MVP contenders are set to go head-to-head in the playoffs when James Harden's Rockets and Russell Westbrook's Thunder clash in the first round
Few debates in sports has become as heated as who should be this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player so is it too late to just hold off voting and declare the winner of the Western Conference’s most compelling first-round playoff series the winner?
Perhaps the league won’t be interested in changing the rules to allow that but it doesn’t make this MVP-caliber duel between James Harden’s Rockets and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder any less enticing. Both teams have undergone impressive transformations in their own right but the end result will be one team moving on and the other moving on to a vacation. The playoffs have a ton of fantastic matchups this year but few will be must-see TV quite like this one.
Houston enters the series as a trendy dark horse to break the hold that the Warriors and Spurs have had on the Western Conference in recent memory. Mike D’Antoni was initially thought to be a questionable hire for a franchise that had a number of flaws but has turned out to be just the right man for the job in leading an impressive turnaround. The up-and-down style the team plays is conducive to high-scoring affairs but the development of Harden into an all-around player instead of just a volume scorer has been key to the Rockets’ resurgence. The team is more than just their MVP candidate running the show however, and the big stage afforded by the playoffs represents a chance for everybody in the Lone Star State to recognize the talent on the roster.
Sitting on the other bench and welcoming the challenge is the league’s fastest guard in Westbrook. While everybody expected him to step things up this year after being spurned by Kevin Durant in the offseason, few could have predicted the guard becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for the entire season. Westbrook has seemingly been a man on a mission each time he steps on the court and it’s almost scary to think about him turning things up even more in the postseason.
It simply doesn’t get much better than this one and if you’re a fan of basketball, make sure to set your calendar reminders for each and every game of this series.
No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35) vs. No. 3 Houston Rockets (55-27)
Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 – Wednesday, April 19 at 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 – Friday, April 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 – Sunday, April 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 5 (if necessary) – Tuesday, April 25
Game 6 (if necessary) – Thursday, April 27
Game 7 (if necessary) – Saturday, April 29
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Toyota Center in Houston, while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City
Keys for Oklahoma City
As much as the NBA playoffs are a time for stars to shine, OKC will need some significant performances from everybody around Russell Westbrook if they hope to move onto the second round. Victor Oladipo hasn’t been on this kind of stage before and will need to step up as a reliable second option as a scorer and Steven Adams must not only control the paint but also maintain his stance as an interior defender.
Perhaps nobody will have as much pressure on them than Andre Roberson, who will have to bump up his scoring from his average of 6.6 per game while also using his length defensively to slow down James Harden when he’s picking and popping. Second-chance opportunities and loose balls on every possession will be huge for a team like the Thunder given the volume of 3-pointers they’re likely to see in this one from the likes of Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and others.
Finally, it goes without saying that Westbrook must be on every night for the team to have a chance. If he’s not feeling his outside shot or is having trouble getting to the basket, life will be pretty tough for OKC during this series.
Keys for Houston
Head coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of defense winning championships but it’s probably safe to say that end of the court will play a key role in his team going one-and-done or advancing to the next round. Chiefly that concerns how the Rockets plan to defend Russell Westbrook and stop him from racking up postseason triple-doubles as often as he did during the regular season.
Patrick Beverley figures to handle those duties first and foremost and the tenacious defender did a pretty good job on the MVP favorite during the teams’ regular season meetings. Defending Westbrook isn’t just a one-on-one battle though and it goes without saying that when he gets up to full steam, the interior defenders will need to step up and help as well. The Thunder are not just a one-dimensional team but making the supporting cast beat you instead of their superstar point guard is certainly the way to go.
Offensively, Houston has been getting just about every shot they’ve wanted this year and are hoping that carries over into the postseason. If the three’s are falling only one or two teams in the entire league are even capable of hanging with James Harden and company on the floor. The Thunder are not one of them so getting up and down should pay off in a big way as these games progress.
We may have to get deep into this series but eventually the focus will fade over the MVP race between Russell Westbrook and James Harden, as the attention will rightfully turn to these two teams and what they’re able to do out on the court. There’s no question that each player is going to be the difference between an early exit or a sustained playoff run but the Rockets taking on the Thunder figures to be the most compelling first-round series in the postseason thanks to each team’s style matching up well with the other.
Oklahoma City certainly wants to clamp down on things defensively and force players like Patrick Beverley, Trevor Arizia and Ryan Anderson out of their comfort zones both offensively and defensively. They do have a big advantage down low and when it comes to rebounding the basketball and any hope of an upset could hinge on those two factors alone.
Houston won’t be intimidated and likely welcomes all the attention that this matchup will bring in order to prove it is a real threat to the West’s top two teams. The Rockets’ bench is much deeper than their opponents and you figure that will come into play as this series progresses and the crunch time minutes get altered depending on how games are flowing and what the foul situation is.
So yes it’s worth tuning in for Russ and Harden battling back and forth alone. It’s also worth making the effort to catch this one because there should be any number of highlights every night that result from either team getting out and running. Houston has the edge in most areas but the Rockets should have their hands full night in, night out before eventually taking the series.
Prediction: Rockets in six
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.