Back in March, our top-notch, seasoned, voice-of-reason columnist Jan Hubbard penned a column that read somewhat like a prayer … or a plea.
Please, please, please let us have a Rockets-Thunder playoff series. Everyone who thought the Thunder won the big preseason trade of James Harden for Kevin Martin will be on the edge of their seats for this one, because there is nothing quite as compelling as seeing a former player who helped his team reach the NBA Finals come back and try to get his revenge for being traded away.
It is hard to pick a “best” series from the West before they even begin, but this one could be the “it” series if Harden and his teammates can steal one of the first two at the ‘Peake.
Let’s take a look at the five key factors that will shape this series:
1. Can the Rockets get a split of Games 1 and 2? The Thunder are one of the NBA’s best home teams, having gone 34-7 during the regular season in what is typically a deafening environment at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Conversely, of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, the Rockets had the worst regular season road record at 16-25.
The only game between the teams in Oklahoma City was way back on Nov. 28, a 120-98 Thunder victory as part of a 2-1 season series win.
If the Rockets are going to make this series at least a little interesting, they are going to need to find a way to bring the series home tied, 1-1. The Rockets were a respectable 29-12 at Toyota Center during the regular season.
2. Can James Harden take over the series? Harden, the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer during the regular season at 25.9 points per game, struggled in the first two meetings against his former club, shooting just 9-for-33 from the field in two losses.
On Feb. 20, Harden busted out, exploding for 46 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 7-for-8 from 3-point range. Harden was one of six Rockets to average double figures in scoring within the league’s second-ranked offense in terms of points per game.
The Rockets will need Harden to carry the load once again against a Thunder team that does all the things the Rockets do on offense, only better.
3. Durant and Westbrook, Westbrook and Durant: The Rockets have proven they can go up and down with anyone. The problem this season has been defense as they finished 28th in opponent points per game at 102.5. That stat isn’t likely to get any better with two of the league’s elite scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ready to pounce.
In the three regular-season meetings between the clubs, Durant and Westbrook combined to average 49.3 points per game. In an effort to slow them down, it stands to reason Jeremy Lin will slide to Thabo Sefolosha, with Harden on Westbrook and Chandler Parsons checking Durant. The Rockets do not boast anyone who is generally considered an elite perimeter defender – not that there is anybody in the league who can stop KD from the outside, where his length and range makes him the league’s most unguardable 7-footer (despite what he is listed at – the dude is much loser to 7 feet tall than 6-foot-9).
4. Kevin Martin is the X-factor: Most of the attention when dealing with the Thunder goes to Westbrook and Durant, and rightfully so. However, the job Martin has done this season as a full-time sixth man cannot be overstated.
A nine-year veteran and a starter for the majority of that time, Martin has averaged 14 points in 27.7 minutes off Scott Brooks’ bench.
Martin found his way to OKC in the Harden trade. As Harden did last season, he has taken some of the pressure off Westbrook and Durant.
If the Thunder get typical production from Martin in addition to the usual from everyone else, this series could be over quickly.
5. Do hurt feelings matter?: Harden will undoubtedly be on a mission from the opening tip of this series on Sunday evening, and the reasoning is pretty clear.
Last summer, he believed he was worth more than four years and roughly $55 million he was offered to stay. He declined the offer, was traded to the Rockets and signed a maximum five-year, $80 million contract extension.
He quickly morphed into the Rockets’ best player, an elite all-around weapon and All-Star. This came after the Thunder basically decided they could do what they did in 2011-12 without his services. So far, at 60-22 with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, that assumption has proven correct.
With that said, Harden has played with a chip on his shoulder all season. With his first playoff series as the go-to option coming against his former team, he is arguably the most dangerous player on the floor. The Rockets may not win this series, but how Harden handles the spotlight in this situation bears serious attention.
SHERIDAN: Thunder in 5.
HUBBARD: Thunder in 5.
HEISLER: Thunder in 5.
BERNUCCA: Thunder in 5.
HAMILTON: Thunder in 7.
PERKINS: Thunder in 4.
SCHAYES: Thunder in 4.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Thunder in 5.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Thunder in 5.
ZAGORIA: Thunder in 5.
PARK: Thunder in 4.