Rockets-Thunder 5-on-5 Preview

In our effort to preview Houston’s first round series against Oklahoma City, Red94 has decided to run a quick 5-on-5 style question and answer session with six members of our staff. Taking part are Ming Wang, Robert Dover, Forrest Walker, John Eby, Paul McGuire, and Michael Pina (that’d be me). Enjoy, and be sure to bombard the forum with more discussion.

How can Houston pull off an upset?

Forrest Walker: One of two things would have to happen. Either the Rockets happen to shoot 60% from three point range for four out of seven games, or we’re looking at a “Thunderstruck” scenario. That’s how good Kevin Durant is: as long as he doesn’t accidentally give his skills to a child, the Thunder are easily the best in the west.

Ming Wang: Houston needs a lot to go right in order to generate an upset: the offense needs to score at an elite rate against a very good OKC defense and the defense has to hold up against OKC’s top-shelf offense. The only way I see the latter happening is if one of Westbrook or Durant has an inexplicably poor series.

John Eby: By letting the force flow through them. When their young players relax, play by their instincts, and keep the ball moving their offense reaches a higher plane. When they embrace the dark side of iso-ball, they self-destruct. The loss to L.A. was like the Rockets’ failure at the cave.

Paul McGuire: 3-point shooting. Chandler Parson’s buzzer beater against the Lakers was the only shot outside the paint the Rockets made in the final 20 minutes of play. Houston may not need to go hot like Orlando did against Cleveland in 2009, but they absolutely cannot afford long periods of cold shooting as has repeatedly occurred lately.

Robert Dover: It’s going to take: [a] a mammoth performance from James Harden (including an increased commitment to playing defense), [b] a solid defensive strategy designed to limit Durant without giving the rest of the Thunder open looks and [c] consistently high-level performances from role players who have been inconsistent all season. I’m not expecting miracles.

Michael Pina: Russell Westbrook has an emotional on-court meltdown, then breaks his leg during the ensuing tantrum.


What’s the one matchup you’re most looking forward to watching?

Forrest Walker: James Harden vs Kevin Martin. The Thunder will surely keep Thabo Sefolosha on Harden as much as possible, but there will come times when these two guards face each other. Harden has a chance to resurrect the largely dead narrative that OKC shouldn’t have traded him.

Ming Wang: The Westbrook-Lin matchup should be fun on both sides. Lin will have his hands full trying to contain the penetration of the lightning-quick Westbrook. And if Westbrook can shut down Lin on the other end of the floor, the Rockets will be hard-pressed to emerge victorious.

John Eby: Chandler Parsons v. Kevin Durant. Make no mistake, Parsons won’t out-play Durant, but he always gets up for big games, and he defends Durantula as well as anyone. Durant will still “get his,” but Parsons will be the difference between 33 ppg or 43 ppg from no. 35.

Paul McGuire: Parsons vs. Durant.  It was through aggressive defense against Durant back at the beginning of the 2011-12 season that saw Parsons vault above Terrence Williams and Chase Budinger at the SF position.  This may not exactly be the Battier-Kobe duel of 2009, but Parsons with his length still can handle Durant as well as can be expected from a 2nd-year player.

Robert Dover: Cast your mind back to the beginning of last season, and you may remember a young rookie breaking into the starting lineup by playing sterling defense on Kevin Durant. Parsons’ defense has not been as good this season (probably due to the extra offensive load he has assumed), but it will be fun to watch him trying to slow down the scoring machine that is the Durantula.

Michael Pina: Omer Asik vs. Thunder Penetration. If I had a ballot, Asik would be selected as Defensive Player of the Year for all the ridiculously positive/unquantifiable things he does around the basket. Unfortunately, the Thunder will probably go small for much of this series to compromise his influence.


Who’s an X-factor on Houston who can turn the tide?

Forrest Walker: The obvious answer is Jeremy Lin, but I think Chandler Parsons might be the surprise hit. He can do it all from the floor, and if he can elevate his defense like we saw last year, Parsons guarding Durant could be a storyline.

