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Three factors that will decide Rockets vs. Thunder

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Here’s some things to keep an eye on when the action starts on Sunday night.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the series now just two days away, it’s time to look at what some of the deciding factors will be in the first-round series between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook

This one is the most obvious, with the two primary MVP candidates squaring off head-to-head in the postseason’s opening round. The regular season match up between the two was essentially a microcosm of the entire year for both players and teams. Westbrook had the better box score than Harden, but The Beard made more clutch plays when they mattered, while we saw a lot of hero ball from Westbrook, which ultimately resulted in a 3-1 advantage in the win column for the Rockets.

Look for a similar situation in the playoffs, though it’s important to mention that for all of his regular season dominance over the years, The Beard has yet to put in a signature playoff performance. With the MVP trophy looking more and more like Westbrook’s, we could see an inspired Harden with something to prove.

It’s also possible we see Russ go supernova. Though if you recall, he pretty much was a titanic explosion against the Rockets during the regular season — averaging 36-9-9 — and it didn’t help them much in the win-loss column.

The most important factor for the Thunder (and I mentioned this in our 5-on-5 this week), is for Westbrook to really get his teammates involved. Russ led the universe with a whopping 41.7 usage percentage this season, but the Thunder have actually been a better team when he uses the ball less. They were just 18-21 this year when Russ had over a 40 percent usage rate and they were 0-2 against the Rockets. That will likely be the deciding factor in this match up. Too much Russ equals an easy win for Harden and the Rockets. If we see a more measured Brodie that’s working on getting his teammates involved, now we have a series.

The Rockets’ shooting

We all know the narrative by now. If the Rockets are knocking down their threes, they’re virtually impossible to beat. In their three regular season wins against the Thunder, the Rockets shot 38.3 percent from deep, while in their lone loss, they were just 14-40, for 35 percent (their season average is 35.7 percent).

Those three percentage points may not seem like a drastic differential, but in a series that is likely to feature several close games (three of the four regular season match ups were decided by 3 points or less), one or two extra threes per game can make all the difference in the world.

In addition, the Rockets haven’t been exactly lighting it up from beyond the arc recently. In fact, since their 137-125 win over the Thunder on March 26 in which they shot 20-39 from deep, Houston is shooting just 30.5 percent from three, which is fifth-worst in the league over that span. It’s no coincidence that the Rockets are just 4-5 in those nine games. If that shooting slump continues, Houston could be in real trouble. If the Rockets snap out if it, it’s the Thunder who will be up the proverbial creek.

The battle in the paint

The Thunder are the league’s top rebounding team. Contrary to what Westbrook apologists would have you believe, Russ does have help in OKC. In fact, the Thunder front line of Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and now Taj Gibson are actually quite formidable.

Adams has been slumping a bit, but you can be sure the eccentric 7-footer from New Zealand will be ready to go for the playoffs. (As an aside, I really like Adams. I live in Pittsburgh and got to watch him up close and in person many, many times when he played college ball at Pitt. The guy can play. Blaspheme, I know, but what can I say?) Kanter is averaging 14 and 7 this year off the bench, which is more points per game than any big man in Houston, and Gibson brings added talent, depth and toughness to the OKC rotation.

The Houston front of Clint Capela, Nene and Ryan Anderson will certainly have their hands full banging with those guys underneath and trying to keep them off the boards. But the key to this match up is Anderson.

The stretch four missed two weeks late in the season with an ankle injury, though the time off appears to have helped him. In the four games after his return right before the regular season ended, he shot 17-35 from beyond the arc. Keep up that red, hot touch from deep, and it should open some things up for Houston in the paint and on the offensive boards. He’s been key to the Houston attack all year, and that likely holds true in the postseason as well.