Despite their most recent performance against Oklahoma City, there are ways the Houston Rockets can hang with the Thunder. Houston is coming off a demoralizing 120-91 loss to OKC in Game 1 of their first-round series.
The matchup between these two teams is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, there's the well-known story of former Thunder guard James Harden returning to face the team that traded him before the start of this season.
Second, it's a showdown between two of the NBA's highest-scoring offenses. Houston and Oklahoma City were second and third, respectively, in the league in terms of points per game. Both teams averaged around 106 points a night.
Both rosters are also filled with players who are young and athletic. The two oldest members of Oklahoma City's starting five are guard Thabo Sefolosha and center Kendrick Perkins (both are 28). As for Houston, the oldest player in their starting rotation is 26-year-old Omer Asik.
On paper, Oklahoma City has a ton of advantages over Houston. They have two of the best scorers in the league, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, up against the league's 28th-ranked defense in points allowed.
They also have an elite defender in Serge Ibaka, who finished third in the NBA in blocked shots with three per game.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have Harden and a slew of young guys who aren't very battle-tested when it comes to the postseason. Point guard Jeremy Lin was a media sensation last year, but doesn't have a ton of experience. Forward Chandler Parsons is emerging star, but is also making his first appearance in the playoffs.
However, there are a couple of things the Rockets can do to make this series more competitive than Game 1 would indicate.
The biggest factor will come down low. Omer Asik is still very raw offensively and having softer hands would definitely benefit him going forward. Still, he's a double-double machine who is slightly better than his counterpart, Kendrick Perkins.
The Rockets could make a point of getting Asik involved in the offense early. Perkins was one of the better post defenders in the league, but his skills have diminished a little over the last couple of years. A steady dose of Asik inside will open things up on the perimeter for Houston's bevy of talented shooters.
Oklahoma City is allowing opponents to shoot a little over 54 percent off of offensive rebounds, according to MySynergySports.com. Asik finished seventh in the NBA in offensive rebounds, averaging 3.4 per game. He also had three offensive boards in Game 1 against the Thunder.
In this clip, you'll see some of the big man's talents that Houston needs to utilize. Throughout the clip, Asik shows an effectiveness scoring around the basket. He's developing a mid-range game (50 percent shooter from 10-15 feet this season, according to Hoopdata.com), but he's at his best at the rim.
At the one-minute mark of the video, you'll see Asik is always active on the boards. Even after missing an easy put-back, he stays aggressive on the glass and finishes strong. That tenacity on the offensive boards will come in handy against Oklahoma City throughout this series.
A couple other potential advantages for Houston would be going small and constantly cutting to the basket. A lineup with a shooter like Carlos Delfino instead of a traditional forward like Greg Smith or Terrence Jones would give Houston a speed edge against Oklahoma City's bigger starting lineup.
Also, by having Delfino or Chandler Parsons operate on the perimeter at the power forward spot, they force Serge Ibaka to step out of the paint to defend them. Ibaka is an excellent shot-blocker and he's going to get his hands on some shots more often than not.
However, keeping Ibaka out of the paint will make things easier on the glass for Asik. The task of battling down low with Perkins is daunting enough, but Ibaka's presence in the paint gives Oklahoma City a big advantage on the boards.
In Game 1, the Thunder out-rebounded the Rockets by seven (49-36). Oddly enough, Ibaka finished the game with seven rebounds. An effort to keep him out of the paint could allow Houston to exploit Oklahoma City's deficiencies on the offensive boards.
The Rockets should also keep attacking the Thunder by constantly cutting to the basket. As shown in the clip, Asik has a knack for always knowing when to dart to the basket for the open layup. He also manages to get a fair share of points off the pick-and-roll with Jeremy Lin.
The Thunder allow opponents to convert 58 percent of shots coming off cuts to the basket. The Rockets have a dynamic guard in James Harden. "The Beard" can not only take advantage of OKC's weakness against the cut, but he is skilled at finding a way to draw fouls.
James Harden gets to the line on 20.5% of his possessions, 2% more often than Kevin Durant and almost 5% more than LeBron James.— mySynergySports (@mySynergySports) April 18, 2013
Between Harden, Lin and Asik, Houston has the arsenal to consistently attack the Thunder's defense by cutting to the basket and finding open lanes.
The Rockets will need more than these subtle advantages to keep this series close. The biggest thing that needs to change is the production from those around James Harden, who was the only Rockets starter to score in double-digits.
For a team as poor defensively as Houston, they have to make up for the inability to generate stops by fighting fire with fire. They are going to have to keep up with Oklahoma City offensively and match them score for score to stand a chance.
That can't happen when the only guys around Harden scoring points are Carlos Delfino (10 points in Game 1) and Patrick Beverly (11 points).
The odds were long for Houston to pull off the upset coming into this series. Still, the Rockets have the talent to exploit the cracks in the Thunder's armor and at least make things interesting.