It’s a funny thing about fate. You usually see the final product taking shape from a mile away, but when it happens, you’re completely surprised by the end result. All season long the Oklahoma City Thunder have hovered around the top two spots in the Western Conference and the Houston Rockets have hovered around the 6-8 spot. It shouldn’t have come to surprise anyone that these two teams might actually meet in the first round of the playoffs. But when it happened, after the final game of the final day of the season, there was a collective, “Wow, we’re playing James Harden in the first round” train of thought.
Everyone will want to turn this into James Harden vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. I see that, but we all know, that in reality, this is going to be the Kevin Martin vs. the Houston Rockets series, right? (Crickets, crickets) Well, as fate would have it, these two teams will meet in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The top seeded Thunder versus the 8th seeded Rockets. The young, rambunctious upstarts against the grizzled veteran team (how funny is it that the Thunder are a grizzled, veteran, playoff tested team?). It wasn’t long ago that the Thunder were the young upstarts wanting to gain some respect against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Now, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs and everyone will be gunning for their crown.
These two teams played 3 games during the regular season. The Thunder took the first two by an average margin of 26 points. In those two games, Harden struggled mightly, while the Thunder basically got anything they wanted on the offensive side of the ball. The third game was a different story. In that game, the Thunder were up by 14 points with less than 7 minutes left to play in the 4th quarter. And then, Harden (and Lin) happened. The Rockets proceeded to outscore the Thunder 29-12 from that point to garner a 3 point win. James Harden scored 14 of his career high 46 points in the final 6:30, and Jeremy Lin chipped in with 9 points in those final 6 minutes. But that game highlighted the reason why this will probably be a short series.
- Game1 – Sunday, 21 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 2 – Wednesday, 24 April 2013 at 6:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 3 – Saturday, 27 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)
- Game 4 – Monday, 29 April 2013 TBD (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)
- Game 5 – Wednesday, 01 May 2013 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
- Game 6 – Friday, 03 May 2013 TBD (Toyota Center, Houston, TX)*
- Game 7 – Sunday, 05 May 2013 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
* – If necessary
- PG – Jeremy Lin
- SG – James Harden
- SF – Chandler Parsons
- PF – Greg Smith
- C – Omer Asik
Oklahoma City Thunder
- PG – Russell Westbrook
- SG – Thabo Sefolosha
- SF – Kevin Durant
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Kendrick Perkins
3 Keys to the Series
1. Pick and Roll Defense – This is the Rockets’ bread and butter. Lin and Harden are great at breaking the PnR defense down and either finding the open man or driving and drawing fouls. Thabo Sefolosha is great at going under the pick, but can sometimes get caught in the mess of a pick and roll, allowing the ball handler to get to the basket. On the other hand, Westbrook is known to go over screens, which allow the ball handler a sliver of daylight to get a shot off. But the key to the PnR defense will be Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Chandler Parsons led the Rockets in 3-point % and will make Durant pay if he tries to help on defense. Ibaka is going to have to stay out of foul trouble if the ball handlers get past the initial line of defense.
2. Pace – These are the number 2 and 3 scoring teams in the league. But Houston likes a much faster pace than the Thunder. In their two wins against the Rockets, the Thunder kept the Rockets under 100 points. In their lone loss, the Rockets scored 122 points. Houston’s offense is predicated on transition baskets and pick and roll offense. If the Thunder are to win, they are going to have to slow the pace down and make the Rockets a half court team.
3. Russell Westbrook – The Rockets have no one on their roster that can come close to guarding Westbrook. Lin is too weak, Aaron Brooks and Patrick Beverly are too short, and Carlos Delfino is too slow. Westbrook should be able to get whatever he wants on the offensive end.
- X-Factor: Thabo Sefolosha – His defense on James Harden will go a long way to determining how these games will go. If he gets into foul trouble early, look for Harden to be in attack mode for the entire game. Also, his shooting will be key to keeping the turnovers down. If Harden has to stay on Sefolosha, that will negate him from helping out and jumping into passing lanes to get steals.
How this will play out: Thunder in 5