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Can Rockets Threaten Thunder in Playoffs?
Posted By Bill Ingram On April 20, 2013 @ 11:15 am In Main Page,NBA | No Comments
The Houston Rockets drew the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Normally the eighth seed is expected to roll over for the one seed, but in the case of the Rockets and Thunder, you can expect a dogfight with plenty of extra drama thrown in.
First and foremost, these two teams made a trade right before the season started that seems to have helped Houston more than it did the Thunder. The one thing the Rockets lacked was a legit superstar to carry the load, and James Harden turned into that kind of player seemingly overnight. He leads the Rockets is scoring and is widely considered the third-best shooting guard in the league behind Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. The Thunder got some nice pieces in return, but they have struggled to find consistent offense off the bench to replace Harden’s production in the sixth-man role.
With that in mind, we take a look at what will be a very competitive first round match-up.
The Case For Oklahoma City
Aside from being the best team in the Western Conference this season and the defending conference champs, the Thunder bring a great deal to the table that should make them the heavy favorites if they take on the Rockets. They have one of basically two MVP candidates in Kevin Durant, who has elevated his game once again and is simply an unstoppable force on the offensive end. Next to him is another player who is capable of putting up MVP numbers in Russell Westbrook. Together, Durant and Westbrook form the best one-two punch in the West, with only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade coming close in the East.
The Thunder are not just Durant and Westbrook, however, and preparing for them in that way has cost plenty of teams this season. There is a strong case to be made that Serge Ibaka is the best defensive player in the year, and Kendrick Perkins is as tough as anyone in the NBA when it comes to protecting the paint and protecting his teammates. Kevin Martin, who came over from Houston in the aforementioned trade, would like nothing better than to help his new team eliminate his old one, and Derek Fisher is certainly no stranger to postseason play.
OKC also has a number of key role players who have stepped up over the course of the season, from Thabo Sefolosha, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, to Nick Collison, who is a savvy veteran who always seems to make the right play at the right time.
Finally, the case for OKC is made best through looking at the results of the three games these two teams have played against each other this season. The first two were complete blowouts by the Thunder, who seemed to be content to just let Harden get his numbers and stop everyone else. The third game was a rare off night for Durant, but even with their MVP going 4-for-13 from the field, the Thunder managed to build a significant lead only to lose by three after a furious Houston rally in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder may not be quite as good as last year, but they are still going to be an incredibly tough out and heavy favorites no matter who they face in the first round.
The Case For Houston
There may not be many reasons for Houston fans to believe their hometown heroes, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since Yao Ming went down, will make it out of the first round, but there are plenty of reasons to watch and hope.
First of all, the Rockets have plenty of weapons, and beyond Harden it’s never easy to know where Houston’s offense is going to come from. In Houston’s lone win of the series against OKC this season, for example, Jeremy Lin scored 29 points and vastly outplayed Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. In the second match-up of the season it was really Marcus Morris (now a Phoenix Sun) who lead Houston’s attack. In their first meeting of the season it was Patrick Patterson (now a Sacramento King) who did most of the damage.
Morris and Patterson may be gone, but other players have stepped in to keep Houston unpredictable and winning. For the last two wins the Rockets have been without Harden, yet they rung up wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando Magic with their leading scorer on the sidelines. Against the Clippers, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Francisco Garcia all tallied 15 points apiece leading five Rockets in double figures in a lopsided win over one of the West’s best teams. Against Orlando, it was Omer Asik with 22 points and 18 rebounds who led the way.
Playing against the Thunder you know who you’ve got to stop. If you can slow down Durant or Westbrook, you’ll have a chance to beat them. With Houston it’s not nearly so easy to game plan. If you stop Harden – and he averaged 29.3 points against his former team this season – there’s no telling who will rise up to fuel the Rockets’ afterburners. Houston simply has a deep arsenal of players who have stepped up throughout the season and played exceptionally well.
The reality here is that the Oklahoma City Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs for a reason. They have as talented a starting lineup as you’ll find outside of possibly San Antonio and Miami, they have an outstanding young coach in Scott Brooks who has the complete faith and confidence of his players. Unlike the Rockets, the core group in OKC has been together for a long time, and they have experience. Longevity and consistency, which are so important in postseason play, are squarely on the side of OKC.
The Thunder also have two players who consistently rise to new heights in the playoffs, and considering how good Durant and Westbrook are during the regular season, that’s a terrifying prospect for Rockets head coach Kevin McHale.
All of that said, however, the Rockets have won a ton of games they weren’t expected to win this season, seemingly unaware of their underdog status. Perhaps that same naïveté will serve them well once the playoffs begin. There is no pressure on Houston, as just making the playoffs represents a big step in their rebuilding process. On the other hand, anything short of a championship will be considered a failure for the Thunder.
Unfortunately for Houston, this young Thunder team just seems to get better when the pressure is on.
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