You couldn’t have scripted this any better. When the Western Conference playoffs tip off on Tuesday, it’ll feature a grudge match between the Rockets and Thunder that might prove to be one of the more compelling series of the opening round. James Harden and Chris Paul will square off as former teammates who never quite reached the promised land together, and Russell Westbrook — who was traded for Paul — will face the team where he spent more than a decade of his career.
Even if the bitterness or bad blood is overstated, some form of self-fulfilling prophecy will play itself out once they take the court, given what’s at stake for both teams. In each case, there are a number of variables at play, but we’ve identified the single biggest x-factors for both, which could be the difference between a long postseason run in Orlando or an early exit from the Bubble.
Houston Rockets: Russell Westbrook’s Health
For the Rockets, it’s a test of whether their two main stars can anchor a true contender, not to mention Mike D’Antoni’s basketball disruptor philosophy, a frequent and familiar point of contention among fans and pundits alike.
The criticism surrounding Westbrook, in particular, has only increased in volume in recent years. OKC got bounced out of the first round in each of the past two seasons, despite a superstar tandem the featured Paul George before he was traded to the Clippers last summer. But the biggest question now is just how much Westbrook we’re actually going to see this series.
On Thursday, Houston announced that he could miss at least the first few games of the opening round with a strained quadriceps tendon that forced him to sit out the final seeding game against the Sixers on Friday. There is no clear time table for his return, but a prolonged absence could be hazardous against a scrappy OKC team with something to prove.
And then there’s no telling how productive or efficient he’ll be when he returns. So much of his game is predicated on his athleticism and his ability to run roughshod over opposing defenses and create opportunities for himself and others. If he isn’t able to attack with the same reckless abandon that is his signature style, there is, unfortunately, no good alternative. He hasn’t had a reliable outside shot to fall back on for years.
Even without the injury, Westbrook’s story line was already going to figure heavily into the narrative. The Rockets are a top five offense, led by one of the greatest scorers of all time in James Harden, and their switch-everything, small-ball onslaught that often features the likes of P.J. Tucker penciled in at the center position puts opposing defenses in a bind.
But Westbrook is major catalyst in that scheme, and his absence will put its efficacy to the test. Westbrook is averaging 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and seven assists per game this season, and combined with Harden’s production has once again made Houston one of the league’s more fearsome scoring machines.
And yet, that also belies the fact that lineups featuring Harden without Westbrook have often played just as well, if not better, this season. The problem is that Houston has come to rely on those staggered Westbrook minutes to ease Harden’s offensive burden. Without him, Harden will be forced to generate a tremendous amount of offense on his own.
That’s not something that’s proved sustainable in the past when it comes to deep playoff runs for the Rockets. Houston can probably stay afloat for a little while without him, but they’ll need a healthy Westbrook back in the lineup if they want any chance of challenging for the Western Conference crown.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul’s Quest For Sweet, Sweet Revenge
The Rockets clearly thought they were putting Chris Paul out to pasture when they sent him to OKC for Russell Westbrook. In their minds, they were trading in an aging star with an injury history who hadn’t been able to get them over the hump, for a younger, turbocharged backcourt mate to pair alongside Harden and juice an offense that was already among the most high-octane attacks in the league. And to make this work, they traded a whole lot of future draft picks, signaling they thought Paul’s stock wasn’t particularly high.
But throughout the season before the shutdown, and now on into the seeding games, Paul has proven that he’s far from finished. The Thunder have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA this season, and Paul is playing some of his best basketball in years.
OKC secured the No. 5 seed in the West and thus a first-round date with the Rockets, and you can bet Paul and company feel like they have something to prove. It’s just a shame that this series has to be played in a bubble and that we’ll be deprived of hostile home crowds in both cities and all the added animosity that would bring to the equation.
The bizarro lineups on both sides will present some interesting conundrums. Houston’s small-ball lineup featuring Robert Covington and Danuel House as its tallest players, each coming in at a whopping 6’7 (but with considerable reach), could potentially render Steven Adams unplayable if he isn’t able to keep up out on the perimeter, or turn him into an absolute beast on the boards.
It could also spell trouble for the Thunder’s three-guard assault, comprised of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. When those three played together this season, they outscored opponents by nearly 29 points per 100 possessions. The problem is that none of those three are really equipped to guard Harden for any significant stretch, meaning they’ll have to deploy that lineup more methodically to squeeze maximum results out of it.
The Thunder have been an NBA best in the clutch this season, going 30-14 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. If OKC can keep the games close, they’ll have an advantage in that department over a team that was just 19-13 in those scenarios this season.
The bottom line, though, is that the Thunder will need Chris Paul playing at a superstar level. As good as Gilgeous-Alexander and other members of the supporting cast have been this season, they’ll only go as far as Paul can lead them, and he definitely has an extra chip on his shoulder as he prepares to face off against the team that decided he was all washed up last summer.