1. MVP vs. MVP
No matter how you slice it, this series is going to come down to Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden. We’re going to argue about who is the real MVP until long after this season is over. Perhaps this head-to-head matchup in the playoffs will give us some reprieve?
That’s unlikely, however, because smart money has the Rockets coming away with this one. Westbrook is going to have to do it all for the Thunder, while Harden is going to do what he does: distribute and help Houston hoist approximately 4,928 3-pointers. We’re going to get more than a couple of moments with them 1-on-1, which I hope are not the highlights of the series.
2. Oklahoma City vs. the fastbreak
The Rockets are a top offensive team built on getting out in transition. There’s even a video of Harden’s passing that shows him getting the ball out of his hands near the free-throw line in order to start the break for his team. It’s ridiculous that you have to guard Harden when the ball falls off the rim to him on defensive boards, but that’s exactly what OKC is going to have to do here.
The Thunder is an OK offensive team that is good on points per possession against the fastbreak. The Rockets are one of the best teams in the NBA at running, and stopping the transition game will be an overarching theme for Billy Donovan if he has any hope of pulling the upset against the No. 3 seed.
3. Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter on offense
Oladipo is a preferred running mate for Westbrook, and for good reason. The fourth-year guard, when healthy, was one of the best players for the Thunder this year. Oladipo was both a receiver of Westbrook’s passes and an instigator on offense. He shot nearly 61 percent at the rim this year, and that’s in large part because of his ability to cut off of Westbrook’s passes and penetrate on his own. The Thunder are going to need that in a big way, since the Rockets are going to score a boatload of points.
Kanter is another asset for the Thunder that has to contribute, particularly when it comes to drawing fouls on Houston’s big men. Kanter has a free-throw rate of .387 this season, which is better than a lot of guards. If he can get Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson to spend more time on the bench, that might help slow the Rockets attack. He’ll also need to rebound on the offensive glass, as the Thunder are not a particularly adept offensive basketball team.