree this team's biggest struggles are with their half-court offensive sets, that they'll have to drain threes consistently to pull an upset and the Thunder will likely win the series in six games. But what do you think? Do you see other areas of concern in facing the Thunder? And does anyone believe the Rockets can pull off a miracle?