The No. 4 seed Houston Rockets (44-28) are playoff bound for the eighth straight season and set to square off against the No. 5 seed Oklahoma City Thunder (44-28) Tuesday evening at 5:30 p.m. Central inside the Disney bubble.
This series has all the makings to go down as an all-time great playoff bout.
James Harden. Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook (eventually).
Friend-turned-foe in Paul, after an unexpectedly successful Thunder season, taking on the team that traded him after being just a hamstring away from (likely) his first finals appearance.
Westbrook, upon his return, tasked with eliminating the team he called home for the last 11 years.
And Harden, ready once again to bear the weight of an entire city on his shoulders as the Rockets try to navigate their way back to the elusive NBA Finals for a chance at the third title in franchise history.
With Game 1 right around the corner, what better time than now to gauge confidence levels headed into what should be the most exciting first round matchup on the board, and who better to do that with than our very own Clutch City Control Room contributors.
Greater area of concern, Rockets offense or defense?
Itamar Roitman: I’m actually going to go with the Rockets offense. The Thunder had the 17th best offense this season, but the 7th ranked defense. The Thunder have the second best 3-point defense in the league in terms of opposing three-point percentage (34%), and Houston’s offense is designed to get open threes. James Harden will get his, which raises Houston’s floor by a good amount, but Russell Westbrook will miss a couple of games and is expected to be limited when he comes back. That will put a lot of pressure on the Rockets role players, and I’m not sure how consistent they will be in the playoffs against OKC’s defense
Dex Hinton: Defense. Obviously it’s a make or miss league and the Rockets need to make their open shots in order to win this series, but the scheme and the brilliance of James Harden will always provide those open shots. However, on the defensive end it remains to be seen whether or not being severely outsized is a sustainable strategy across a 7-game series.
Michael Knight: While the Thunder can have a dynamic offense and have four players averaging over 17 points a game, they still only have a middle of the pack offense (15th in offensive rating). For that reason, I think that the biggest area of concern for the Rockets will be their offense, especially without Russell Westbrook for a few games. The role players, Eric Gordon in particular, will need to be good and the shots must fall, or Houston will see themselves down quick in the series.
Justin Levine: No question – offense. The greatest trick the Rockets ever pulled was convincing people they are an elite three-point shooting team. The reality is the Rockets spam opponents from three-point range, emphasizing volume over accuracy. While Houston is ranked #1 in three-point attempts (45.3 per game), they are 24th in three-point percentage for the season (34.5%). That is a big difference from last season, where the team ranked 12th (35.6%). Houston will have to rely on its outside shooting since it won’t have the benefit of Russ penetrating in the first few games. The team has shot poorly in the bubble from beyond the arc, so now is the time to kick things into gear.
Jackson Gatlin: Absolutely has to be the Rockets inconsistent offense. With so many streaky shooters and stretches where the team falls a little bit too in love with the three-ball — and no Russell Westbrook (for now) to consistently attack the rim — there will undoubtedly be some offensive droughts. Can they weather them? We’ll see.
Which Rocket(s) step up in the absence of Russell Westbrook?
Itamar: Austin Rivers. Rivers will have big shoes to fill on the offensive end, but his isolation scoring ability and playmaking off the bench will be much needed in the non-Harden minutes in order to keep the team afloat. And on the defensive side, Austin Rivers is a good on-ball defender, who should be able to make life a little more difficult on the Thunder guards when matched up against them. Austin played well in a higher usage role with the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’ll have the opportunity to make a real impact in Westbrook’s absence as Houston’s third guard.
Dex: I think this series will be when we see our Danuel House Jr. dreams finally come to fruition in the playoffs. We’ll need his athleticism and shot-making ability. Austin Rivers will also show his value as a ballhandler and perimeter defender.
Michael: Eric Gordon is likely a popular (and correct) answer, but I think that it is almost as important for Austin Rivers to step up and be a force off the bench. James Harden talked to him about how important he can be for the team after his 41-point performance against the Kings, and he wasn’t lying. Rivers will be great for the Rockets in this series and help keep the Rockets alive when James Harden is resting.
Justin: Everyone not named James Harden. In all seriousness, the Rockets need to make their threes, and Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, being the only guards that can penetrate opposing defenses (albeit not nearly as effective as Westbrook) will have to create 3-point shooting opportunities when Harden sits.
Jackson: Logic says Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers because they will be directly filling the Westbrook void, but — at least during Russ’ absence — expect a steady diet of Jeff Green. He’s averaged 14.5 points per game in about 25 minutes per outing inside the bubble, and his ability to act as a primary ballhandler at times, employing some dribble hand-off sets with Harden and general offensive versatility will be much-needed, especially when Harden’s taking a breather.
Thunder player you are most worried about the Rockets struggling to contain?
Itamar: Dennis Schröder. The Rockets have struggled defending quick, twitchy guards who are able to use their speed to their advantage, and Dennis Schröder is OKC’s second most important player. In three games against the Rockets this season, Schröder is averaging 20 points and four assists on 60 percent from the floor and 47.4 three-point land. The trio of him, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this season has the best net rating out of any trio in the NBA, and the Thunder have a 12-1 record over the past two seasons when he scores over 25 points. Limiting Schröder’s production has to be a priority for the Rockets to win the bench minutes.
Dex: Dennis Schröder. Him being on the floor with Chris Paul and being able to score at a decent clip is what keeps the Thunder in games and if he has a great series the Rockets will not.
Michael: Chris Paul will be motivated to perform well against his former team and has had a great season for the Thunder. He led them to a top-5 seed when they were out of most people’s playoff predictions. He deserves a ton of praise for that and I think he could give the Rockets trouble if he gets going and if he is completely healthy. Eric Gordon will be tasked with defending him most of the time and he’ll need to be disciplined and not fall for CP3’s veteran tricks.
