For starters, these two teams have history. The Thunder and the Rockets were involved in one of the many blockbuster deals in the summer of 2019, with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook swapping places. It felt as if Houston offloaded Paul to a team that was bound to fail this season — something that OKC has proven absolutely wrong (more on that later).
Aside from the narrative, both these squads are extremely talented, with players capable of taking over the game (and the series) at any given time. Their differences in style will also be a major factor in this match-up, which just adds further appeal to what should be a very competitive series.
Oklahoma City may be the slight underdogs here, but we’ve rounded out three factors that might just lead to the Thunder upsetting the Rockets in the first round.
Russell Westbrook’s Injury
The Rockets were recently dealt a significant blow after an MRI revealed that Russell Westbrook strained his right quadriceps. The good news here is that it does not appear to be anything too serious, but unfortunately, the 31-year-old is expected to miss “at least” the first few games of Houston’s first-round series.
It’s easy to overlook Westbrook’s contributions to the Rockets in his first season with the team, especially since he’s playing alongside a fellow all-time great in James Harden (who puts up insane numbers night in and night out). However, make no mistake about it: Westbrook has played a key role in Houston’s success this term, and there is no denying that he will be sorely missed.
Russ is currently averaging 27.2 points on a career-best 47.2 percent shooting, along with 7.9 rebounds,7.0 assists, and 1.6 steals in 35.9 minutes per contest. His production is irreplaceable, and much of the load will fall on Harden’s shoulders.
Will Harden be able to carry the Rockets as the team’s lone superstar against a formidable opponent in the Thunder in an entire series? Even in the best case scenario that Westbrook is able to return in Game 3 or Game 4, how healthy will he be?
Height is Might
Much has been made about Houston’s unparalleled success with their small-ball, center-less lineup. For his part, 6-foot-7 forward Robert Covington — another key piece the Rockets added this season — has done a tremendous job in deputizing as the team’s makeshift center. However, the question here is how will he (or any combination of the Houston’s quasi big men) hold up against a Thunder side that has a more traditional lineup?
Steven Adams has emerged as one of the league’s top big men, and he is fully expected to feast against Houston’s small-ball style of play. The 6-foot-11 big man is averaging 9.3 rebounds on the season — a number that should see a significant spike once he takes on a center-less Rockets team.
Obviously, Houston’s biggest advantage here lies in their speed. It is very much possible that their style is able to negate Adams’ presence in the lineup, forcing Thunder head coach Billy Donovan to opt for a smaller guy at the five who can try and match up against a fast-paced Rockets offense. Then again, it has yet to be seen if this is a tactic that can outlast an opponent throughout an entire series.
The Ultimate Underdogs
The Thunder could be this season’s biggest underdogs, considering how they were fully expected to be on rebuild mode after trading away their two best players in the summer in Westbrook and Paul George. Even when Chris Paul arrived, the general belief was he was going to be traded away without playing a single minute for the team.
All season long, OKC have proved the doubters wrong.
This series against Houston presents itself as another underdog narrative for the Thunder. They have thrived in this very position all season long, and it would not be a complete shock if this team is able to beat the odds yet again. It is all mental at this point.
The Thunder are a young side — led by a a future Hall of Famer in Paul — who will be playing without too much pressure. Not many are expecting them to win anyway, and perhaps this is exactly the position they want to be in.
All the pressure will be on the Rockets who are now in championship-or-bust mode after all the additions they have made to their team this season. Harden is no spring chicken, and he could be nearing the twilight of his career, so there’s no denying that Houston is on a win-now mindset.
Factor all of this in and you might just have a perfect storm type of scenario for the Thunder to pull off a first-round upset against Houston.