Ming Wang: Jeremy Lin is Houston’s x-factor in this series. We all know Harden is Houston’s most important offensive player, but it’s only when Lin plays at his best (aggressively going to the hole a d drawing fouls) that this Rockets team approaches its upside.

John Eby:  Carlos Delfino. Terrence “Upside” Jones is the sexy pick, but it’s hard to ignore that Cabeza, a 37 percent three point shooter, is only shooting 33 percent in April, coinciding with the team’s slide. But there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, so those shooter’s legs will be fresh.

Paul McGuire: Lin. Lin, Lin, Lin. Lin is not Houston’s best player, but there have been so, so many games this season where a good performance from Lin equals a victory. Lin outplayed Westbrook in Houston’s sole victory over OKC this season, something which he will likely need to do repeatedly over this series.

Robert Dover: Carlos Delfino has been one of the most erratic players for the Rockets this season. But when he’s connecting on his three point attempts he steadies the bench rotation and provides a valuable extra option on offense. He has shot better than 50% on three pointers in 20 games this year, and in those games the Rockets are 14-6. It’s a tough ask to do that every night, but that’s the sort of performance the Rockets are going to need if they’re to steal games from the Thunder.

Michael Pina: Donatas Motiejunas, anyone? If the rookie can somehow, someway string together some productive minutes—drawing Serge Ibaka away from the basket in the process—to combat Oklahoma City’s small lineups the Rockets might do some things.


What’s Houston’s biggest weakness that the Thunder will look to exploit?

Forrest Walker: There’s a line of rookies just waiting for their turn to get devoured by the Thunder offense, and they’re all at the power forward. Serge Ibaka’s going to have a feast, raining points from anywhere he wants.

Ming Wang: The Rockets’ porous perimeter defense will likely be their undoing. While any team would have their hands full defending the Westbrook-Durant duo, the penchant of Houston’s perimeter defenders for gambling on steals should result in easy driving lanes for two of the league’s most dangerous scorers.

John Eby: Turnovers. If OKC helps late but aggressively on Harden, Lin and Parsons’ drives to the basket, they will force a bevy of bad passes. The Beard will still be begging for the foul as Sefalosha is leaking out for the slam.

Paul McGuire: Aside from “We don’t have Kevin Durant”, turnovers. You absolutely cannot have Westbrook and Durant thundering down in the paint off of transition, and Houston is terrible at turning the ball over as well as defending once it is turned over.

Robert Dover: Houston’s game is predicated on getting into the paint for easy layups and kick outs, particularly by Harden and Lin. The result is that the guards put up a lot of blockable shots around the rim – the Rockets have had the 4th most shots blocked in the league. The Thunder lead the league in block rate and know better than anyone how to predict when Harden will look to get off a shot, so expect to see a lot of rejections. They will look to turn off the tap of layups for the Rockets’ guards and break up the driving game.

Michael Pina: Expect the Thunder to run Houston’s shooters off the three-point line. When that happens, expects lots of sloppy decision-making. Also, all possessions that result in half-court offense will be won by Oklahoma City.


Series Prediction

Forrest Walker: The safe bet is Thunder in five. The unpredictability of the three point shot and the ref’s whistle tell us that it’s possible if not likely that one game will swing Houston’s way, but the Thunder are just flat out a better team right now.

Ming Wang: Thunder in 5, with Houston stealing a game at Toyota center on the back of a monstrous game from Harden.

John Eby: If Houston plays like they’re just happy to be at the dance, this could be a great series. If they play like the world is depending on them to win a championship this year, then OKC will win it in five. There is no try.

Paul McGuire: A lot of fans worried about a matchup with Denver on the grounds that the Nuggets were us, but better. However, I think that applies more to the Thunder, and Morey does seem to view them as the worst matchup for Houston. Still, I shall be an optimist and go Thunder in 6.

Robert Dover: Unfortunately I can’t see this going well for the Rockets. Thunder take it 4-1, possibly 4-2 if the Rockets get hot from behind the arc.

Michael Pina: Thunder in 6.

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