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Jeff Caplan

James Harden averaged 29.3 points a game against OKC this season.
James Harden averaged 29.3 points a game against OKC this season.

Houston hard-pressed to win Harden's OKC homecoming


Posted Apr 19, 2013 6:47 AM

This is one storyline NBA fans wanted to see, and one James Harden probably could have done without.

The Beard is coming back to Oklahoma City. And Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are waiting, a June mission to fulfill.

It's going to be loud. It's going to be emotional. And it's going to be short.

Harden has put Houston back on the map, a first playoff series in four years. But this is where it ends for the first-time All-Star and the youngest team in the NBA. The Rockets won 45 games by outrunning and outscoring their opponents. The problem with this matchup against the defending Western Conference champions is that the Thunder do it better.

That doesn't mean this isn't going to be fun. It probably will be. The Rockets and Thunder swapped the top two spots all season as the highest-scoring outfits in the league. Both finished the season averaging about 106 points a game.

Houston brings its unique run-and-gun style that emphasizes 3-pointers and mad dashes for the basket led by Harden, the lefty playmaker who was traded by fiscal-minded OKC to star-starved Houston just days before the season. Along with newcomers Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Carlos Delfino and emerging second-year forward Chandler Parsons, the Rockets score 29.9 percent of their points from beyond the arc, 43.6 percent inside the paint and 18.1 percent at the free-throw line.

"I think it's a perfect situation, a perfect style for the way we play, how young we are," Parson said earlier this season. "We got shooters, we got playmakers and think there's no other way to play."

It is exciting, but it's hardly bullet-proof. Houston's defense is nowhere near the level of OKC's, which has followed top-ranked Indiana all season as No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense. The Rockets allow 102.5 points a game, the most of any of the other 15 playoff teams. And the Thunder have carved them up for 121 points on average in their three matchups, two won by OKC.

While Harden has played well against his former team (29.3 ppg, 55 percent 3-point shooting and 12.3 free throws per game), the Houston offense has twice been limited to less than 100 points. Both those games came before New Year's Day when the Rockets barely knew each other's names. They took a 122-119 victory in Houston just after the All-Star break.

Still, the Rockets couldn't beat the Lakers without Kobe Bryant on the final night of the season to avoid a matchup with the best team in the West. They were a mess in crunch time. That won't bode well here.

The Thunder finished off a 60-win season with a league-best plus-9.2 point-differential, the highest since the 2008 champion Boston Celtics. They have done what few high-octane offenses before them have, and that's defend, allowing just 96.5 ppg.

OKC has its doubters, now that Harden is no longer around. The pressure is on the Thunder to prove they can win in the playoffs without him.

With Durant and Westbrook leading the way, they will in this series. And in short order.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. How will the OKC crowd treat Harden? Harden made one trip back to OKC during the regular season way back in November and, as expected, the Thunder fans cheered when he was announced with the Rockets starting lineup. Expect similar treatment to start Game 1. But don't expect the Mr. Nice Guy routine to last long as Thunder fans will quickly turn on Harden in the heat of playoff basketball as fans ratchet things up in Loud City.

Starting Lineup
Thunder Pos Rockets
Russell Westbrook G Jeremy Lin
Thabo Sefolosha G James Harden
Kendrick Perkins C Omer Asik
Serge Ibaka F Chandler Parsons
Kevin Durant F Greg Smith

2. With plenty of pressure on his shoulders, will Kevin Martin show up in his first playoff series in six years? I think he will. Martin's been waiting for this moment for a long time, since 2006 when he played for Sacramento. Comparisons to Harden are unfair because they're different players. Martin obviously isn't the playmaker that Harden is, but what OKC needs from him is to continue to knock down 3-pointers at a 40-percent clip (42.6 percent on the season), get to the free-throw line some and buckle down defensively.

3. Does Thunder center Kendrick Perkins have a spot in this series? Perkins played in the two early matchups, both won by OKC, but missed the Rockets' February win in Houston with a knee sprain. Perkins averaged 25.1 minutes a game during the regular season and he played 23 and 21 minutes against the Rockets, averaging 3.0 ppg and 5.5 rpg, below his season averages (4.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Coach Scott Brooks has at times been reluctant to go with a smaller lineup, particularly against Miami, but in this up-tempo series, he might be forced to play Serge Ibaka more at the 5 and put Perkins on the bench.

