At the beginning of the season, the Houston Rockets acquired guard James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder in hopes that he would bolster their team. Harden not only bolstered their team, but he became the superstar they lacked as he has led them back to the playoffs. And in the first round, Harden will face his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Could this be a bad dream for the Thunder or can they handle business like most assume they will?
The Thunder team has depended on small forward Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook heavily all year long. And who can blame them. The Thunder twosome have been playing spectacular as they have continued to grow within their own individual games. But even as good as they have been playing, the turnovers are still very present. Oklahoma City turns the ball over at a very high rate and against Houston that could be problematic. If they are able to neutralize the turnovers, then Houston will be at their mercy. Asking point guard Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons to contain Westbrook and Durant is a Herculean task that neither should be expected to do. But if the Thunder help them by committing turnovers, that job becomes that much easier.
Another key factor for the Thunder will be forward Serge Ibaka. This offseason, the Thunder paid him a lot to be a third option on this team offensively. And for them to be successful, he must show up. Ibaka’s offensive game has grown each and every year, but he still has times where he can disappear. It’s up to Durant and Westbrook, who have put up career bests in assists, to get him the basketball in positions to succeed. If Ibaka can hit that mid-range jumper, he then will help the Thunder spread the floor and Houston will be in trouble. If he struggles offensively, look for the Rockets to help off him in an effort to give Lin and Parsons support on Westbrook and Durant.
Lastly, the Thunder have to get something from their bench. Gone is Harden and in stepped Kevin Martin. All year long Martin and the Thunder have heard that they cannot compete for a championship without the previously mentioned Harden. Well, now is the time for the bench of the Thunder to step up and make it happen. Martin must come in and drill the open shots that Durant and Westbrook will create for him. Another key player will be veteran point guard Derek Fisher. The veteran point guard has won multiple championships as a member of the Lakers and he brought some veteran leadership last year on their Finals run. This year they need more than just leadership. Fisher must continue to round into playoff form so he can drill those three-pointers that he is known to make.
For the Rockets, most did not even expect them to be here in the playoffs. It’s amazing how one trade can change their frame of mind. The aforementioned Harden has been everything to the Rockets team since he was traded there before the season. He posts up, runs the offense at times and also makes his teammates better. Who better to take on the challenge of stopping Harden than Thabo Sefolosha. The Swedish basketball player has made his reputation as a tough defensive player. Harden must attack Sefolosha while he’s on the move. The more Harden can be quick and decisive, the more trouble he can cause the Thunder because their defense is not set.
But Harden cannot be the only one that has to show up. Center Omer Asik was paid this offseason to be a defensive stalwart. Not only has he been that, but he also has shown more of an ability to finish at the rim. Asik must be active on both ends to give Houston more possessions and also to keep players like Nick Collison or Hasheem Thabeet from getting cheap baskets. Omer has to also continue to finish when around the rim. With a shotblocker like Ibaka in there, Asik must go strong to the rim or risk Ibaka tossing his shot out of there.
Jeremy Lin has not been as some thought he would be in Houston. He hasn’t been a bust and he hasn’t been a great player either. But in this series, the Rockets need him to flashback to his Linsanity days. The more pressure he is able to put on Westbrook by scoring offensively, the more Westbook can struggle with the decision-making. Westbrook sometimes has a propensity to take some bad shots and match the other team instead of just letting the game come to him. Look for Lin, along with Harden, to share the ball-handling responsibilities when initiating the offense. That seems to have worked for Harden and Lin.
In the end, the Rockets are a team that is built around their offense. But in this game, they had better step up to the plate defensively or risk the Westbrook/Durant combo going absolutely crazy on them. Asik will also be big as a shot blocker on the back end. If the Rockets can get it together defensively, then they would have a better shot to beat them. But if the Rockets do not decide to play any defense, then the their postseason will end quickly and they will be going home.
In my opinion, the duo of Durant and Westbook along with Ibaka stepping up may make the difference as the Thunder march on to the next round.