With Rockets playoff basketball returning today, we figured it would only be fitting for a past column to return to TDS. Formerly known as the TDS Tuesday 5-on-5, we are bringing back the new and improved roundtable, now called the 5-on-5 Rockets Roundtable.
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! Today!
This week’s TDS panelists include Jeremy Brener (JB), Michael Brown (MB), Darren Yuvan (DY), Max Croes (MC), and Sarah Dewberry (SD), a special guest panelist and managing editor for Welcome to Loud City, the Thunder SB Nation site. Thank you for collaborating with us, Sarah!
Continue these debates in the comments and check out WTLC for some more insight on our playoff opponent.
1. What is the biggest strength and weakness for the Rockets?
Jeremy Brener (@JeremyBrener): The Rockets have a system that will allow them to score a ton of points. Their system and personnel have the structure of a legitimate championship team. The team’s current weakness is their health. The team is not as healthy as they need to be. Once Russell Westbrook gets back, their biggest weakness becomes their rebounding. They are willing to lose on the boards, but that only works if their threes are falling at a consistent rate.
Michael Brown (@UHBigRedHatGuy): Strength - James Harden. He is playing on a different level right now, and if he can continue that in into the playoffs, then OKC will have their hands full of trying to slow him down. Weakness - A stubborn head coach that will not alter his philosophy or rotation players, no matter how much it may be needed.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan): The biggest strength for the Rockets is that James Harden is currently playing the best all-around basketball of his career. He’s making an impact defensively and is as unguardable as ever offensively. Houston’s small ball approach also pushes the opposition to make adjustments they’re not used to making, getting teams out of their comfort zone. That remains a strength here. Houston’s biggest weakness right now is injuries: Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and P.J. Tucker are all in the trainer’s room, ranging from out, to nagging injury, to still recovering from past injury. Houston’s depth could be challenged.
Max Croes (@Croesfire): Jimmy Harden much? Weakness is going to be the playoffs. The 2020 playoffs will be the first time any coach gets the chance to workshop small ball counters game-after-game. It sounds banal, but the Rockets facing the same opponent in back-to-back games will give Billy Donovan the ability to workshop some small ball antidotes.
Sarah Dewberry (@SarahhDewberry): Weakness: Injuries. The Houston Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook for at least tonight. While Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and P.J. Tucker are dealing with injuries themselves, so their depth isn’t that great.. Strength: James Harden - the guy is averaging 35.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 8.7 assists while shooting 53.6% from the floor since the restart. But if they want to make a run at the title, they will rely heavily on The Beard.
2. What is the biggest strength and weakness for the Thunder?
JB: The Thunder’s biggest strength is their ability to match up with the Rockets. If they go small, they can coordinate a lineup to combat it. They also have bigs that can destroy the Rockets on the boards and three-point shooting to match. However, they don’t possess the same speed the Rockets do. With Chris Paul working the offense, the team works at a pace similar to the 2019 Rockets. The Rockets wanted to get faster on offense and they are. Can the Thunder keep up? I’m not sure.
MB: Strength - Depth. OKC has a multitude of guys that they can go to for offense at a given time. They also have one of the best floor generals in NBA history, and if he sees a weakness in the opponent, he will identify it and destroy it. Weakness - Rebounding. With OKC being 22nd in the league in rebounding, that plays into the favor of the Rockets.
DY: The biggest strength for the Thunder is that they have the versatility to match lineups with the Rockets and Billy Donovan just turned in the best coaching performance of his career, so the Rockets should expect him to have his finger on the Thunder’s pulse when he’s devising rotations to counter Houston’s unorthodox approach. OKC’s biggest question mark is can they hit enough threes to keep up with Houston if the Rockets are hitting there’s? The Thunder have hit almost 400 less threes on the season than the Rockets. That’s, um... a lot.
MC: An angry Chris Paul is going to irritate, isolate, and instigate. The Rockets have a long history of struggling when the game is controlled by their opponents and the whistles. Nobody influences both of those for better or worse like CP3. OKC’s three point shooting has to reach a new volume. Over the season they shot the deep ball better than the Rockets but they took approximately 15 less a game. An inability to dial up the deep balls means they could outplay the Rockets, but still get handed the math L.
