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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: A Glimpse into a Potential Playoff Matchup

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COMMENTARY | As we inch closer to the beginning of the regular season, the playoffs are the least of the player's worries.

The Houston Rockets head into training camp with two starting spots up for grabs (although Jeremy Lin will likely start, I'd like to think McHale will at least give Patrick Beverley a shot), a logjam at nearly every bench position, a new half-court offense that needs to constructed and learned, and a lot of work on the defensive end.

Those are the behind-the-scenes concerns, but as fans, we know that this team is headed to the playoffs, and we are excited to see them make a run at the Western Conference crown. In the next couple of weeks, I'll be exploring how the Rockets match up with all of their Western Conference foes.

First up, the team with the best one-two punch in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder:

Stars

SF Kevin Durant and PG Russell Westbrook

Secondary Contributors

PF Serge Ibaka, Combo Guard Reggie Jackson and SG/SF Jeremy Lamb

Rotational Role Players

SG/SF Thabo Sefolosha, C Kendrick Perkins and PF Nick Collison

Fringe Rotational Players and Bench Bodies

PG Derek Fisher, C Hasheem Thabeet, F Ryan Gomes, C Steven Adams, F Perry Jones, PF/C Daniel Orton, SG/SF Andre Roberson

Last Season's Results

11/28/12: Oklahoma City Top Harden-less Rockets, 120-98

12/29/12: Oklahoma City Force 24 Turnovers, Win by 30

2/20/13: James Harden Drops 46, Leads Impressive Comeback, Rockets Win, 122-119

Last Season's Playoff Results

Game One: Thunder Make Quick Work of Sloppy, Nervous Rockets

Game Two: Thunder Prevail in Highly Contested Contest, 105-102

Game Three: Thunder Win by 3, Missed Call Stands Out (no call on illegal screen)

Game Four: Rockets Fight Off Elimination at Home, Head Back to Oklahoma City

Game Five: Rockets Control Westbrook-Less Thunder at Home, Upset Looming

Game Six: Kevin Martin Scores 25 and Thunder Finally Eliminate Scrappy Rockets

Houston's Defensive Strategy

- Oklahoma City is best when they are in transition. When Westbrook pushes the ball, even when transition numbers aren't in his favor, he finds the holes and attacks them. In Houston's third regular-season matchup against the Thunder, the Rockets were able to come back in the fourth quarter by making the Thunder play half-court offense, which led to several turnovers. Forcing Oklahoma City into the half-court game is easier said than done, as they like to get out in run off of both turnovers and missed shots. The point is that if you can control the tempo and force Westbrook into a couple bad half-court decisions, they have a shot. Strictly use Beverley on Westbrook.

- Houston needs to force the Thunders' secondary stars to beat them. Take advantage of Perkins, Sefolosha, and Collison being on the floor, and force them into shooting more than they are used to. Sefolosha and Ibaka will hit their fair share, but this is the NBA; you can do everything right and still get burned.

- Keep fresh bodies on Durant, and use different kinds of defenders. Rotate Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia, Ronnie Brewer and Terrence Jones to keep Durant's defender rested, and force Durant to vary his attacking style according to his defender.

Houston's Offensive Strategy

- Take advantage of Perkins in the high pick-and-roll game. Run the usual offense that revolves around Harden's penetration off the pick and roll and isolation, and use Howard to attack Perkins in the post (Perkins is not as good of a post defender as he gets credit for, ask Marc Gasol how much trouble he had with him in the second round)

- Use Jones and Donatas Motiejunas to stretch the floor, which will create space inside and drags Ibaka away from the basket. When Ibaka does block a shot, don't let it discourage the slashing guards; keep attacking the basket and good things will come.

- Use Lin with the second-string players, and take advantage of Oklahoma City's young and inexperienced bench.

- Control the tempo, and don't get caught playing their game. When Westbrook starts to play the passing lanes, burn him with a back-door cut and keep him in check.

Biggest Mismatch: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin

This is going to be a theme in these team-matchup pieces. Lin can't guard elite point guards. He just can't. Last year, Lin started the second game of the first-round series against the Thunder next to Beverley, which proves McHale was smart enough to realize that Lin couldn't guard Westbrook (Beverley played Westbrook, Lin played Sefolosha), and then in the third game, he started both Lin and Beverley again, even when Westbrook wasn't playing (Beverley played Jackson, Lin played Sefolosha again), proving how little faith he had in Lin's defensive ability (and rightfully so). Come playoff time, the Rockets will need Beverley to play against Westbrook if the Rockets draw the Thunder; if Lin plays him, we have no shot. Parsons, Garcia and Brewer are a good enough defenders to slow down Durant, although it's impossible to completely shut down a player of his caliber, but we can't say the same about Lin.

Most Interesting Matchup(s): Terrence Jones vs. Kevin Durant, Jones/Motiejunas vs. Serge Ibaka

Remember how well LeBron James played against Kevin Durant in the 2012 NBA Finals? LeBron is a strong, hyper-athletic forward with legitimate size and a strong body, and although Jones isn't anywhere near the offensive player LeBron is, he has a similar body type, and similar athletic skills. When Parsons is on the bench, Jones could provide Houston with a physical force to play against KD, who as we all know is thin as a rail. Jones might be the kind of defender that gives Durant a hard time. In the other matchup, the idea is simple: keep Ibaka away from the basket defensively. Howard needs ample space inside to do work in the post, and if D-Mo or T-Jones can drag Ibaka away from the basket and/or make him pay for helping, the Rockets will be at an advantage. Hopefully, Motiejunas and Jones come into camp with improved jumpers, which would allow Houston to play NBA-sized lineups at all times this year, unlike last season when they had Delfino and Parsons manning the forward spots too often (does anyone remember when John Henson lit Carlos Delfino up? It was depressing, but we came back from 20 down and won).

Verdict

Right now, the Thunder are a better team than the Rockets, but that can all change by playoff times. Like Houston, Oklahoma City is hoping that their young talent can step up and provide them with the depth that they've had the last two seasons. Both of these teams have a lot of variables due to their abundance of youngsters, so by the time the playoffs come around, we'll know a lot more about both squads. My guess is that Oklahoma City finishes second in the West (with the Clippers first, but the Thunder still the favorites), and the Rockets finish fourth, which means the two could meet up in the Western Conference Finals. If they do, the Rockets have a shot; I'm not saying they'll be favorites, but if they're full strength it could go seven, and when it goes to seven, you always got a shot (unless you're playing LeBron's Heat).

2013-14 Regular Season Dates

Road: December 29th (NBATV), March 11th

Home: January 16th (TNT), April 4th (ESPN)

M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and a general columnist on Hoopshabit.com. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, to the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.

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