Justin: The 3-guard lineup with the best net rating in the league: Paul-Gallinari-Schröder-Adams-SGA
On the matter of CP3, the Rockets will be unable to contain his elite BB-IQ, unmatched pettiness, and intricate knowledge of the Rockets’ offensive and defensive schemes, but, on the court, I am less worried – though watch him prove me wrong in Game 5.
Jackson: Danilo Gallinari. I’ve long ranted about how bigs with any semblance of a face-up game can cause the Rockets trouble just by shooting over the top, and not only can Gallinari do that, he’s also more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and going hard at the rim. In a switch-everything scheme, foul trouble caused by guards getting switched onto Gallinari is something the Rockets can ill afford with an already shortened rotation.
Rockets greatest strength in this matchup? Weakness?
Itamar: The Houston Rockets finished the season first in 3-point shots attempted per 100 possessions. The Thunder finished 27th. Houston’s biggest strength in this series has to be the math advantage. Even if the Rockets shoot a mediocre percentage from 3-point land, the Thunder should have a tough time matching Houston’s firepower with the Thunder’s volume of mid range shots.
Houston’s biggest weakness might be their reliance on limited role players. The Rockets often find themselves relying on their role players, who are usually specialists, to hit some difficult shots or make the right plays. Outside of Ben McLemore, the Rockets don’t have any elite, reliable shooters, and none of their role players have a high basketball IQ on the offensive end. Poor shooting or decision making could hurt the Rockets on both ends of the floor against a very disciplined Thunder team.
Dex: The Rockets’ greatest strength is obviously James Harden. There’s no defensive scheme that can contain Harden and keep the rest of the Rockets from having wide open shots. If Harden is knocking down his step-back and the rest of the team is knocking down a decent amount of open shots you can cancel Christmas.
Their greatest weakness is a lack of depth. If one of the players Mike D’Antoni trusts gets into foul trouble or is a negative in any respect, the Rockets don’t have very many other guys that they’ve been willing to go to for key minutes.
Michael: The biggest strength for the Rockets in this matchup lies on the shoulders of one man: James Harden. No one else that will be on the court in this series is anywhere near as good as Harden and he must take advantage of that.
The streakiness of the shooters is the biggest weakness that can haunt the Rockets if things go south. There must be some consistency from someone aside from Harden, at least until Russell Westbrook returns to the lineup.
Justin: The Rockets greatest strength is James Harden, who has performed exceptionally in the bubble. He is the only top-5 player amongst both teams, so that is an advantage already.
The Rockets’ greatest weakness will be lacking the intensity Westbrook brings when he’s on the floor. Rockets fans have seen Russ take over games and often bring a fire to the team when it’s missing. Hopefully Russ is back by Game 3, though I could see the Rockets keeping him out of the series if the team gets the jump on the Thunder early.
Jackson: Probably that guy with the beard, but that’s too easy. Let’s go with a fan favorite: three is greater than two. The Thunder are perfectly content to operate out of the mid-range, and the Rockets are equally as content to the let them do so. The magic number for the boys in red to hit is 37 percent from beyond the arc, where the Rockets are a resounding 24-1.
Now three-point shooting, especially at the Rockets’ volume, is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re never really “out” of a game because all it takes is a flurry of threes and bam, right back in it, but as we’ve come to see all too often, this team is prone to shooting slumps. Robert Covington and PJ Tucker roll into the playoffs shooting a paltry 23 and 29 percent from distance, respectively. OKC is going to make someone not-named James Harden beat them, and the guy you would usually point to for help in that situation is currently decommissioned.
Most impactful 5-man lineup we will see from the Rockets this series?
Itamar: Westbrook-Rivers-Gordon-House Jr-Tucker
This isn’t really lineup-specific, but it’s more about the Russ minutes vs the Thunder bench. The Thunder’s lack of depth has been their biggest weakness this season, and those minutes happen to coincide with the Russ-only lineups. The Rockets should be able to win the minutes in which all-star Russell Westbrook plays against the Thunder’s bench, simply due to the talent gap and OKC’s offensive struggles when the majority of the starters are not in the game.
If the Rockets can win or even tread water in minutes where Harden isn’t on the floor, this will be a quick series.
Michael: This series could be decided by the minutes that James Harden spends on the bench. Will Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers step up and be secondary creators that can perform positively against the bench of the Thunder? Will Jeff Green continue to be excellent in a Rockets uniform and hit big shots? I will be interested to see how any 5-man lineup not featuring James Harden will play, and I think they will be the most impactful.
Justin: With Russ: Harden-Covington-Tucker-Westbrook-Gordon. This is Houston’s 3-guard lineup to counter OKC’s.
Without Russ: Harden-Covington-Tucker-Gordon-Green. Without Westbrook, Harden needs to be able to create a secondary threat, and Green is quietly becoming Harden’s new pick-and-roll partner. Gordon can also provide some penetration threat. My concern is if Green is run off the court by OKC’s 3-guard lineup.
Jackson: I’m banking on seeing a closing lineup of Rivers-Gordon-Harden-Covington-Tucker to counteract the “nightmare” lineup featuring OKC’s three-headed dragon of Paul-Schröder-SGA; that group can matchup defensively and Harden still has two guys in Gordon/Rivers that can put the ball on the floor and make something happen in the event of a double-team.
Itamar: Rockets in 6
Dex: Rockets in 6
Michael: Rockets in 6
Justin: Rockets in 7
Jackson: Rockets in 6
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