The biggest danger for the Thunder in their opening round series against the Rockets probably isn’t as much about what James Harden and his teammates do well. Instead, it’s assumption. Assuming you’re going to waltz to the second round, assuming that this thing is already a foregone conclusion.
The Thunder appear to have a decided upper hand, but there are four games that have to be won first. What’s key for OKC, who’s the X-factor and what’s the pick?
1. The biggest key to the series is ___________.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The 3-point line. Can’t ignore that in the two blowout wins for the Thunder the Rockets hit a combined 16 3s. In the shootout win, they hit 15. The Thunder are actually solid at defending the 3-point line in terms of shooting percentage, but they allow a lot of looks, which results to a decent number of makes. The 3 is the equalizer for the Rockets in the series. Three counts for more than two. If Houston can pour in 3s, that can make things more difficult for OKC.
Michael Kimball, Daily Thunder: A sweep of the first two games in Oklahoma City. Houston simply has no chance to beat the Thunder if they go down 0-2. But a momentum-stealing, crowd-silencing win in either of the first two games could be a game-changer. The Rockets crowd will be pumped to watch their exciting new team in the playoffs, and the crowd could be downright rabid if Houston gives them a chance to smell a little bit of blood in a late moment during Game 3. The Thunder are clearly the superior team, but they need the Rockets players to be thinking about that during the short plane ride back to Texas next week.
Ben Golliver, SI.com: I hate to go straight to homecourt advantage here but ultimately I think that’s the factor that prevents this series from being truly competitive. The numbers are obvious: OKC is 34-7 at home this year with just two home losses to Western Conference playoff opponents (Memphis and Denver) and two home losses to teams with worse records overall than Houston (Atlanta and Milwaukee). This after going 9-1 at home during the 2012 postseason. Meanwhile, Houston, who hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2009 and is working with a totally untested core (outside of James Harden), went 16-25 on the road this season, with only two road wins against West playoff opponents (both against Golden State). The ‘Peake is a fear factory for all opponents and that’s especially true for those untested and lacking in road credentials like the Rockets.
Young: Serge Ibaka. The Rockets don’t have an answer for him. After trading Patrick Patterson to acquire rookie Thomas Robinson, it’s meant the Rockets have moved Donetas Motiejunas into the starting five. At times the Rockets play smaller with Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino together, but Ibaka could be a dominating presence on both ends, especially on the glass. In the three games against the Rockets this season, Ibaka’s averaging 16.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. In the first game against Houston, Ibaka went for 23-10-6. He can take over this series, which would be especially nice, seeing as many have questioned extending his contract and not Harden’s.
Kimball: Scott Brooks. Apply this to any series of the postseason. Brooks and his staff need to show the same kind of development that the Thunder’s players have over the past few seasons. So far, so good, in many ways, but the Thunder have been a team that will be judged solely by their playoff success (or lack thereof) for the foreseeable future. Brooks needs to have learned from his experience in 2012, when he was solidly out-coached during the Finals after making some heroic and season-changing adjustments against the Spurs and Gregg Popovich, of all people. Brooks needs to pull the right strings for the Thunder to reach their full potential, especially in a playoff run that could see him play the last three rounds against some combination of the underrated Lionel Hollins, Popovich, George Karl and Erik Spoelstra.
Golliver: I named Kevin Martin as the biggest X-factor for OKC this week and I think he’s right at the top of the list of biggest X-factors for the entire postseason. Although there will be a frenzied discussion of Martin vs. Harden no matter how long this series lasts, I think the match-up wtih the Rockets represents a nice soft launch back into the postseason for Martin, who hasn’t been there since 2006. The Thunder are so much better defensively than the Rockets that they could quite possibly prevail in this series — and even make it a short series — without substantial offensive contributions from Martin. That said, the Thunder will want to get him going on the right foot because their goals for the playoffs are Larry-or-bust. I’m not looking for Martin to match Harden, or even half-a-Harden, but just to find a comfort zone where he’s doing enough to help ensure that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are able to operate one-on-one with regularity.
3. Prediction: Who wins and how many games?
Young: Thunder in four. Basically, it breaks down like this to me: The Rockets need near perfection from both Harden and their shooters. The game Houston won against OKC this season, Harden went for 46 on 14-19 shooting, including 7-8 from 3. If he can replicate that kind of game, along with help from Jeremy Lin and others, the Rockets can win games. I think Harden will have at least one special game, maybe two. Those will be close, but the Thunder just have too many horses, too much talent, too much firepower. It’s a huge responsibility to carry your team solo in a playoff series against a team as good as the Thunder.
Kimball: Thunder in four. The Rockets needed an incredible shooting performance for most of the game and a spirited comeback to edge the Thunder in their only win against OKC, which came in Houston in February. The other two games were Thunder blowouts. Harden and the Rockets fun brand of basketball will have their moments in this series, but Houston is thoroughly out-classed and will have to wait their turn to make some playoff noise.
Golliver: Thunder in five. I’m a big-time believer in the Thunder’s historic +9.2 margin of victory, a number that rivals the very best teams of the post-Jordan era. I’m also all-in on the entertainment value offered by the Rockets, but I don’t think they are quite ready to be taken totally seriously.