The Houston Rockets went through a lot of changes during the offseason and managed to completely overhaul their roster. It usually takes at least one full season for a new team to jell, but Houston found its footing early and was able to secure the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, their reward for making the postseason is having to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The Rockets went 1-2 against the Thunder in the regular season and proved that they could hang with them to some degree, but beating the defending Western Conference champions in a seven-game series is no easy feat.
If the Rockets are going to upset the Thunder, they'll lean heavily on star guard James Harden, who was acquired from OKC during the offseason. Harden has quickly developed into one of the best scorers in the NBA and is the biggest reason why the Rockets were able to thrive during a transitional season.
Here is everything you need to know about Houston's first-round playoff series against the Thunder, including when and where to catch every game, as well as other things to look for throughout the series.
First Round Schedule
|1||Sunday, April 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET||Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||TNT|
|2||Wednesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. ET||Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||TNT|
Saturday, April 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
|Toyota Center in Houston||ESPN|
Monday, April 29
|Toyota Center in Houston||N/A|
Wednesday, May 1
|Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||N/A|
Friday, May 3
|Toyota Center in Houston||N/A|
Sunday, May 5
|Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||N/A|
Regular Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: James Harden (25.9)
Rebounds Leader: Omer Asik (11.7)
Assists Leader: Jeremy Lin (6.1)
First-Round Matchup vs. Rockets
Biggest Strength: Scoring Depth
While the Thunder possess a ton of star power in the form of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets tend to rely on offense by committee. Harden is a bona fide stud as he averaged nearly 26 points per game during the regular season, but things were spread quite evenly across the rest of Houston's lineup. Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin were solid supporting scorers, but Houston literally goes 12 deep in terms of guys who can put the ball in the hoop.
Despite Houston's reliance on so many different players, it was second in the league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 106 points per contest. The Rockets love to push the pace and they play an extremely exciting brand of basketball.
At the same time, players get tired more easily when they have to run the floor, but the Rockets compensate for that with a ton of depth.
Houston has five players who averaged double figures in scoring during the regular season, and it has many more on the bench who are capable of filling it up when pressed into action. The Thunder have some depth, but if Durant and Westbrook aren't scoring, then they're in trouble. If Harden is struggling, the Rockets have enough guys to pick up the slack.
Biggest Weakness: Transition Defense
Most teams that employ a high-volume offense give up plenty of points in return. That isn't necessarily true of the Thunder, but Houston definitely falls into that category. Scoring 106 points per game is great—however, Houston also allows 102.5 points per game, which is third worst in the league. In fact, the Rockets allowed more points per game during the regular season than any team that managed to qualify for the playoffs.
The Rockets were able to make up for that by simply outrunning and outscoring its opponents, but that isn't really an option against Oklahoma City. Houston can try to turn the games into track meets in this series, but the Thunder excel in that type of environment. Houston gives up far too many easy baskets and that is something OKC is able to take advantage of better than perhaps any other team in the NBA.
Durant and Westbrook are going to pick the Rockets apart in transition, so Houston may be better off playing more in the half court than it is accustomed to. The Rockets have guys who can score the basketball through offensive sets, so that could be the best course of action.
Best Matchup: Houston Bench vs. Oklahoma City Bench
There is no doubt that Oklahoma City has a more talented all-around team than Houston. That is why the Thunder are the No. 1 seed and the Rockets are No. 8. With that said, the Thunder rely heavily on a minute amount of players, while the Rockets expect and receive production from pretty much every active player on the roster. Aside from Kevin Martin, Nick Collison and Reggie Jackson to some degree, Oklahoma City is all about the starting lineup.
Houston obviously receives much of its production from starters as well, but there are several bench players on the team capable of doing some serious damage. The first two that come to mind are Carlos Delfino and Francisco Garcia. They are both talented offensive players who tend to become a liability defensively when they play too much, but they are perfect bench players for the Rockets' offensive system.
Also, serviceable bigs such as Greg Smith and Terrence Jones are valuable as they allow Asik to take a rest when needed. Even though the Rockets don't have as many big names as the Thunder, they have a lot of players who are at peace with their role and execute it well. They'll need to continue doing that in order for Houston to pull off the upset.
Worst Matchup: Jeremy Lin vs. Russell Westbrook
Lin has continued to evolve as a player and has become an important piece to a winning puzzle in Houston, but Westbrook is simply in another universe in terms of talent and production. While some might argue the merits of Westbrook as a playmaker and contend that he is too selfish to play point guard, he is a threat on both ends of the floor, so Lin won't have a second to breathe over the entire course of the series.
Most would probably agree that Lin's Achilles heel is his defense. He certainly gives an effort in that regard, but he struggles against faster, more athletic point guards. Westbrook is likely the most athletic and explosive point guard in the league, so Lin is bound to have some problems. It will be incredibly difficult for him to stay in front of Westbrook and prevent him from getting to the basket.
Also, the offensive end won't be a picnic for Lin either. Westbrook is an elite perimeter defender and a master pickpocket. His fast hands and active feet allow him to close down lanes and poke the ball loose at will. There is a high probability that Westbrook will force Lin into making mistakes, and the Thunder will capitalize on those mistakes.
Key Player: James Harden
For as much depth as the Rockets possess, there is no question that Harden's play will dictate whether they pull off a shocking upset or go home early as expected. Harden is a high-volume shooter who is bound to miss some shots, but when he gets hot, he is capable of winning games single-handedly. The Thunder will try to do everything in their power to prevent that, but Harden will be playing with a little extra motivation.
While the Thunder obviously wanted to keep Harden, they could justify investing the amount of money he wanted after already re-signing Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Perhaps Harden feels like the Thunder bailed on him regardless, so he could be out to prove that they made the wrong decision. Even if there isn't any extra motivation on his end, he'll definitely come to play just as he did last postseason as a member of the Thunder.
If Houston decides to run and gun against OKC, Harden absolutely must be on top of his game. The Rockets don't have the horses necessary to match the Thunder basket for basket, but Harden is a special player who has what it takes to put the team on his back.
In terms of entertainment value, Houston vs. Oklahoma City could be the best series of the first round. There is plenty of star power in the form of Harden, Durant and Westbrook, and the scoreboard is going to get a workout. Few teams have been able to hang with the Thunder all season long, so the Rockets clearly have a major challenge on their hands.
Houston has defied the odds all season long and managed to make the playoffs when few people figured they could. Thanks to the play of Harden and overall depth that they possess, the Rockets are bound to give the Thunder some headaches at certain times during the series as they tend to be a very tough team to play against.
When push comes to shove, the Rockets simply aren't developed enough as a team to upend the Thunder. Oklahoma City's core has been playing together for a few years and knows how to win in the playoffs. That isn't the case for Houston, but simply gaining playoff experience will help the young team in the long run.
Oklahoma City wins in 5
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