We’ve waited for so long for this moment. We’re coming up on a full calendar year since this NBA season started, and we’re just now entering the first round of the playoffs.
The storyline couldn’t be better. The Thunder are playing the Rockets. Russell Westbrook will play the organization that raised him. Chris Paul will play his former team, the team that promised him he wouldn’t get traded, then traded him. Both James Harden and Jeff Green will be playing their former Thunder team as well. There are just so many storylines that make this impending series so exciting.
However, with Russell Westbrook missing an undetermined amount of time with a quad injury, there’s no telling which direction this series could go.
OKC has the mismatch even with Westbrook, and without him, Houston may need Harden to do more than what he normally does, which would mean averaging numbers that we haven’t seen in the NBA. OKC is Houston’s kryptonite because they’ve been the team that Harden has historically struggled with the most. OKC has designated their shooting guard position to be the position of defense. They always have an elite defender at one of or both of the wing positions. In this situation, OKC’s entire starting backcourt and sixth man have been elite defenders.
In the past, it was Andre Roberson that held Harden to an inefficient night. Since then, he’s trained up other guys on defense like Lu Dort and Terrance Ferguson. Also, the Thunder identity has changed significantly since last season. Donovan has successfully built a defensive-minded team where seemingly everyone thinks of defense-first…except for a couple of guys.
A bigger problem for Houston is OKC’s pick-and-roll offense with Chris Paul and Steven Adams. That’s not an ideal matchup for a team with a starting center that stands shorter than 6-foot-7. If used correctly, Adams should be the focal point of the offense, while other big guys like Mike Muscala, Danillo Gallinari, and perhaps Nerlens Noel could reap the benefits of Houston going small.
Westbrook may be the center of OKC’s heart still, but in his final years, it became evident that there is some disconnect when it comes to him leading teams through the playoffs, regardless of the talent on the team. That’s one of the only blemishes on Westbrook’s resume, and for once, it could play in the Thunder’s favor. The same goes for Harden, who hasn’t quite shown that he can lead a team through the playoffs either.
On OKC’s side, while Paul hasn’t won a title, it’s clear who was leading the Rockets during the 2018 playoffs. If he remains healthy, Chris Paul will be the biggest difference-maker in the playoffs for OKC, and especially in this particular series.
The only clear advantage that Houston has over OKC other than star-power is their bench, and it’s not like their bench is that much better than OKC’s, but they’re proven and experienced, and that’s what matters in a playoff setting. While Dennis Schroder is perhaps the sixth man of the year, there’s a drop off after him. Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, Mike Muscala, and Andre Roberson have played well in the NBA’s restart, but outside of Roberson, how will they play in a playoff setting? Diallo and Bazley aren’t even 23 years old. The unknown about OKC’s bench is what leaves some optimism in the case of Houston having success in this series.
My prediction is the Thunder in six games, but a lot depends on Westbrook’s health and the way OKC’s bench steps up. If Westbrook misses more than two games, there’s a good chance that OKC could win this series in five. But, if OKC’s bench doesn’t step up like they need to, this serious could fall in favor of the Rockets.