This week is a special Playoff Preview Edition of TDS Tuesday!
We look into the individual matchups, the key players and the X-factors for the Houston Rockets impending first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In compiling these answers, there was a lot of difference in opinion with this week’s questions more than any other week, so this series if full of intrigue. Playoffs, guys! This weekend!
This week’s TDS panelists include Adam Sweeney (AS), Xian E (XE), Darren Yuvan (DY), Ethan Rothstein (ER), and Joshua Broom (JB), a special guest panelist and editor for Welcome to Loud City, the Thunder SB Nation site. Thank you for collaborating with us, Josh!
Continue these debates in the comments and check out WTLC for some more insight on our playoff opponent.
1. Who is the biggest X-Factor for each team?
AS: The answer for both teams lies down low. Although this is definitely the year of the guard, Enes Kanter, who possesses a top-20 PER, and Steven Adams have been destroying teams on the boards (the Thunder are the best rebounding team in the NBA). They could tip the scales in OKC's favor when it comes to offensive production. More rebounds means more time for Russell Westbrook to attack. It is imperative that Clint Capela and Nene Hilario bring energy against the duo. The Rockets are seventh overall in rebounding but they only possess a +0.5 differential, compared to the Thunder's +5.8 margin. That's a potential of 15 points in favor of OKC, not counting fouls, and the Rockets need to lower that margin. It's playoffs time so games will be tight. Every rebound truly does count.
XE: Thunder: Victor Oladipo - his defense on Harden and offensive contributions are, to my mind, a key for the Thunder. Without him, they don’t stand a good chance of winning.
Rockets: Ryan Anderson - if he’s shooting well, rebounding decently and doing something resembling defense, the Rockets’ job is much easier.
DY: I have to say the secondary scorers for each squad, so that would be Eric Gordon for the Rockets and Victor Oladipo for the Thunder. If either of these guys can get hot and take some of the scoring pressure off of James Harden or Russell Westbrook, it will bode well for their chances. I'm also keeping an eye on Patrick Beverley: he's a permanent x-factor.
ER: For the Rockets, the answer has to be Trevor Ariza. When he shoots well, the Rockets almost never lose. And it's likely he will be tasked with guarding Russell Westbrook for stretches if Patrick Beverley gets in foul trouble. Ryan Anderson's shooting is another place the series can swing, but Ariza forever remains the Rockets' greatest source of potential variance.
For the Thunder, it would have to be Roberson, as he will be guarding Harden for most of the time in the series.
JB: While Oklahoma City and Houston boast generation-defining offensive talents in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, their primary defenders, Andre Roberson and Patrick Beverley will become indispensable X-Factors during this intriguing opening-round matchup.
Throughout the teams' contested season encounters, Roberson played a significant role in frustrating Harden's explosive scoring bursts. The 6'7” All-NBA caliber defender limited Harden to 20.5 ppg in four meetings -- or 8.8 points below his normal average.
Consider, however, that rugged Patrick Beverley was absent during Oklahoma City's lone seasonal win vs. Houston. OKC's initial productive outing was catalyzed by Westbrook's season-series low 20 FGA as backcourt-mate Victor Oladipo added 29 vital points. Yet, with Beverley in tow, Victor Oladipo's output dwindled (17-44 FG in 3 losses vs. Hou) as Westbrook's number of forced attempts (27 FGA) rose.
Undoubtedly, vs. OKC, Beverley's presence held a considerable impact for Houston's cause, and there is no reason to doubt that this will be the case when the playoffs open. Conversely, in addition to Oladipo's fire re-igniting, Roberson must continue to shadow Harden's every step for the Thunder to be effective.
2. Other than Harden vs. Westbrook, what matchup are you looking forward to the most?
AS: Mike D'Antoni versus Billy Donovan is going to be an X's and O's Game of Thrones. I was admittedly skeptical that D'Antoni could have a positive impact this year for the Rockets, but then again, I didn't know if the ghost of John Wooden could have saved last year's Rockets team. Fast forward to present day and he has been the perfect match for the MVP (Don't say Westbrook. Just don't.) and the Morey-Ball Rockets. Meanwhile, Donovan's transition to the NBA from the college ranks has been equally remarkable. He was one Kevin Durant and Westbrook meltdown of a fourth quarter away from heading to last year's NBA Finals and the Thunder have been one of the most fun teams to watch all year. The players will get all the run, but the masterminds behind their schemes will play a heavy role in deciding this series.
