For the Oklahoma City Thunder, this season has probably felt like a basketball remix of the Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. They’ve seemingly faced the Ghosts of Thunder Past at almost every turn this season. If it wasn’t Serge Ibaka knocking down a game-winning 9-footer in the Chesapeake Arena for the Orlando Magic, then it was Kevin Durant averaging 37.7 points every time he faced his old team (his most ppg average this season against an opponent). As fate would have it, the Thunder now head into the playoffs to face the original Ghost of Thunder Past in James Harden.
It’s quite ironic, really. Harden and the Rockets were the team that basically destroyed the Thunder’s first real chance at winning a championship. You could argue that trading Harden was probably the first thing that would’ve prevented the Thunder from reaching the Olympian heights they so missed out on the previous season when they lost to the Miami Heat in the Finals. But the 2012-13 team had the look of a young contender finally ready to take that next championship step. That is, until Patrick Beverly decided to go all Terry Tate: Office Linebacker on Russell Westbrook’s right knee, which resulted in him missing the entire postseason with a torn meniscus. After that season, both teams saw various flashes of success and disappointment that never resulted in a trip to the Finals for either team.
But now, Harden stands on a level above his former team. Harden has taken the Houston Rockets this season, under the direction of head coach Mike D’Antoni, and turned them into an offensive machine of epic proportions. Gone are the inefficient mid-range shots that many NBA teams still take. In it’s stead, the Rockets now get a whopping 95.6% of from one of three areas on the floor: the 3-point line, the free throw line, and in the paint. Their average of 4.4% of their points coming from the mid-range is the lowest in the league. Harden is the offense and the offense is Harden. In the beginning of the season, the Rockets were throwing out the term “points guard” when speaking of Harden. And they were actually spot on in their assessment.
So here we are. Not only are the Thunder facing the original Ghost of Thunder Past (aka the OG – I’ll be here all week), but the series will be dripping with MVP narrative. With respect to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, the MVP race this season is between two candidates, and two candidates only: Harden and Westbrook. And even though the MVP votes will all be turned in by the time the first postseason ball is jumped on Saturday, you can rest assured MVP talk will dominate this series. But the storylines of this series will all be entrenched in every facet of time. The past will be conjured, the present will be praised, and the future will be looked upon. It would only make sense in this season that has felt like it was straight out of Dickens’ novel.
Season Series Summary
The Thunder and Rockets played four times this season, with the Rockets taking three of the meetings. Outside of the final meeting, which was a blowout in the Rockets’ favor, the first three games of the season series were decided by a grand total of 7 points.
- 1st meeting (November 16, 2016 in Oklahoma City) – The Thunder won this game 105-103. This was the Clint Capela hammer game. Both teams went back and forth throughout the game, but the Thunder had the ball, under their basket, holding on to a 103-100 lead. The expected play, of course, was for the person who received the inbound pass to get fouled and go to the free throw line. After a scramble, Westbrook received the ball heading towards the basket with a full head of steam. Instead of doing the smart play (slowing down and getting fouled), Westbrook, instead, did the Westbrook play and took it all the way to the basket where only Capela stood in his way. Hammertime. Game over. Another highlight added to the beginning of an MVP resumé. Unsung heroes of the game were Andre Roberson, who held Harden to 4-16 shooting, and Victor Oladipo who scored 29 points.
- 2nd meeting (December 9, 2016 in Oklahoma City) – The Rockets won the game 102-99. The Rockets led most of the game, but the Thunder made a rally at the end and had a chance to win it. But Westbrook missed an ill-advised 3 to cap off a bad shooting night (8-25 from the field, to include 0-7 from 3) and the Rockets walked away victorious.
- 3rd meeting (January 5, 2017 in Houston) – The Rockets won 118-116. The Thunder once again put themselves in a hole entering the 4th quarter, but rallied, and found themselves with a 2-point lead at 116-114. On the next possessions, Roberson fouled Harden, who made the two free throws to tie the game with 1:47 left. The two teams traded possessions with no makes for the next minute and 46 seconds. But with less than a second left, Jerami Grant fouled Nene and the Rockets won on a pair of free throws.
- 4th meeting (March 26, 2017 in Houston) – The Rockets won 137-125. Story of the game: The Rockets shot 51% from deep on 39 attempts. The Thunder were consistently down by 20+ points throughout the game which nullified a furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
* – If Necessary
3 Keys to the Series
1. Perimeter Defense
The Rockets have 5 rotation players that shot 34.4% or better from 3. In addition, Lou Williams, who had a crazy slump in the last month of the season (aside from the OKC game) that brought his 3-point % down to 31.8% is always a threat to go off from deep. In wins, the Rockets shot 38.6% from deep. In losses, that number dips all the way down to 29.5%. That is their major weapon; they live and die by it. Harden is who he is, but the Thunder luckily have someone that can contain the MVP candidate in Andre Roberson. With that said, the Thunder are going to have to stay at home on the shooters and trust that Roberson can contain Harden on his own.
2. Foul Trouble
Relates back to Roberson on Harden. If Harden’s head-kick action generates calls against Roberson, the Thunder could be in trouble. Roberson’s length bothers Harden, to the point where he shoots nearly 10 percentage points less against the Thunder. But if Roberson has to go to the bench, the Thunder are thin on options to effectively defend Harden. Jerami Grant is an option, but he does better defending SF’s. Victor Oladipo is a good defender in that he has the athleticism to keep up with most in the NBA, but he’s not a great on-ball defender. If the referees allow the teams to play and don’t bail Harden out, the Thunder could make a series out of it.
For as much firepower as the Rockets can throw out there with their starting 5, they are similarly as deadly off the bench. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams don’t allow teams to breathe as they can continue the perimeter onslaught once the likes of Harden, Patrick Beverley, and Trevor Ariza head to the bench. In addition, Nene still has flashes of his All-Star form from time to time. Because of Houston’s ability to put pressure on teams from the perimeter at all times during the game, expect to see a healthy dose of Semaj Christon and Grant for their length and defensive ability. I know, Christon is one of the worst offensive point guards in the league, but he’s not a bad defender. And in this series, the Thunder may be pining for more defense, instead of offense. Enes Kanter could be an X-factor in this series, or he could be spaced off the floor.
For Oklahoma City: Performance in the clutch – If I’m Houston and it’s a close game, I’m sending two or three players over at Westbrook. I’m not worried about Roberson. Adams and Gibson can’t create for themselves. And if Oladipo beats you, then you just tip your cap to him. But Houston will not let Westbrook beat them in the clutch.
For Houston: Perimeter game translating to the playoffs – This team is the literal definition of living and dying by the 3. In the playoffs, after 6 months of wear and tear, the shots don’t usually fall as well as they used to in December and January. Look at recent Finals games. They usually aren’t offensive masterpieces. Why? Because players are tired by that point in the season. In addition, you have to look at the fact that players like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson haven’t played this many minutes or games in years. So that will definitely be something to look for on Houston’s part.
Looking Deeper in the Numbers
- Alex Roig – Rockets in 6
- John Napier – Rockets in 7
- Dustin Ragusa – Rockets in 6
- Weston Shepherd – Thunder in 7
- Dillon Young – Thunder in 6
- Daniel Wojciechowski – Rockets in 7
- Jon Hamm – Rockets in 6
- Andrew Schlecht – Thunder in 6
- Royce Young – Rockets in 5
- Adam McLaughlin – Thunder in 7