After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We continue with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
A team’s championship potential should not be judged on first-round output, or late April box scores, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect the Oklahoma City Thunder to take care of business against the Houston Rockets in a terrifying and efficient manner over the next week or so. Not to fuel some pathetic cable TV gasbag’s attempts at solemnizing what should be fun for the hopeless cast of mid-morning basic cable TV watchers, but because this is what champions do. They take care of first-round fodder, quickly.
Free from the shackles of having to take on a new team nearly every night, championship teams use their considerable skill and scouting acumen to hone in on one opponent, and move on from there. How the Thunder utilize this focus will be telling. Their Eastern counterpart and 2012 Finals foe Miami Heat will come across this sort of perspective almost by habit as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. The Heat can get away with falling asleep during class as they prepare, though. They’re the champs, and they have the best player in the world.
The Thunder, Number Two in both regards, has no such luxury. The Bucks are the Bucks, unable to even win half of their games. The Rockets, on the other hand, feature all manner of game-changers. This was a team that played so well for parts of 2012-13 that I considered picking Houston to knock off San Antonio in the first round had the teams met. The Thunder’s supposed first-round fodder would have placed fifth in the East with their record this season, without even taking into consideration how much better that 45-37 record would be had the Rockets been able to feast on Eastern lottery-dwellers for most of the year.
Houston is the eighth seed, though, because it backed their way into losing four of its last six games. It had a chance to secure the seventh seed on the road in the final game of the regular season against the Los Angeles Lakers, but instead lost in overtime, allowing Los Angeles the ability to use two tie-breakers to move up a spot in the bracket and away from OKC. And for all the rightful talk about how this season was gravy, and how Kevin McHale’s team was ahead of the curve as it vaulted out of the NBA’s middling ranks, the swoon still stands as a disappointing end to what was overall a fantastic season.
This is why Oklahoma City needs to take advantage. Why it needs to move the ball and cover in transition not as some showy statement, but because instinct demands it. In a way, the Rockets (who topped the league in Pace Factor this season) are the best possible opponent for the Thunder to open up what they hope is a postseason run to glory. Because OKC will have to run so much, the narratives will be out of breath, and hopefully lacking. No alpha-dog statements from Russell Westbrook. No “Look, I’m a passer now!” workouts from Kevin Durant. Nothing from Scott Brooks for us to pick apart.
Just balls-out transition basketball from a team pitting itself against a much-loved former teammate in James Harden. This isn’t to call Houston a pushover — you don’t win 45 games after a training camp that didn’t include your best player because things just went your way — but the Rockets are more curio than contender right now. Their story (though we’ve written this for years) probably doesn’t begin to take shape until they figure out just what direction to go in this summer with all those assets, and all that cap space.
This leaves the Thunder with a practice round of the highest order. Five or six games against a very good team that tends to throw caution to the wind. It’s the perfect start to a second season Oklahoma City hopes will last until late June. Again.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 5.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Oklahoma City Thunder: Reggie Jackson getting a shot to show out.
I don’t think the Thunder will need to create much chaos to win this series — at least, no more than their standard offense (No. 2 in the league in points scored per possession, according to NBA.com’s stat tool), defense (No. 4) and superstars already create — so let’s instead train our eyes on Jackson, the 23-year-old Boston College product who’s started to come on late in his second season.
When the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets, I remember thinking (among other things), “Wow, Oklahoma City must be really confident that Eric Maynor’s going to be healthy and awesome.” As it turned out, Maynor — the backup point guard who missed most of last season with a torn right ACL, which helped turn Harden into the primary ball-handler for OKC’s second unit, which worked out pretty well — wasn’t ready, struggling mightily with his shooting and playmaking for two months and leading Thunder coach Brooks to start giving 2011 first-round pick Jackson a longer look. He wasn’t eye-popping, averaging 4.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and two assists in 14.1 minutes per game from late December through mid-February, but he did show enough to earn Maynor’s spot in the rotation and help spur Maynor’s trade to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Since then, Jackson has battled midstream acquisition/Noted Veteran Leadership Provider Derek Fisher for minutes, and with all due respect to Brooks’ love for Veteran Leadership, Jackson’s been the better player. The quick, rangy defender (6-foot-3 with a crazy 7-foot wingspan) has averaged more combined blocks and steals than turnovers during his time on the floor, and OKC’s given up about three fewer points per 100 possessions with him out there than when Fisher plays. He’s improved both his per-game scoring output (7.3 points in 17.7 minutes) and field-goal percentage (46.4 percent, up from 43.1 percent) since the All-Star break. He’s proven to be a clever and creative player in the screen game (witness his eight-point, three-assist fourth quarter against the New York Knicks back on April 7) who ranks 11th in the league in points produced per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to Synergy Sports Technology.
In a series that will be played at the speed of light against an opponent with multiple wings who can hurt you in a variety of ways, the fast, athletic, talented and long-limbed Jackson just makes more sense than the older, slower, less defensively gifted Fisher. Also, in addition to the shooting and pick-and-roll stuff I just mentioned, Jackson can do this:
Derek Fisher can’t do that.
Please let Reggie Jackson loose, Coach Brooks. A series this fun demands it.
Houston Rockets: Which version of Jeremy Lin comes out to play.
