The narrative of this series has been beaten to death, so I’ll spare you. Now let’s try to break down the series in a basketball sense.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won the season series between these two teams 2-1. Houston won the first matchup in a close contest all the way back in October 2019. The second matchup was Russell Westbrook’s return to OKC, which was won handily by the Thunder (I know Houston was on a back-to-back, but the Rockets played some truly putrid basketball that night so using that excuse doesn’t fly here). Finally, the Thunder won the third and final matchup by outscoring the Rockets 27-7 over the final seven minutes of play. The two teams did not meet again after Houston traded Clint Capela and established their Tuckwagon 2.0 lineup, so it’s hard to extrapolate too much from these games. But there are trends.
OKC’s three-guard lineup in the key to the entire series. Every metric rated the Thunder lineup featuring Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder the best trio in basketball this season. So while Houston likes going small, the Thunder can take advantage of Houston’s lack of guard stoppers. The guards are mostly too quick for P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, which means that no matter what at least of one OKC’s guards is going to have a mismatch they can attack.
In the three previous matchups, that mismatch was evident in Schroder’s numbers more than any else’s. The Hawks gave up Schroder in the Carmelo Anthony deal to make the money work, and no one has benefited more than the German point guard. Able to come off the bench, he’s carved up backup point guards all season long. Against Houston, he’s shooting 60% (!) from the field and 47% (!!!) from deep. That’s 20 points per game coming off the bench, and he’s absolutely going to win the minutes where he’s on the court and James Harden isn’t.
One other statistic to keep in mind is Houston’s three point shooting.
I know right now you’re thinking “Wow AK, you think Houston needs to make their threes? How insightful!”
Stick with me here. And don’t be sarcastic.
The Rockets shot a combined 30-129 from deep against the Thunder in the three matchups, which is 23%. In no game did they shoot better than 28% from three. Since OKC can run a small lineup, they can defend the three well and force Houston to drive into the defense a little better than other teams. Houston will have to hope for some regression to the mean, especially from Harden and Eric Gordon, who combined to shoot an atrocious 8-55 from deep in five combined meetings (Harden in three, EG in two).
I said in The Dream Shake’s prediction piece that without Westbrook, Houston is absolutely the underdog in this series. I think Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari can each win a game by themselves. Even if they don’t, the law of averages tells us that Houston will have at least one night where they cannot make a three and lose on principle. Russ gives Houston another attacking option in those sorts of games, so his absence will be felt dearly. The Thunder will win this series in five games.
Tip-off is at 5:30pm CT on AT&T SportsNet Southwest and TNT
Who wins the series?
This poll is closed
OKC in 4 or 5
OKC in 6 or 7
Houston in 4 or 5
Houston in 6 or 7
The Rockets should have never traded Chris Paul