The Oklahoma City Thunder will start their playoff run against the Houston Rockets on Sunday evening. During the 2016/17 regular season, the two teams met four times and the Rockets were able to win the series three games to one.
However, except the last game in Houston which was a blowout for the Rockets, the previous ones were close and decided by only one possession.
Regular season scores
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Houston Rockets: 105-103
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Houston Rockets: 99-102
Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets: 116-118
Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets: 125-137
Keys to the series
In order for the Thunder to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals, they will need the best of Andre Roberson. He did a great job on Harden during the regular season and if he can keep up the good job then Oklahoma City will have a good shot to pass the first round.
Here are James Harden’s stats against the Thunder (per NBA.com/Stats):
Here are James Harden regular season Stats (per NBA.com/Stats):
The difference is pretty impressive but defense is not the only part that Roberson has to play well. Despite a great defensive year which might give him an all defensive team reward, it is well known that Roberson has still issues on the offensive end of the floor. The Rockets will try to expose those (i.e. not guarding him when he has the ball behind the three points line or fouling him to send him to the FT line) and it will be up to Billy Donovan to bring the best out of him (i.e. Roberson being the screener for Westbrook in the pick and roll and use Dre’s great abilities as a roller/cutter).
Defend the perimeter
The Rockets have a bunch of players who can shoot the ball from behind the arc. On this list, we can find Ryan Anderson (40.3%), Patrick Beverly (38.2%), Eric Gordon (37.2%), James Harden (34.7%) and Trevor Ariza (34.4%). Overall, they rank “only” 15th in the league per three points percentage at 35,7% but Houston is the team that hits and attempts more three-pointers than anyone. In fact, the Rockets take an average of 40.3 3PT shots per game and hit 14.4 three-pointers per game.
If the Thunder are consistent on the perimeter and they force the Rockets into a hard three points shot selection, then Oklahoma City will not only take away Houston’s bigger weapon but they might also take advantage of it: rebounds and fastbreak points. The Thunder excel in both of them.
Confidence on the road
The Thunder won five of the last six games on the road. That is definitely encouraging when entering the playoffs. Nevertheless, Oklahoma City finished the regular season with a negative record on the road: 19 wins against 22 losses.
The Thunder will not have home-court advantage in the first round so they will need to win at least one game in Houston.
Here are two things that will play a major role in regards to confidence:
- Age – The Thunder are not only one of the youngest teams in the league but they also have the 2nd youngest rotation.
- Playoff experience – Four out of five starters have already a big playoff experience. Kanter played in the post-season twice while McDermott played small minutes in only one. Oladipo, Abrines, Sabonis, Grant, and Christon (all players in the rotation) never played a playoff game.
It will be up to the players with major experience to take care of the team confidence and to induce the correct grade of tranquility that might be needed against hostile and very crowded arenas.
First round prediction:
Thunder win 4-2
As mentioned above, Oklahoma City had a chance to win three games instead of only one during the regular season. So, with a shorter rotation, more minutes to the starters, and one of the best clutch players in the league (Russell Westbrook) I think the Thunder can pull off the upset and advance to the next round.