XE: Patrick Beverley harassing Westbrook. They have a history, and a playoff history/rivalry at that. This is another chapter in that saga, and Beverley will get the chance to try and shut down Mr. Triple-Double. It’s going to be two of the most physical guys in the league going at it. Playoff basketball at its best. What’s there not to like?
DY: I'm looking forward to the battle on the front line. Clint Capela, Nene and Ryan Anderson against Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson. The bigs on both teams rightfully take a backseat to the star guards, but these guys can all play, and when they play well, their teams usually win. I'll obviously be watching The Beard and Russ do their thing, but this will be the second place I'm keeping an eye on.
ER: Is it kosher to say Beverley vs. Westbrook? They'll be guarding each other after all, and there's no head-to-head matchup in the league that brings this much animosity, history and physicality. A fight is almost assured. Beverley will be at his irritant best, and there's no one you want to put in compromising positions than the best player/emotional heart of a team (see: Green, Draymond).
Plus, these are two of the best rebounding guards in the league, along with Harden. Westbrook may stat-pad his boards, but make no mistake: he's an incredible rebounder. Beverley gets rebounds he has no business snagging about three times a game. Seeing them duke it out on the glass will be like heroin for hoops junkies.
JB: Without question, "The Kiwi Enforcer" Steven Adams vs. rising big Clint Capela.
I know that I'm a Thunder guy, but I've followed Houston closely this year. In a fairly undeniable observation, one of Morey's finest recent decisions was letting Dwight Howard walk in favor of developing Capela. There is a certain beauty in the Capela/Harden high pNr set.
With that said, I think Oklahoma City is in trouble if Steven Adams fails to emerge from his recent decline -- last 11 games, 48/48 FG/FT%, 8.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg.
Curiously, Adams' once-staid bravado has been replaced with apathy as well as a deficiency in pick-and-roll coverage. Against Houston and Capela, Adams must return to mid-season form, or things could quickly turn in Houston's favor.
3. What is the Rockets' biggest obstacle for this series?
AS: The Rockets' biggest threat to advancing to the second round comes in their approach to the Beard vs. Brodie narrative. It makes no sense to getting into a pissing contest to determine the "Real MVP." The Rockets are the superior team and need to keep their composure. I don't care if Westbrook averages all the triple doubles. He can't win the series on his own. Luckily for us, D'Antoni faced Westbrook 1.0 in the Playoffs in 2006 against the ultimate ballhog, Kobe Bryant. The Suns neutralized all of Bryant's teammates, when the "Black Mamba" wasn't ignoring them anyway, and came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. Harden and Friends need to shut out the media noise and just play as a team. The rest will take care of itself.
XE: The referees. How physical will the refs are let the series be? If it’s very physical, and without many whistles, that hugely favors OKC.
If the Thunder aren’t allowed to slap freely, it’s "Those Longeurs.”
You know, the Rockets are ahead and lose focus. The Rockets are ahead, and suddenly the shots stop falling, no one wants to drive the rim, they just want to shoot their way out of it. Entire quarters where only Harden can make a shot. That sort of thing.
DY: Most people will is say it's keeping Westbrook at least a little contained, but I say what the Rockets must do to win the series is actually keep his teammates under wraps. Looks, Russ is going to get his. There's no question about that. But where the Thunder are dangerous is when Westbrook's teammates get involved. When it's the All-Russ, All-The-Time Show, the Thunder are actually pretty bad. In fact, in the games in which Westbrook has over a 40 percent usage rate, the Thunder are just 18-21. That means when he's getting his teammates involved more (under a 40 percent usage), the Thunder are 27-13. If the Rockets can make Westbrook think he has to win this series by himself, then Houston comes away with an easy win.
ER: Themselves. If the Rockets go cold from deep, that's the only thing that should be able to sink them against the Thunder. Roberson can reduce Harden to 80% of his best form, but there will be plenty of looks for his teammates. If they can't shoot and lose confidence, the Rockets could be going home early. If they're hitting their shots, the Thunder don't have close to the firepower to match up with them.
JB: I'd say limiting, or withstanding the puzzling aftermath of Russell Westbrook's unpredictable, and often unbelievable late-game heroics. Following OKC vs. Denver, sentiment, along with momentum resides firmly within OKC's camp.
