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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Game 1 preview

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

After a long regular season featuring 286 road games (all stats approximate) and a last couple of weeks that meant literally nothing, the Rockets finally begin the second season tonight.

Houston opens at Toyota Center, a right they earned by grabbing the league’s third best overall record during the regular season. Maybe the media stopped caring about winning, but at least the NBA has to acknowledge it as Houston gets Games 1 and 2 on its home court.

Still, I think both teams probably feel confident on either court. Houston collapsed in Game 1 and held on late in Game 2 of the season series. Game 3 was a close affair that was decided by a late foul by the Thunder after Westbrook missed a jumper in the clutch. Game 4 was basically all Rockets as Houston just overwhelmed the Thunder with their shooting and ability to spread OKC’s defense. Still, OKC probably feels like they got unlucky and that Houston cannot hit that many threes again. If they are right, this is a close series.

Darren had his three factors that will decide the series, and I have three of my own (with some overlap).

Rebounding

Darren mentioned the battle in the paint, and I expect that to play a huge role here too.

The Thunder were the best rebounding team in the NBA this season, as OKC’s cadre of bigs is a nightmare to deal with. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Taj Gibson can all turn the game just on their offensive rebounding ability. In fact, all three also averaged double digits in points against Houston this season. A lot of those points came off of offensive rebounds and ensuing baskets or fouls.

If Nene, Clint Capela, and (maybe) Montrezl Harrell cannot contain the OKC bigs, that’s a huge advantage for the Thunder. Houston will counter by trying to force OKC to just play one big rather than two.

Andre Roberson and Patrick Beverley

Plenty of attention has rightfully gone to James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but it’s interesting that both of these teams have a stopper for the opposing superstar. Patrick Beverley is reviled by the OKC fanbase despite doing something that every point guard still does to this day. Roberson has contained Harden in a way that should be the envy of every stopper in the NBA.

The Rockets will be content to let Russ get his, but OKC cannot really afford to let Harden slice them up. I expect Bev and Roberson to mirror Westbrook and Harden’s minutes, respectively. Unless...

Foul trouble

Foul trouble will dictate a lot in this series, just like it does in every series. Roberson and Bev are going to be the key figures in that sense, since the NBA won’t be crazy enough to force Harden or Westbrook to sit.

And if you’ll humor my conspiracy tendencies for a minute, I think the NBA is going to do what it can to make this a close series. First, I don’t think the NBA wants Westbrook out in the first round if he’s the MVP (and they know already). So if Houston starts to pull away, look for the whistles to take over.

I think all fans think the refs go against their team. Likewise, I expect the refs to at least try to put their whistles away. If Harden gets a three-shot foul I’ll be stunned. There’s a 100% chance the refs won’t call it.

Prediction

OKC in 6

Tip-off is at 8pm CT on TNT.

P.S. Whenever James Harden or Russell Westbrook get to the free throw line at home, the fans will chant “M-V-P!” And every time, someone will make a joke about how the fans are really sweet to be serenading the other guy. For example:

(James Harden is shooting free throws)

Toyota Center fans: M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!

OKC fan: Oh look the Rockets fans are chanting for Westbrook!

It’s going to happen so many times. Get ready. This will be the new “Houston, you have a problem.” But not that bad since nothing is that bad. You aren’t witty. Get over yourself.