I can’t remember the last time we knew the Rockets’ seeding so early. This conference has been competitive for so long that it usually comes down to the last day, but the first round matchups in the West are set and the Rockets are getting ready to host Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder this weekend.
This is going to be a classic and there are plenty of games within the game to keep an eye on.
James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook
Let’s be honest: This was meant to be. It had to happen.
The league’s top two MVP candidates go head-to-head in this series. The award has all but been handed to Westbrook already with media fawning all over his every move. Of course Harden is just over here having a better and more efficient individual season and (as a result) more team success, but hey… triple-doubles.
Still, it’s fascinating to witness the hypocrisy that goes on with the media’s view of Harden. This is a guy who put up monster numbers last season and didn’t make a single All-NBA Team because his team wasn’t that impressive, finishing as the 8th seed. His numbers are even better this season, his team has destroyed all expectations by likely finishing as the third-best team in the league and here he is actually being discredited because his team is so good. When did the Rockets suddenly become the Warriors or Cavs? Harden is not playing with a single All-Star, past or present. I don’t remember anybody picking the Rockets to finish very high this year or to even finish ahead of OKC.
Harden doesn't deserve MVP over Westbrook because he has great teammates? Funny. Here's how Houston projected against OKC before the season. pic.twitter.com/qIQFintqKO
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) March 17, 2017
Meanwhile, Westbrook has OKC as the 6th seed and is being crowned at every turn. Yes, he’s having a terrific season as far as raw totals, but the double standard by the media when it comes to Harden is just comical.
The votes will already be in, but this matchup and series is Harden’s chance to show who truly is the most valuable player this season.
Andre Roberson vs. James Harden
And it won’t be easy.
Andre Roberson is a very tough individual defender — maybe the best in the league at defending Harden. He’s 6-foot-7 with a nearly 6-foot-11 wingspan and has the athleticism to stick with quick guards. In four games against the Thunder this season, Harden is averaging just 20.5 points per game (about nine points under his average) on 34.3% shooting and just 22.6% from long range. A big reason for that is Roberson.
For that reason, you worry that this series has some 2013-14 Portland-like potential, with Roberson playing the Wes Matthews role. If OKC can limit Harden’s effectiveness with just one guy, they can stay home on the shooters.
So Harden is going to have a very challenging matchup. It’s up to him make life tough on Roberson and force the defense to help, creating opportunities for outside shooters or alleyoops inside.
Patrick Beverley vs. Russell Westbrook
I don’t think Beverley is going to be able to really hinder Westbrook that much on a one-on-one basis… at least not consistently. Westbrook is averaging 36.3 points a night against the Rockets this season, well above his average, so he hasn’t really been slowed by Bev.
But I do think he’s going to play him physical and try to get into his head, forcing him to try to do it by himself. Westbrook has a lot of DeMarcus Cousins in him where his pride and anger can get the best of him. We’re going to see some real friction between these two at some point — guaranteed.
Clint Capela and Nene vs. OKC’s bigs
The Thunder are the best rebounding team in the league, grabbing 46.5 caroms a night, and they rank second in offensive rebounding. They also lead the league in Points in the Paint, scoring just under 50 a night, with nearly 47% of their points coming inside. The Rockets? They give up the most Paint Points in the league at just under 49 a night. So OKC is going to be attacking the Rockets inside over and over again.
The Thunder come at you with a lot of different looks at the big spot in Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson. Kanter in particular has been able to take advantage of the Rockets’ defensive weakness inside. In Houston’s last matchup with the Thunder at Toyota Center, OKC scored 62 points in the paint.
My point is: Clint Capela is going to have his hands full. If he’s not able to handle the physicality, we’re going to see a lot of Nene, who shot nearly 77%, averaging 14.3 points, in four games against the Thunder this season.
Houston’s bench vs. OKC’s bench
This is where the Rockets must take advantage.
Despite the fact that in the four games head-to-head, the Thunder are matching the Rockets in three-point percentage at 37.2%, OKC is the worst three-point shooting team in the league at just 32.7%. The Rockets start several three-point shooters and can bring in a couple of sharpshooters off their bench as well.
The problem is — Eric Gordon is shooting just 32.5% from three since January 1 while Lou Williams is shooting just 32.8% from three since joining the Rockets. But there’s no doubt about it, both players must come up large in this series. The bench’s job won’t be to hold down the fort when Harden sits but rather to extend leads or trim deficits.