James Harden will lead his Houston Rockets against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a matchup that is narrative heaven, but the predictions all lean heavily towards the Thunder's favor. The Thunder are the returning Western Conference champions and finished out the season as the first seed overall out West while the Rockets were pushed to the edge as they landed in the eighth seed on the final day of the regular season.
The Thunder won two of the three times the teams met during the regular season. Both teams will look to push the pace as the two high-octane offenses collide, but the difference, according to J.A. Adande of ESPN, is that the Thunder can play defense.
Going over the board, Oklahoma City is heavily favored over the Rockets. CBS Sports took to their four experts and each selected the Thunder to take the series, with three indicating an 80% confidence marker on their prediction. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated also predicts the Thunder will handle business, and gives the Rockets five games of playoff life until the Thunder take it away. Jenkins doesn't see the Rockets as a team that's ready to handle the Thunder with both Russell Westbrook and Durant continuing to grow.
USA Today's Sean Highkin also predicts the Thunder will win in five games. With Durant and Westbrook, Highkin has the Thunder holding onto the two best players in the series, while the Rockets have only one elite defender in Asik. Also giving the Thunder the nod in at most five games? Every single one of ESPN's 5-on-5 crew, with Matt Cianfrone pushing it to a sweep.
In fact, all but two of the 11 predictions have the Thunder winning the series in five games. The two detractors predict the Thunder will sweep Houston. If predictions prevail, Harden will see his old team ride off into the sunset without him.
Q&A with Trey Hunter of Welcome to Loud City
The Thunder are favored heavily to win. What about the series against the Rockets concerns you?
I don't have many concerns about the Thunder getting past Houston, but if I did, it would be the fact that on any given night the Rockets can light up the scoreboard. I feel like they shoot nothing but threes and they have the arsenal to do it. They finished second in the NBA in scoring for a reason. I could see the Rockets taking a game, and if they get hot, maybe two. However, still no concerns with Oklahoma City advancing.
How confident are you that the Thunder will be able to slow down Houston's ultra-fast offense?
I feel like Houston is the team taking the next step in this year's playoffs, but I think their lack of scoring inside will benefit the Thunder defensively. The Thunder can rely on the fact that Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can hold down the paint and give Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha room to defend the perimeter without having to help down-low. I'm very confident the Rockets will have a tough time knocking down triples and scoring like they did in the regular season.
Will the Thunder be able to neutralize the damage done by James Harden?
No, but I don't think they have to. Harden is so good at creating his own shot and with his ability to shoot the three, he's almost un-guardable. However, the Thunder play team defense and can neutralize him on the perimeter. With Durant, Westbrook and Sefolosha defending it will likely be tough for Harden to get open looks from outside. He will be forced to drive more and get to the basket, which is something the Thunder can afford with Ibaka and Perkins down-low giving the team's guards room to cover open shooters.
Q&A with The Dream Shake:
All eyes will be on James Harden. How do you expect him to perform?
Harden averages 29 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists against the Thunder. I think the playoff atmosphere and adjustments over a four game series may put a damper on it and after reviewing the tale of the shot charts and what not I get the feeling like Coach McHale shouldn't miss the obvious and tell everyone to attack. I'm expecting Harden to perform up around his 26 points per game (.1 off) average. Ideally those assist numbers will improve without seeing an increase in his 3 turnovers per game against Oklahoma City. I expect the rebounding to stay low as that Thunder front court is punishing and Omer Asik doesn't let many escape him.
What gives you confidence that the Rockets could potentially pull the upset?
That implies I have confidence that the Rockets will pull the upset. Honestly, the only way the Rockets stand a shot is to turn Omer Asik into the key cog in the offense. The Rockets attack more with big O keying the offense and that's the disparity in play when Houston matches up with Oklahoma City. Houston plays the midrange and floater game against the Thunder unless Omer is the focal point and that's when the Rockets attack the rim. If they do that and can get over their fear of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka you'll see improvements in free throws (builds confidence, charity points, penalty, world of good, really) and the block numbers of OKC's front court. If the Rockets can put a damper on Russell Westbrook's well above (his) average three point shooting they'll stand a better chance too but as it stands, the Rockets have a margin of victory of -16 against the Thunder (We're blown out by them regularly) and that's not inspiring. Hate to be the Debby Downer there, but it's reality, right?
How will the Rockets try to defend Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?
The Rockets will hopefully change how they defend the duo. Traditionally Houston keys on Durant and Chandler Parsons drags Durant's shooting percentage down to about 31%. Kevin is one of those players who will get his no matter what. As a result, there's only so much you can do and Houston tends to focus too much on preventing the inevitable. Where they get hurt is that they give Russell Westbrook open threes because they're daring someone else in blue to beat them. Unfortunately, Russell Westbrook can beat most teams. Houston will need to chase him off the line and fight over picks while riding Omer Asik like the family sedan to police the paint.