After reaching the NBA Finals last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are favored to do so again in the Western Conference this year. It certainly won't be easy, but by virtue of a 60-22 record during the regular season, OKC has earned the No. 1 seed and will face the upstart Houston Rockets in the first round.
Aside from the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City was easily the NBA's most dominant team during the regular season. Thanks to a myriad of offensive contributors, as well as strong team defense, it can certainly be argued that the Thunder boast the most complete team in the entire league.
With that said, knocking off the Rockets won't be easy. Houston entered the season with fairly low expectations as it failed to land stud center Dwight Howard in a potential trade, but thanks to the addition of players such as James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets are well ahead of schedule.
The Rockets got Harden from the Thunder in a preseason trade as OKC was unable to sign him to a long-term deal. He has exploded as Houston's go-to guy, and the fact that he is facing his former team in the first round is definitely a storyline worth watching.
Here is everything you need to know about the Thunder's first-round series against the Rockets, including when and where to catch every game, as well as key matchups to keep an eye on.
|1||Sunday, April 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET||Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||TNT|
|2||Wednesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. ET||Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||TNT|
Saturday, April 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
|Toyota Center in Houston||ESPN|
Monday, April 29
|Toyota Center in Houston||N/A|
Wednesday, May 1
|Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||N/A|
Friday, May 3
|Toyota Center in Houston||N/A|
Sunday, May 5
|Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City||N/A|
Regular-Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: Kevin Durant (28.1)
Rebounds Leader: Kevin Durant (7.9)
Assists Leader: Russell Westbrook (7.4)
First-Round Matchup vs. Rockets
Biggest Strength: Scoring in Transition
The Thunder are strong in so many areas that it's nearly impossible to determine what they're best at, but scoring in transition is certainly among their biggest strengths. With elite athletes such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook carrying the load offensively, it is extremely difficult for opposing defenses to keep up with the Thunder when they decide to run.
Both Durant and Westbrook can get to the basket or shoot in transition, so they're tough to keep tabs on. Also, Sixth Man of the Year candidate and former Rocket Kevin Martin is lethal from outside when the defense gets drawn into the paint by a Westbrook drive. If all else fails, Serge Ibaka is a big man who can run the floor better than perhaps anyone his size, and he finishes with authority near the rim.
The Rockets like to turn games into track meets as well, so the Thunder will have plenty of opportunities to play to their own strengths. As good as Houston is offensively, it doesn't stand a chance against Oklahoma City if it allows the Thunder to get up and down the floor with ease.
Biggest Weakness: Ball Protection
Since the Thunder are among the best teams in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, it isn't really fair to point to a weakness. Every team has something they can work on, though, and for OKC that something is protecting the basketball. Head coach Scott Brooks likes to maximize possessions due to the amount of talent he has at his disposal, and that inevitably leads to the Thunder coughing up the ball on occasion.
Durant and Westbrook are naturally the biggest perpetrators as they handle the ball most often. Durant turns the rock over 3.5 times per game, and Westbrook does it 3.3 times per contest, so that is definitely something that they can work on. Westbrook can be especially maddening at times as he tends to freelance and can make some bad decisions with the basketball in terms of passing and shooting.
Despite Westbrook's incredible ability and production over the past few years, he is often blamed for the Thunder's shortcomings when they lose. He'll probably be more inclined to take risks against the Rockets since they enjoy an up-tempo style like Westbrook does, but Oklahoma City will be much better off if Westbrook thinks before he makes rash decisions.
Best Matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin
While Westbrook isn't without drawbacks, he is easily one of the most explosive players in the entire NBA on both ends of the floor. With that in mind, Lin will have his hands full against the All-Star guard. There were a lot of question marks surrounding Lin when the Rockets signed him to an offer sheet this past offseason, and while he hasn't kept up the torrid pace he set last season as a New York Knick, he has developed into a quality starting point guard.
Even so, Lin has some very obvious deficiencies. Lin's strength on offense is getting to the basket and ultimately getting to the free-throw line, but Westbrook simply won't allow that to happen. Westbrook is one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, and he is going to give Lin fits. Lin won't be able to run by Westbrook, and he's bound to turn the ball over.
The struggles won't stop there for Lin, though, as he will have to contend with Westbrook defensively as well. Lin's value to the Rockets is definitely on the offensive end, and it's no secret that he struggles as a defender regardless of who he's playing. Westbrook is one of the toughest players to guard in the NBA, so this could be a nightmare matchup for Lin and the Rockets.
Worst Matchup: Kevin Martin vs. James Harden
If the Rockets are going to advance past the Thunder, then Harden needs to have an insane series. The Thunder certainly know that, and they know exactly what Harden is capable of. Because of that, they will do everything in their power to make other players beat them. That means OKC is going to put defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha on Harden most of the time, but there are bound to be moments when Sefolosha is on the bench and Harden is in the game.
Sefolosha is technically a starter, but he shares minutes with Martin. If Sefolosha and Martin could somehow be meshed together, they would form one of the most complete players in the NBA, but they have very different strengths as individuals. When Sefolosha is out of the game, Martin will probably have to guard Harden, who is the man he was traded for during the offseason.
Martin is a very dangerous player on the offensive end, but he isn't the type of guy who can lock down Harden defensively. Provided Martin can at least keep his head above water when he is on the court, the Thunder should be fine. If he struggles, though, he may not get as much playing time as he is accustomed to in this series.
Key Player: Russell Westbrook
Durant is Oklahoma City's superstar, and the team goes only as far as he does, but it's pretty much a given that he's going to produce. Westbrook is more of a wild card, so his play often dictates the Thunder's success. When he struggles and makes poor decisions, it puts the Thunder in a difficult position. When he is at his best, however, the entire team is elevated and it is very tough for anyone to beat them.
Westbrook has an advantageous matchup against Lin in this series, and he needs to make the most of it. It's usually a better idea to allow Durant to take charge, but Westbrook should have free reign against a loose defensive team like Houston. Westbrook can impact the game in so many phases that it's inevitable he is going to have a say in how this series plays out.
Even if Westbrook manages to go cold from the field, he can turn up his defensive intensity and help the Thunder in that way. Durant is a capable defensive player in his own right thanks mostly to his impressive wingspan, but Westbrook can make game-changing plays as a defender. With so many different tools at his disposal, Westbrook's play will be a huge factor in this series.
There aren't many teams in the league that can run with the Thunder, but the Rockets are probably going to try. Only they and the Denver Nuggets averaged more points per game than OKC during the regular season, so they may actually believe that they can beat the Thunder at their own game. The Thunder won't let that confidence affect them, though, as they'll stay true to their game and use their talent edge to their advantage.
The Rockets are going to score some points, and Harden will probably have some big games, but the Thunder have too many guys capable of contributing on both ends of the floor. Even if the Rockets can match the Thunder offensively, their defense doesn't measure up to the Thunder. Oklahoma City is superior on the boards and has better perimeter defenders than Houston as well.
It should be an entertaining and high-scoring series regardless of how many games it lasts, but the Rockets are simply over-matched at this point. The Thunder appear to be on a collision course with the Heat in the NBA Finals, and they simply won't slip up in the first round.
Thunder win in 5
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