The first two times the Rockets and Thunder played this season, Lin scored a total of 13 points in 65 1/2 minutes on 6 for 15 shooting, missing all four of his 3-point attempts and going 1 for 3 from the foul line. Houston lost both games by very large amounts.
The third time the Rockets and Thunder played, Lin scored 29 points in 42 minutes on 12 for 22 shooting, went 3 for 5 from deep and hit two of his three free throws. Houston won by three.
Obviously, a number of other factors played into the outcomes of those games — namely, the performances of Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — but Lin’s play in the third game made a big difference. He showed not only a willingness to attack openings created by the attention Harden’s floor-tilting game draws, but also the ability to exploit it by getting to the rim (10 of his 22 shots in the win came within 5 feet of the basket) and knocking down open jumpers created by quick cross-court ball movement — he went 5 for 9 from midrange and 3-point land, and shot 5 for 7 from the right side of the floor (the weak-side when Harden goes left) in the win.
The difference in Lin’s performance from the first two games, which took place way back in 2012, and the third, which came in late February, mirrored the general narrative of his season. After struggling early to find his place alongside a ball-dominating, pick-and-roll-hungry backcourt partner despite not being a strong spot-up shooter, Lin has been more aggressive and productive since the All-Star break, shooting a bit more (two more field-goal attempts and one more 3-point try per 36 minutes) and doing so more accurately (45.5 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3, up from 43.4/31.7 before the break) while continuing to facilitate and keeping his assist-to-turnover ratio steady. He’s still very clearly a third, supporting option behind Harden and Chandler Parsons; he’s just providing more support now, which is a big reason why Houston’s been such a fun and effective squad over the last two months.
Lin will need to continue providing that support, and then some, to augment any Harden-and-pace-provided puncher’s chance the Rockets might have. And he’ll have to do it against Westbrook, the kind of hyperactive, quick and athletic defender with whom Lin’s had trouble in the past, but who can also be prone to picking up quick fouls, overaggressive gambling and getting lost as a helper. In those strong-side-to-weak ball-swing situations from which Lin would be serving as a secondary ball-handler/creator, that could give Lin an important extra split-second to attack or square up his jumper.
In a short series, a second lightning-to-the-cup slasher with a confident stroke can go a long way toward overcoming long odds. While most of this season’s been about getting past “Linsanity,” the Rockets could sure use a little bit of that from their 24-year-old lead guard over the next week.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Russell Westbrook: For a perennial contender for the All-NBA team, Westbrook is rather unsafe. He makes bad decisions, looks for his own shot more than we’ve come to expect from someone called a point guard, and dresses like one of Biff’s henchmen in the second “Back to the Future” movie. When compared to Kevin Durant, he comes across as a young man who shouldn’t be trusted to lead a team. Is it any wonder he gets so much criticism regardless of his season-long excellence?
Westbrook is a divisive enough player that a couple of bad playoff performances wouldn’t do much to change the nature of discussions about him. If anything, they might only force both sides to become more entrenched in their positions. At the same time, more excellent play from him will make the negative view of Westbrook more untenable, to the point where the only naysayers will eventually be forced to depend on ring-counting as the sole piece of evidence for their argument. Westbrook doesn’t need to do anything particularly special to become more widely accepted. He just needs to be the same top-tier star we know him to be.
Serge Ibaka: James Harden is no longer a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in large part because the organization decided that Ibaka better serves its strategy and goals. In a vacuum, Harden is the more valuable player, but any team with Westbrook and Durant can afford to sacrifice a scorer for interior defense and offensive spacing.
This decision will be proven correct or incorrect regardless of what Harden does as Houston’s primary scoring option, but this series’ matchup necessarily brings the Ibaka vs. Harden decision to the forefront of discussions. Whenever either player does anything positive or negative in these games, it will reflect upon the direction the Thunder took this summer. That’s not fair to Ibaka, a much more limited offensive player whose role with OKC doesn’t always allow him to grab headlines. But if he can help lock up Houston’s scorers, particularly in challenging drivers at the rim, he can ensure that Harden’s likely scoring outbursts won’t overshadow his contributions to the West’s top seed.
James Harden: We found out this season that Harden is a bona fide star, a scorer capable of being a stellar first option and creating for his teammates as required. Yet, if we’re able to identify the difference between Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, we must also recognize that there are different star galaxies, from the super-elite down to the merely excellent. Now that we’ve decided that Harden is in this broad class, we will slot him into a sub-group. There’s no better time to make that initial classification than in the playoffs.
Daryl Morey: Part of me believes that Morey is beyond criticism. For three seasons, the Rockets finished with the worst possible record in the NBA — ninth place in the West, just good enough to make the lottery with no real shot of nabbing a top-three draft pick. Through it all, Morey maintained his sterling reputation as a master analyst and dealer, a man who could stockpile assets in service of an endgame we had to assume was coming. It was all vaguely religious, and his trade for Harden in late October proved the believers were not terribly misguided.
The Rockets’ success this season also means that Morey is now in a new era of his tenure, one where progress can be more easily defined (even if those definitions aren’t nuanced or accurate). Houston’s ability to win doesn’t matter so much — no one really expects them to knock off the conference favorite. Yet, whatever they do accomplish will serve as a baseline for 2013-14 and beyond. There will be a way to judge the franchise’s progress moving forward. Morey has been praised for his belief in process over results, but the Rockets’ new reality ensures that their record and postseason finishes will soon take on added importance.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 5.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: