How will this battle of high-scoring squads unfold?
Finally! The real NBA season begins, and we have the fortune of getting a first-round playoff matchup that will certainly be one for the ages.
That's because an Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets series means the various subplots will be just as entertaining as the on-court action.
James Harden battles his old teammates, the league's former scoring champ in Kevin Durant battles Jeremy Lin of Linsanity fame, and we all get to watch it live starting Sunday, April 21, at 9:30 p.m. on TNT.
Aside from the side stories, how will the big picture ultimately unfold?
Well, there will be scoring, and lots of it.
While both squads love to score, only the Thunder are a solid scoring defense. The Rockets are the third worst scoring defense in the league, whereas the Thunder are the 10th best.
Vegas and offshore bookmakers alike have OKC as heavy favorites, and considering how the past matchups have gone, it makes sense that they're favored as such.
While regular-season matchups are great and all, they can't necessarily predict how a seven-game series will play out.
Will this battle even go seven games? Well, it's time to break down how each game of Rockets-Thunder will play out.
Game 1 is going to set the tone for the series.
Physicality, scoring, turnovers, tempo—all will be points of emphasis for both squads.
While both teams want to push the pace, neither side wants to concede easy opportunities off turnovers.
Houston and OKC find themselves within the top 10 as far as fast-break scoring, and that's because they capitalize on mistakes their opponents make.
At home the Thunder are a very tough team to play—this year they were 34-7 with home-court advantage.
Part of this sheds more light as to why oddsmakers have the Thunder as 10-point chalk against Houston for the opening game.
Harden will get his chances from the free-throw stripe and isolation opportunities, but the rest of his teammates are going to have to step up for an upset.
Chandler Parsons will be a huge X-factor for his defense on Durant and whether he can put the ball in the hoop and generate some more offense. Jeremy Lin could make an impact as well. If Lin can penetrate and avoid the adept help defense of Serge Ibaka, it will aid tremendously in creating half-court looks for the likes of Harden, Parsons and whoever else is spotting up from the perimeter.
Either way the energy and intensity of OKC on their home floor will give them far more confidence than a Houston road team that went 16-25 on the road during the regular season.
Both teams will have fresh legs and will have to adjust to the different officiating that exists in the playoffs. The game will be far more physical and might be a little slower than anticipated.
Oddsmakers have the total of the game set at 213 points, which might be a notch high considering there might not be as many fouls as called as a regular game.
Look for the Thunder to exploit the Rockets' porous defense and impose their will from a physical standpoint. Russell Westbrook and Durant both go off, but James Harden comes out guns blazing in a tough Game 1 loss.
OKC Wins (1-0 Series Lead)
Final Score: OKC 101, HOU 96
A loss alleviates some pressure off Houston, but at the same time it adds plenty more. They get their feet wet as a collective, but now they have to come out and bounce back.
This game is all about seizing the opportunity. Either OKC will smell the blood in the water, or Houston will play with nothing to lose and shock the world.
Well, it's going to be the former.
OKC's talent and physicality will continue to overpower Houston, and Game 2 will really flesh this out. Tired legs and the bruises from Game 1 could certainly have both teams shoot a bit worse than the first matchup, but both will be far more adjusted to the pace of the postseason at this juncture as well.
Russell Westbrook will have a big game, and a turnover-prone Houston team could very well be exposed in this specific outing. Jeremy Lin will have a rough game as far as turnovers are concerned, and Chandler Parsons' shot will be a little off.
Harden will get his calls, but he will have a tough shooting night as teamwide stagnancy forces him to do more as an individual. Durant will get at least 20, but this game will be more of a collective effort with Westbrook leading the charge.
There won't be as many nerves as Game 1 from both sides, and while it will be somewhat of an ugly game on both sides, it will be far more high scoring. Expect Houston to be a little unfocused and look forward to returning home where they can face OKC on their home floor.
More points and it'll be a little ugly in spots, but OKC still rolls in dominant fashion. Garbage-time buckets will make an otherwise uncompetitive fourth quarter seem a lot closer than it was.
OKC Wins (2-0 Series Lead)
Final Score: OKC 123, HOU 104
Although they had a 16-25 road record, the Rockets are owners of a 29-12 home record, and their only win against the Thunder this season came on their home floor.
So will their close win in the regular season mean Houston can pull off an upset after dropping two straight?
Well, considering how the series has gone at this point, no.
Game 3 is where the Thunder will deal a fatal death blow. Oddsmakers will probably have Houston as 2.5-point or 3.5-point 'dogs, and that will be a fairly accurate margin of victory for OKC.
The Rockets will shoot better from deep; they will have a lot more confidence, and the crowd is going to be roaring. Hot shooting from Lin, Parsons and Harden will give the Rockets a healthy lead for most of the game, but Kevin Durant reminds us why he was a three-time scoring champ.
KD dominates a fourth quarter that will essentially be him and Harden trading huge baskets, but Durant will edge him with a brutal go-ahead three-pointer late to give the Thunder a one-point lead.
Houston tries to answer, but the Thunder's clutch defense forces them into a bad shot. The waning seconds become a free-throw shooting contest, and the Thunder will milk the clock and win by a one-possession margin.
The loss sets up the inevitable, but Houston has an opportunity to stave off the shame of getting swept with at least one win.
OKC Wins (3-0 Series Lead)
Final Score: OKC 104, HOU 101
Sometimes, when defeat is unavoidable, games become contests of pride more than anything else. Houston just wants to come out and not go one-and-done in the first round.
OKC after Game 3 will have incredible confidence. They will be very loose, very focused and poised to close out the series and get rested for the next round. For OKC, this game is about finishing the job and ensuring they put Houston down quickly.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are professional assassins on the basketball court. They will have a ruthlessly effective game, and we will really see their end-to-end speed and athleticism in full swing. The Rockets around halftime will gradually lose their grip in the contest, and with that they will lose hope in staving off defeat.
Mentally, the second half will take a toll on Houston. Constantly battling back in Game 3 only to lose will weigh heavy on their minds, and while their effort will be admirable, it will be clear which of the two teams is far more talented across the board.
OKC will dominate the boards and they will out-hustle Houston on loose balls and second-chance opportunities. As much as the Rockets hoped to avoid the sweep, there is no shame in losing to last year's Western Conference champions.
Oklahoma City is a far more polished group, and while the Rockets can certainly take pride in making the postseason for the first time with their newly assembled talent, this series will demonstrate they have a long way to go before they can hang with the big boys.
OKC steamrolls Houston to close out the series, but not without a close contest up until the middle of the third quarter.
OKC Wins Series (4-0)
Final Score: OKC 123, HOU 109