The Houston Rockets have drawn the OKC Thunder in round one. With bad news already out about Russell Westbrook’s status what can Rockets fans expect?
With just one game left before the playoffs begin the Houston Rockets look to be matched-up against the OKC Thunder. This has the potential to be a franchise altering series for Houston, and for Daryl Morey. This match-up is probably the last one the Rockets would have wanted.
The first bit of bad news came out today when sources began reporting that Russell Westbrook is going to miss at least the beginning of the series with an injured quadriceps. For a player who relies so much on his athleticism rushing back from the injury is a dangerous proposition. The potential for aggravating or exacerbating the injury is high, and Houston will have no chance of they lose Westbrook for anything longer than a few days.
The Rockets, particularly Westbrook and James Harden, will have some psychological roadblocks in this series as well. After pushing to get Paul traded for Westbrook, Harden will have to face a motivated and angry CP3. Paul felt blindsided by the trade and his anger and focus has helped lead a young Thunder team to a record far better than many expected.
Harden has an up and down history at best in big games, and without Westbrook to share the load may crumble again under the pressure of facing Paul in the playoffs. The Thunder has a strong backcourt of their own with Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Paul and Dennis Schroeder. Last night’s injury suffered by Lu Dort however could be a blow to OKC. Dort has been a revelation defensively for the Thunder and has improved as a shooter. There should be an update on his status later today.
OKC also will challenge the Rockets to stop Danilo Gallinari, as Houston has struggled to defend opponents bigs all season. Gallinari is having a great season beyond the arc hitting at 40% with just over 7 attempts per game. While he isn’t much of a rebounder or defender he is the Thunders second leading scorer and there is nobody in the Rockets regular rotation that has the height to bother his shot. With Robert Covington’s playoff struggles well documented, he may not be able to really take advantage of Gallinari’s sub-par defense anyway.
Thunder rookie Darius Bazely has come into his own in the bubble and is in the middle of a stretch of three consecutive 20 point games. He is also shooting well from three point range and has the confidence of his teammates. Without Westbrook for more than a game or two Houston is going to be hard pressed to match OKC’s scoring.
The Thunder also have Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel to provide size and rebounding the the Rockets cant match with their current rotation. While neither is a huge offensive threat, they can help extend possessions on offense and end them on defense by controlling the boards. Houston has used James Harden as a post defender against some bigger teams, but with the amount of energy he’ll have to expend on offense that may not work here.
The Rockets best hope for this series was for Harden and Westbrook to use their size and strength to bully OKC’S backcourt , and hope that they could shoot well enough that the rebounding disparity wouldn’t be too great. With Westbrook down, Houston will have to hope for scoring to come from elsewhere. Eric Gordon has been shooting a brutal 34% from the field and 24% from three so he is probably not the answer. If Houston can cobble together decent performances from Jeff Green and Ben McLemore in the first few games and Westbrook makes it back they may be ok.
Houston comes into the playoffs with alot to prove. Can their small ball team compete for a championship? Did Daryl Morey make the right moves in acquiring Westbrook and Covington and shipping out Paul and Capella? Can James Harden come through when it matters? Will unfortunate injuries submarine the Rockets yet again? There are few first round series that have so many legacies and futures intertwined in the outcome. If Houston flames out again it may mean the end of this iteration of the Rockets.