SD: Weakness: Things in the bubble have been a bit inconsistent for OKC. Injuries and Dennis Schroder (paternity leave) were a factor for the Thunder. They dominated the Jazz in Game 1, then lost in Game 2 in a lackluster performance to Denver. In Game 3, they demolished the Lakers, but then were routed by Memphis in Game 4. They crushed the Wizards in Game 5, then got blown away by the Suns in Game 6. The team hasn’t gotten to play, so it’ll be interesting to see how well they all mesh together after missing some key players throughout the restart. Strength: Billy Donovan. The guy is the best coach in the NBA, and he can move his players around when he sees the opportunity to do so. It also helps that his team is young and is playing great together.
3. Who is the X-Factor for each team tonight?
JB: For the series, it’s Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. If Westbrook returns and plays up to his potential, the Rockets win this series. However, if he misses any games past Game 1 that the Rockets lose, it could be what comes back to bite them. For tonight’s game, I’m going with P.J. Tucker. He’s going to have the tall task of defending 7-footer Steven Adams, and if he can limit him on the boards, it takes away a huge advantage for the Thunder. For OKC, Danilo Gallinari is going to play a pivotal role. If he can gash the Rockets from distance (which he’s more than capable of), the Rockets will have a difficult time winning today.
MB: Rockets - Eric Gordon. With Brodie hurt, it will be that much more important that EG shows up and shows out on both ends of the court. OKC - Steven Adams. With the Rockets small ball approach, OKC should look to Adams quite a bit.
DY: It’s Eric Gordon for the Rockets. If he’s finally healthy and hitting his shots, the Rockets will be tough to beat. If he’s still hobbled or looking for his shooting legs, that’s really bad for Houston, especially with Russ out. The Rockets are going to need EGs scoring. For the Thunder, it’s Andre Roberson. He hasn’t played for two years, but he was back in the bubble, and though he was playing just 12 minutes per night, his rep is one of a defensive stopper, and if he can play legit minutes on James Harden and show some semblance of his old defensive formability, it could make things really tough on The Beard, especially since the Rockets need Harden at his best with the injuries the team has right now.
MC: Robert Covington didn’t pack a three ball in his Bubble luggage. His defense is essential to any playoff series success and finding his stroke sure would make some Rockets wins easier. For OKC it’s going to be the tandem who guards James Harden. Yes, I said tandem. Expect lots of Harden double teams anywhere on the court. The ability for OKC to pull it off successfully will change how the Rockets play, especially without Brodie.
SD: Rockets - Eric Gordon. Houston will rely on him since Brodie is out. Thunder: Steven Adams. The center will have the height advantage against the Rockets since they play with a small front-line of P.J. Tucker (6’5), Danuel House (6’6), and Robert Covington (6’7).
4. The two teams know each other very well, especially after the Paul-Westbrook deal. How much of an impact does that have on the series?
JB: It definitely does. Chris Paul knows James Harden in and out and has secrets to stop him as he guarded him in practice for the last two seasons. The same goes for Eric Gordon, who needs to deliver for the Rockets. Russell Westbrook also knows Oklahoma City well and can play an important role as assistant coach while he’s sidelined. The knowledge behind both teams could very well offset each other and it will eventually come down to which team can execute better.
MB: It is important, but not the end all be all for either group.
DY: I think it has less of an impact that the games are without fans and at a neutral site. I wouldn’t want to go to Oklahoma City and play these guys. But yeah, they know each other. I don’t think it really gives an advantage to anyone, but it sure might ramp up the intensity.
MC: Edge Thunder. Chris Paul can be the smallest Hulk ever, but this Thunder team is entirely different than the one Westbrook steered.
SD: Since this is being played on a neutral site, I don’t think any of them have an advantage. Chris Paul is a different player since joining the Thunder, and is, in his own words, playing the best ball of his career. He is enjoying the game again. He’s competed in the playoffs 11 out of the past 12 years, and his experience is a massive plus for OKC.
5. What is your prediction for tonight’s Game 1?
JB: With Russ out, the Thunder win by 7. Rockets keep it close throughout but the Thunder pull it out late.
MB: Rockets by 4.
DY: I think the Rockets take Game 1 but it’s going to be a tight one. Rockets by between 1-5 points.
MC: All season the Rockets have caught teams off guard with the small lineup and I wouldn’t expect Game 1 to be any different. Rockets get a W, the series question is if Billy Donovan can figure them out as the series goes on.
SD: Thunder by 10 in Game 1 and OKC will sweep the series.