One of the more intriguing matchups in the Western Conference playoffs features the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s been 13 months since the Rockets traded Chris Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. After a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, not many expected Paul to return to All-Star form with his slim cast of talent.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 12, 2019
Paul did just that. On the other end, Westbrook and the Rockets continued to thrive, experimenting with a small-ball lineup since the trade deadline deal of Clint Capela for Robert Covington. Westbrook recently went down with a quad injury, however, James Harden remains the top dog in Houston.
With all of this intrigue, the Rockets and Thunder finished with identical records at 44-28. Houston grabbed the fourth seed thanks to some funky tie-breaker rules. Oklahoma City is the fifth seed. Nonetheless, this matchup of former teammates has fans on the edge of their seats. The series kicks off on Tuesday, August 18th at 6:30 pm ET.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Naturally, this NBA Playoffs preview starts with the backcourt. Both teams stock their respective star power in the backcourt. On one end, the Rockets utilize a rotation with nobody over 6-foot-7 receiving any regular minutes: the small-ball lineup.
The Rockets might be playing small ball…but it’s working, says @HowardBeck 👀
Rockets-Clippers tonight on TNT pic.twitter.com/DHXrbousws
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 5, 2020
For the Thunder, this team’s success rolls with Paul, who earned his 10th NBA All-Star appearance this year. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder round out an elite three-guard rotation for Oklahoma City. Throughout the season, all three guards averaged at least 17.6 points per game on better than 46.9 percent shooting from the field. Additionally, this trio averaged a combined 14.0 assists per game.
For Houston, the guard play features two NBA superstars in Harden and Westbrook. The Rockets will have to overcome the injury to Westbrook, who has been deemed out for this first-round matchup.
Westbrook is a huge loss for Houston, although Harden has been in MVP form all season. Based on a module from Basketball-Reference, Harden will likely finish second in the overall-season MVP award race. Harden leads his squad in points (34.1), assists (8.9), steals (2.7), and rebounds (8.3).
Throughout the year, Houston ranked sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency rating. The Rockets utilized space and pace with their lack of size. As a result, they scored the ninth-most fast-break points in the league this year and played at the second-fastest pace of play. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City owns a league-best opponent fast-break points.
This matchup will also come down to the turnover battle. Houston ranks fourth in the league with 18.9 points off turnovers per game. The Thunder give up the league’s seventh-best opponent points off turnovers at 16.0 per night.
There’s less room for error for Houston with the loss of Westbrook, but it’s hard to argue against the MVP-caliber play from Harden.
Advantage: Houston Rockets
The frontcourt matchup for the Rockets and Thunder provides far less star power but will go a long way in this series. Oklahoma City features their mainstay in Steven Adams alongside Danilo Gallinari and rookie Luguentz Dort at the three. Standing 6-foot-11, Adams gives the Thunder a size advantage in the frontcourt. Adams ranks top-40 in the league in per-game averages in both rebounds (9.3) and blocks (1.1).
His lack of mobility may prove an issue against the small-ball lineup. Enter Gallinari and Dort, mobile and smaller forwards who can keep pace.
Dort is currently day-to-day with a knee injury but is expected back in this series. Gallinari is the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game. He also ranks second, draining at least 1.9 three-pointers a night. Dort is solid at 9.1 points per game in 26.1 minutes.
While both squads struggle defending the paint, overall, both are better-than-average defensively. Oklahoma City owns the league’s seventh-best defensive rating, while Houston ranks 15th in this category.
For Houston, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, and Eric Gordon man their three-forward lineup. Covington is a pest defensively, averaging 8.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. Tucker and Gordon add a layer of mobility for the frontcourt of this lineup.
Oklahoma City is certainly bigger, but, if Houston can dictate the style of play in this series, their frontcourt mobility holds an edge.
Advantage: Houston Rockets
Relatively, neither of these lineups possesses major depth. Typically, the Thunder use seven or eight-man rotations. This season, only eight Thunder players averaged more than 20 minutes per game.
The Rockets are thin as well, however, head coach Mike D’Antoni said his squad will go nine-men deep during the restart and postseason.
Houston utilizes Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and Ben McLemore the most off the bench. With the absence of Westbrook, it’s likely Rivers or McLemore will slide into the starting five. Overall, Houston ranked 28th in the league in bench points per game.
Schroder, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, and Nerlens Noel are Oklahoma City’s best options off the bench. Schroder receives sixth-man type minutes, while Bazley and Diallo add 13 and 10.6 points per game, respectively, in the bubble. Noel adds size to the bench and leads the team with 1.5 blocks per game.
Advantage: Oklahoma City Thunder
Intangibles and Coaching
Chris Paul has played with a chip on his shoulder since last year’s trade to Oklahoma City. This series gives the veteran guard a great opportunity to show Houston what they’re missing. Houston feels as if they’ve upgraded to a younger, more athletic guard in Westbrook. Surely, they will miss his presence in this series.
Another factor involves Houston’s small-ball. This lineup has been successful, racking up 15 wins in 25 games since Capela’s departure. If Houston can dictate their style of play, run the court, get in passing lanes, and knockdown threes, they will hold a distinct advantage.
Both head coaches in this matchup have enjoyed NBA success. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan owns a .608 winning percentage in five seasons. In four seasons with Houston, D’Antoni holds a .682 winning percentage. The scales tip in D’Antoni’s favor as he holds 16 years of NBA head coaching experience and is often lauded for his ability to dictate pace and score at-will. D’Antoni is decorated with two NBA Coach of the Year awards.
Advantage: Houston Rockets
Final Prediction: Houston Rockets in 6 Games
With the absence of Russell Westbrook, this series will play a lot closer than previously expected. Harden will need to maintain his MVP-play to foil Chris Paul’s quest for revenge against his former team.
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