4. Will Lin be a factor? If Houston has any chance to make this a competitive series, Lin is going to have to step up and knock down shots. His biggest issue, however, comes at the other end of the floor against Westbrook, arguably the most physically gifted force at point guard in the league. Linsanity is long gone, but the Rockets will simply take a consistent performer at both ends.

5. Has Westbrook matured? Probably not. But, as they say in OKC, that's just Russ being Russ. Everybody saw his tantrum earlier this season when he stomped off the floor. The Thunder didn't discipline him. He's still going to put up 20 shots even if Durant shoots only 13. Brooks is OK with that. Can anyone really argue?

When the Thunder have the ball ...

With Harden out of the picture, the ball is in the hands of either Westbrook or Durant for nearly every possession. Westbrook, the strong, insanely quick, 6-foot-3 point guard has had a tremendous season, averaging 23.2 points and 7.4 assists. While turnovers can be an issue, he's cut them down to a career-low 3.33 per game while handling the ball more. He will be a nightmare cover for Lin, meaning Harden and rookie Patrick Beverley will also have their hands full.

And then there's Durant, whose run of three consecutive scoring titles ended while he focused on other skills such as his passing, averaging a career-high 4.9 apg. His efficiency is off the charts and he became just the sixth player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent overall, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the free-throw line.

Power forward Ibaka has expanded his offensive game to average 13.2 ppg. He's still not a real post threat, but he's an excellent mid-range jump shooter and can hit the occasional 3-pointer. Sixth man Martin is key. When he scores in double digits and makes more 3s than he misses, the Thunder are practically impossible to beat.

When the Rockets have the ball ...

Hello, Mr. Harden. The Rockets signed Lin to run the offense, but that was before they landed Harden in the season's first blockbuster trade. The Beard controls the high pace and he'll stop and pop a 3 just as quickly as he'll size up his defender, float through the lane, get to the rim and draw a foul to boot. Parsons is their best 3-point shooter at 38.5 percent, followed closely by Delfino, who can be extremely hot or ice cold. Asik is good for about 10 points a game and he'll battle to keep possessions alive, which will be key against the Thunder's big men, Ibaka and Perkins.

The Rockets' key issue will be turnovers. They average 16.4 a game. That type of number can be and most likely will be fatal against the long arms and quick feet of the Thunder defenders. OKC ranked fourth in the league in points off turnovers (18.1) and fifth in fastbreak points (16.7).

In the clutch

Durant is the man for OKC, a cool customer if there ever was one. In 18 games this season with the score five points or less in the final minute, Durant has shot 47.1 percent, going 8-for-17 for 21 points. He'll isolate in late-game situations and find a variety of ways to get off a high-percentage shot. For Houston, Harden is going to isolate up top and try to take his man off the dribble.

Wild cards

Derek Fisher can pop of the bench every now and bury a 3-pointer, but the player that has to do it consistently for the Thunder is sixth man Kevin Martin, the bait Houston used to lure Harden. Martin has gone from a big-time scorer and career starter to coming off the bench and getting his opportunities when they come. He's had ups and downs and is a one-trick pony as opposed to the dynamic Harden. But overall it's hard to complain with 14.0 points a game and a career-best 42.6 percent from beyond the arc.

For Houston, Jeremy Lin has to be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor. He's had to adjust to playing off the ball with Harden pounding it, but he hasn't improved his outside shooting much from last season, making a slight jump on 3-pointers from 32 percent with the Knicks last season to 33.9 percent in Houston. He must limit turnovers and somehow find a way to stay in front of Westbrook.

Prediction

The Thunder are too hungry and too experienced to be caught flat-footed in the first round. They might come out a bit overanxious after the long regular season. But the fact is they do everything the Rockets do far more efficiently. Harden & Co. will be fortunate to get one game. So I'll give them a red-hot shooting night at home. Thunder in 5.

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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