Even with all the numbers and technologies we have to analyze this great game, sometimes basketball-outcomes can prove a strange animal. And momentum is a tricky thing. We will see if Oklahoma City and Westbrook can bottle this sentiment vs. Houston, or if it will dissipate. Regardless, Houston must be mindful of the preternatural feats Russell Westbrook is capable of. If such occur, Houston must then remain calm and adhere to a solid series gameplan.
4. Will this series affect the MVP race?
AS: Yes, but only if there is a decidedly dominant performance by either Harden or Westbrook. The latter is getting all the shine right now and the narrative is largely about how he has "carried" the Thunder to the Playoffs (Ignore the fact that this was a team picked to make the Playoffs even before the season, but whatever). The Thunder are the underdog, so if they pull off the upset, then Westbrook is a lock for the MVP. Now, if Harden can outmatch Westbrook statistically and the Rockets sweep the Thunder then maybe the media will finally come to their senses and realize his value, which is not based on inflated stats that are increased by the volume of his shots. But if the series plays out as expected, with Harden taking an efficient approach as the Rockets outlast the Thunder and Westbrook's hero ball, then the MVP narrative will remain stagnant.
XE: Who knows? It seems that the media has decided that, yessiree, counting stats and round numbers ARE super important after all, and so it’s got to be Russ. Honestly, I don’t think even Peak Kobe could have conceived of a season as self-absorbed as Westbrook’s.
Harden has been the best player by nearly any serious measure of effectiveness. His team has more wins in a tougher conference than LeBron’s Luxury-Tax-All-Star-Best-Supporting-Actors.
Kawhi Leonard getting the award is like giving the MVP to something like “Erosion” or “Entropy.” It’s as though when designing and setting the specs on their new superstar the Spurs said “Tim Duncan was WAY TOO INTERESTING. We need someone with far less personality. Someone who makes black and gray seem whimsical. Someone who might not even be a person. Someone who could possibly be a forklift, or CNC lathe, but with less flair and drama.
DY: I doubt it. Even though the award is not announced until later in the playoffs, I believe much of the voting is done earlier, so we're unlikely to see the race affected much by the outcome of this series.
ER: It's certainly going to affect the narrative. Either way, it will be used as justification for or an argument against the winner. It's a regular season award, and the votes will have already been cast. I am also very tired of the MVP conversation and just want it to go away.
JB: I believe the regular-season MVP votes will be submitted this Friday, just before the playoffs.
Though, hypothetically, in the court of public opinion, this series wields major impact upon who the NBA universe will regard as their true MVP. A strong most valuable player case, along with Kawhi Leonard, can be made for both Westbrook and Harden. Of course, though a realist, I'm also a bit partial to what Russell has achieved this season.
However, the realist in me states that he who advances, excluding few scenarios, is most valuable.
5. What is your prediction for the series?
AS: The Rockets will want to finish this series quickly because the road to the NBA Finals is going to be a gauntlet, but the NBA will want this one to go the distance. Truth be told, it really is the most entertaining first-round battle on paper. And yeah, Westbrook is going to get his and the Thunder will grab a few wins. But let's be real; the Rockets play more cohesively and SHOULD advance. It will come down to the supporting casts of each team and I'm expecting the Rockets to get hot at the right time. Give me the Rockets in 6.
XE: Just to be short here, Rockets in six, with one of the two losses being painfully stupid.
DY: I actually have the Rockets in 5 games. I was tempted to go Rockets in 6 and give OKC a second win, but I just feel that the Thunder don't match up well with the Rockets, and Houston has proven in the regular season that they can really attack OKC offensively. I think James Harden and the Rockets make a statement in this series, and I feel Westbrook will try to do too much, which as I already mentioned, is usually not a good outcome for the Thunder. They get one at home in OKC, and that's it.
ER: Rockets in 6.
JB: An essential, yet painstaking question to answer. With emotions, and personal stakes running high, this anticipated series could veer down multiple paths. The most obvious is a hard-fought, six or seven game Houston win --due to OKC's road difficulties. Although, Oklahoma City has proven that on any given night they are capable of overcoming any opponent. If Russell Westbrook's unparalleled run coincides with an Adams resurgence and handful of big Oladipo efforts, OKC can advance.
I'll leave that answer there for you guys to ruminate upon. Thanks for including me in this great panel. And let's break some first-round TV ratings for Brodie vs. The Beard!