The Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder will begin their first round playoff series Sunday at Toyota Center. Houston won 3-of-4 from the Thunder during the regular season, winning both games at home, and splitting the games up north. It’s a series that features the league’s two leading MVP candidates, but will come down to much more than that. Here are my five keys to the Rockets advancing:
Oklahoma City is the best rebounding team in the NBA, while the Rockets are in the middle of the pack, but when you focus on one end of the floor, the difference between the two teams becomes even more stark. The Thunder finished the regular season rebounding 27.9 percent of their missed shots, most in the NBA, while the Rockets rebounded just 75.8 percent of opponents misses, eighth worst. The Rockets are going to have to crash the glass against this team and it is going to take all five guys on the floor to do it. Because they play small, the Rockets are always going to be at a size disadvantage the much larger Thunder. Oklahoma City is going to miss shots, if it doesn’t the Rockets are really in trouble, so this is one aspect of the game that will be a factor no matter what. It’s not possible to get every rebound, but if the Rockets can simply hold their own it will go a long way to winning this series.
Take advantage when Russell Westbrook is on the bench
Westbrook averaged 34.8 minutes per game this season, and you figure that number will shoot up to at least 38 and probably closer to 40 in this series, so the Rockets will have to take advantage of those 8-10 minutes a night when he’s on the bench. The good news is that the rest of the NBA had no trouble doing that this season. When Westbrook was on the floor, the Thunder outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, but when he sat, they were blitzed by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. Most of that drop-off came at the offensive end where Oklahoma City went from scoring 107.9 points per 100 possessions with their MVP candidate on the floor to 97.4 with him off. The 76ers finished with the league’s worst offense, putting up 100.7 points per 100 possessions. Simply put, the Rockets have to win these stretches and make sure that when Westbrook re-enters the game it’s in worse shape than when he left it.
Make OKC’s 1-way players pay
Outside of Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s roster isn’t the dumpster fire it gets portrayed as. It’s filled with well-rounded players like Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson, but not everyone the Rockets will see over the next couple of weeks fits that bill. Andre Roberson is a brilliant defensive player who will shadow James Harden the entire series. Problem for the Thunder is that he’s a zero on the other end of the floor. Harden will be tasked with defending Roberson, allowing him to save a little energy and roam a bit to hunt for turnovers. On the other end of the spectrum, Doug McDermott will be relied on to make shots and help spread the floor for Westbrook, but he’ll struggle to stay in front of anyone, especially when the Rockets play Lou Williams and Eric Gordon together, then there’s Enes Kanter. He averaged 14 points and close to 7 rebounds in only 21 minutes per game this season, and he’s a big reason why OKC is the league’s best team on the glass, but he’s one of the worst defensive player in the NBA. Expect the Rockets to involve him in every offensive possession, especially the Harden-less group that will start the second and fourth quarters.
Take care of the ball
Only two teams in the NBA scored a higher percentage of their points on fastbreaks than Oklahoma City. The open floor is where Westbrook is most dangerous, and the Rockets aren’t known for taking care of the ball. Every possession means more at this stage of the season, so avoiding turnovers will make the Rockets offense more effective, in turn, helping the defense, but it’s not just about avoiding turnovers. Bad shots can result in long rebounds, which result in run-outs, which result in easy points.
The Rockets are 1-5 in game 1 during the Harden era. Sure, some of those losses have come on the road against a 1-seed, but not all of them. The team has hosted game one three times in that span, but the 2015 first round series against Dallas is the only win. The Rockets won the first three games of that series, but in every other, they’ve either been down 3-0 or 3-1. Oklahoma City finished the season 28-13 at home and just 19-22 on the road. The Rockets must take care of their home floor in this series because having to beat that team in that building will be tough to do.
Now some of you might be wondering, is there a sixth key? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Get Lou Williams going
Williams averaged 24 points in his first three games after being traded to the Rockets by the Lakers and made half his shots, but things haven’t gone so smoothly since. Williams is averaging 13.6 points over his last 20 games, but he’s shooting just 36 percent from the field and 26 percent from behind the 3-point line. He’s still getting to the free throw line, but the Rockets are going to need more from Williams especially in those minutes where Harden is on the bench.