Many thought OKC's game might fall off after trading super sub James Harden right before the 2012-13 season started, but that hasn't been the case. In fact, considering how well the team's been playing this year, they might even be better without him.
Obviously, the Thunder's ultimate goal is another trip to the NBA Finals, but they have to take business in these first few rounds before we can start that kind of talk.
Read on for your guide to the Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round matchup against the Houston Rockets.
The Oklahoma City Thunder may have lost the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to the Houston Rockets, but you could hardly tell from watching them play.
Sure, they don't have the same playmaking off the bench, and no one on the squad can compete with Harden's epic beard, but other players on the team have stepped up their game, making the departure of The Bearded One fairly insignificant.
Kevin Durant has upped his game in virtually every way, posting a career high in assists while joining the uber-exclusive 50-40-90 club. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka's growth has been impressive as well, but it's Kevin Martin's ability to make up for the loss of Harden's scoring that has been the biggest blessing.
The Thunder has been one of the dominant teams throughout the season, and that's what has them sitting pretty in the West's No. 1 slot. OKC expects to go far, and most wouldn't bet against them.
The Houston Rockets must be kicking themselves right now.
Last night they saw their chances at a sixth seed slip away when the Golden State Warriors put away the Portland Trail Blazers. The Rockets still looked solid going into their contest against the Los Angeles Lakers, with a chance to clinch the seventh seed and a first-round matchup with the injured San Antonio Spurs.
However—despite leading throughout most of the game—Houston relinquished its lead halfway through the fourth quarter.
Chandler Parsons nailed a heroic last-second three to send the game into overtime, but some gutsy defense by the Lakers secured them a win and dropped Houston back to the eighth seed.
Game 1: at OKC, Sun., April 21, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 2: at OKC, Wed., April 24, 7:00 p.m., TNT
Game 3: at HOU, Sat., April 27, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 4: at HOU, Mon., April 29, TBD
Game 5: at OKC, Wed., May 1, TBD*
Game 6: at HOU, Fri., May 3, TBD*
Game 7: at OKC, Sun., May 5, TBD*
It's hard to predict a sweep for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the fact of the matter is that the Houston Rockets just don't have the star power to keep up with OKC.
James Harden should win one game, maybe two, but don't expect this to be a long series. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co. will take care of business here and quickly move on to the second round.
Note: * If necessary. All times Eastern.
Thabo Sefolosha vs. James Harden
If anyone can hope to slow down James Harden, it's Thabo Sefolosha. True, Harden torched the Thunder in the first game of the team's season series, but Sefolosha was able to gain the upper hand in the next two games, holding Harden to just 9-33 from the field.
Harden's going to get his points. However, if Sefolosha can turn him into a volume shooter, it'll go a long way towards getting a Thunder victory.
Serge Ibaka/Kendrick Perkins vs. Omer Asik
Omer Asik is an absolute beast on the boards for the Houston Rockets, grabbing 3.4 offensive rebounds and 11.7 total boards this season. That kind of production leads to lots of second chances for the high-powered Rockets team.
It goes without saying that OKC has to figure out a way to slow the Turkish big man down, and the combination of Perkins and Ibaka should be able to pull that off.
That said, if Asik continues to pound the glass at a high rate, he's going to help produce even more offensive opportunities for the Rockets, which is bad news for the Thunder.
When talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, the first thing that comes to mind is offense, which makes sense considering both teams rank among the league's best in virtually every offensive category.
The Rockets lead the league in points per game at 106.1, while OKC is right behind them with 105.9. However, the Thunder hold a distinct advantage in most other places, including offensive efficiency, true shooting percentage and point differential.
That said, it's on defense where the Thunder really begin to show that they're the better team.
OKC's defensive points per game is just 96.5, a full five points lower than Houston's. Defensive efficiency tells the same story, with the Thunder far out in front of the Rockets.
All in all, the Rockets might be able to keep up with the Thunder offensively, but Oklahoma City's vastly superior defense makes it the clear favorite in this matchup.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round strategy is pretty standard.
Simply put, they need to ride their stars to a quick five-game series, putting away the Houston Rockets in relatively uneventful fashion.
Digging a little deeper, the Thunder must find a way to keep Omer Asik off the offensive glass and limit extra possessions for the Rockets. In addition, Oklahoma City has to defend the three-point line well, as Houston can heat up from deep in a hurry.
Let's face it; Houston just doesn't yet have the star power to keep up with OKC's trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. James Harden will win one game on his own, but don't expect much more than that.
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point that the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets are going to put up a mind-boggling number of points when they play each other in the postseason.
Both teams like to play fast and create tons of extra offensive opportunities, but it's going to be the team that's most efficient with those chances that's going to win this series.
That's where Kevin Martin comes in.
Sure, Kevin Durant is arguably the best scorer in the Association, and Russell Westbrook is no slouch either. That said, if Martin can continue posting a sky-high true shooting percentage it'll be the final nail in Houston's coffin.
Look for Martin to up his scoring slightly during this series, taking advantage of the Rockets' weak D and helping to lead the Thunder to the second round.
Anytime a team puts up points like the Houston Rockets, you have to at least give them a slim chance to pull the upset. You just never know when someone is going to go NBA Jam "On Fire" Edition and shoot lights out on their way to a big series win.
No player on the Rockets squad better represents that "puncher's chance" than point guard Jeremy Lin.
Is Lin a great point guard? No. Is he a lockdown defender? Don't make me laugh. Can he toss that orange ball through the hoop? Now we're talking.
Yes, the Rockets young point guard has struggled this season. However, the possibility for him to go Linsane still exists, I just wouldn't count on it.
That said, if Lin does heat up early, this could be a longer-than-expected series for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Obviously, after last year's playoff run, anything less than an NBA Finals trip is a failure for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It's not going to be an easy road, but you have to like the team's chances to at least make it the Western Conference Finals.
Their first round series against the Houston Rockets looks easily winnable and, while it'll be a battle, the Thunder should be favored against either of the teams they'd play in the second round. The Los Angeles Clippers probably match up better, but given their rough style of play, the Memphis Grizzlies might be the scarier team.
Either way, OKC should win both series, which would lead to a likely matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. It's tight, but I'd pick the Thunder in seven, moving them on to a Finals rematch against the Miami Heat.
Unfortunately, that's where I think Oklahoma City's run ends, yet again.
Look for OKC to push the series longer than it did last year, however. I see the Thunder losing to the Heat's star-studded lineup in seven games. It's an improvement, but in the end it's just not quite enough.
Final Prediction: NBA Finals Runner-up.