There are a lot of unknowns ahead of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets, which begins Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. CT on TNT. The Thunder went 2-1 against the Rockets in the regular season, but it’s tough to know what to take away from those matchups.
All three games against Houston were before they traded Clint Capella and leaned all the way into small-ball, or as some have affectionately dubbed it, micro ball. Not to mention that the first matchup, the only Houston win, was the fourth game of the season, back when we all thought the tank was on for Oklahoma City.
With so many unknowns as far as how these teams match up coupled with the juicy storylines, this is easily the most interesting first-round matchup in the NBA. Here’s three things you should be watching for.
1. How does Oklahoma City guard James Harden?
This is an obvious one, but it’s tops on the list because it’s most important. Whether it’s fun to watch or not, James Harden is the most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA. His presence alone equals a very good NBA offense.
Without Russell Westbrook for what seems like a few games (he’s been ruled out of Tuesday’s Game 1), everything is going to run through Harden. That means the casual NBA fan that doesn’t watch closely until the postseason is about to get to know Lu Dort very, very well — assuming he’s healthy enough to play himself.
Dort is OKC’s best guy to guard Harden and will get the first crack assuming he’s a go for Game 1.
In his lone game against Houston this season, Dort played a role in holding Harden to 29 points on 9-29 shooting and 1-17 from beyond the arc. Yes, this was in the middle of Harden’s worst stretch of the season, but a look at the video below will show you why he’s well equipped to guard Harden.
On top of quick feet, a long wingspan, and the build of a linebacker, Dort is a very disciplined defender. He keeps his hands wide, doesn’t reach, and is disciplined in his closeouts to avoid fouling on 3-pointers. Not to mention he just plays so very hard, and he drew a key charge by beating Harden to the spot with less than two minutes in the January comeback win for OKC.
However, if Dort is unavailable, guys like Terrance Ferguson and Andre Roberson might get a crack at stopping the bearded one. Those are much better second and third options on Harden than most teams possess.
Of course, it’s likely OKC will double Harden plenty, which is something that didn’t happen during the regular season. Where those doubles come from will be interesting, especially without Westbrook on the court as Harden is surrounded by shooters. You can expect the Thunder to mix in double teams while also relying on the individual defense of Dort and company. Billy Donovan will have to be creative if he hopes to slow down the former MVP.
2. Will we see the same Dennis Schroder From The Regular Season?
We saw just how important Schroder is to the Thunder during his absence while attending the birth of his second child. Having two of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schroder on the court at all times does wonders for the offense. As a trio, they were the best in the NBA with a 28.6 net rating and 127.1 offensive rating in their 401 minutes this season.
For as great as Chris Paul is and has been this season, the Rockets don’t have a big man he can attack in pick-and-roll situations to get midrange shots. The future Hall-of-Famer will still get his, but at age 35 in a setting with games every other day, it’s a big ask for him to create his own shot against the Rockets’ switching defense.
Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder are in the 80th and 81st percentile, respectively, in the NBA in isolation scoring, and it’s crucial both continue that dominance. Schroder has the added variable of his time out of the bubble for the birth of his child, making him more of an unknown than SGA.
Schroder averaged 20 points on a scorching 60 percent shooting from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc in three games against Houston this season. The Rockets have no answer for his speed and no rim protection. OKC’s sixth man has a chance to be the ultimate game-changer for his team in this series just as he’s been all season.
The team has a plus-15.6 net rating with Schroder on the court and minus-0.3 when he’s off.
When those three guards play together, Schroder is the likely primary defender on Harden. He’s pesky and quick enough to hold his own — and has been successful in those situations before.
3. Can Steven Adams stay on the court?
There might not be a team in the league with a more defined identity than Oklahoma City, and Adams is a major part of that. The Thunder will do everything they can to play their five best players as much as possible, but they shouldn’t feel like they have to feed Adams in the post 20 times a game to take advantage of the Rockets’ lack of size.
Instead, Adams needs to be active on the offensive glass and make his presence felt that way. Oklahoma City finished last in the NBA with just 8.2 offensive rebounds per game, and that can probably be attributed to the offense running through Adams at the elbow much more than any year of his career. His offensive rebounds per game (3.3) are well below the previous two seasons (4.9 and 5.1), and he’s averaging a career-high 2.3 assists per game.
The Thunder will need the big man to dominate the glass on both sides of the ball and wear P.J. Tucker down with his activity. A few post touches won’t hurt, either. Adams looked the best he has all season at the beginning of the bubble, but it’s fair to wonder if he can get back to that after the knee injury that cost him two re-seeding games.
The biggest question is on defense. Does OKC stick him on Tucker and dare him to consistently knock down corner 3-pointers with the big man closing out? Tucker isn’t going to consistently drive by an Adams closeout, but he will pull Adams away from protecting the paint, which matters quite a bit considering the slashing ability of Harden and Westbrook.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Adams get a turn on Westbrook. Does Westbrook have the discipline to turn down jumpers and use that space as a runway towards the rim? He’s done that this season, but we all know Westbrook can be provoked in the playoffs.
If Adams struggles to stay on the floor, that likely means Nerlens Noel will suffer the same fate. The Thunder have a few options in this scenario: Give Mike Muscala heavy minutes or play Danillo Gallinari at the five and play super small. This is where Darius Bazely will get a chance to make his mark on the series by running at the 5-spot as well — something he did very well in stretches of the re-seeding games.
Regardless of when Westbrook returns, this promises to be a great series with storylines galore that will get chippy with CP3/Russ facing their former teams. Enjoy this one, Thunder fans. For once, the pressure is on the other guys.