Playoffs 2017: West First Round -- Rockets (3) vs. Thunder (6)

Series preview: Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder series could entertain mightily

Showdown of MVP candidates James Harden, Russell Westbrook makes series a must-watch

It’s the duel of the MVP candidates. The battle of the triple-doubles. It’s only fitting that it comes to this.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook have been engaged in a long distance war of stat lines all season long and now they’ll get to fill up both sides of the boxscore in what could be the most entertaining of all first-round matchups.

Harden embraced coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to become a point guard has taken his personal numbers and the Rockets offense into outer space. Westbrook became the first player in 55 years and only the second in history after Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season.

After a dismal 41-41 season a year ago, the Rockets used a 20-2 sizzling stretch from Dec. 1 through Jan. 10 to put a virtual chokehold on the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference behind the Warriors and Spurs and establish themselves behind the favorites as dark horse contenders.

Reeling from the departure of free agent Kevin Durant to Golden State, the Thunder have rallied around and relied on Westbrook just to get them to the playoffs. Now the fun starts.

3 quick questions and answers

Who wins the Westbrook-Harden 1-on-1 duel? Going strictly by the numbers, Westbrook will likely come out on top. He’s the one who averaged the triple-double all season and he’s got less to work with in a supporting cast and will have to carry more of the burden. He’ll definitely put up more shots along the way. Harden led the league in assists this season and has a lot more options to make the Rockets offense hum. But both are capable of dropping 50 points, if needed, and it would be a surprise if they didn’t.

How many 3-pointers will the Rockets take? The short answer is: As many as they can get off. Houston shattered its own NBA record by taking an average of 40 per game and there is no indication yet that they have pushed their own limit. D’Antoni puts no rein on his players or cap on the number, believing that any open shot is a good one. With a roster filled with shooters, the Rockets take a league-high 46 percent of their field goal attempts from behind the arc. Bombs away.

Who most wants to guard Westbrook? Patrick Beverley is already persona non grata in OKC from the incident a a few years back in the playoffs when he ran into Westbrook and knocked him out of the playoffs with a knee injury. Now the snarling, hissing, defense-first guard will look at the challenge of guarding Mr. Triple-Double the way a hungry wolf would a pork chop: Let me have a bite of that.

The number to know

32:32 — Andre Roberson defended James Harden for 32:32 over the four regular season meetings between the Rockets and Thunder, the most any opposing player defended Harden this season. Harden shot just 10-for-33 (2-for-14 from 3-point range) against Roberson and just 34 percent overall against the Thunder. Among Western Conference opponents, only the Warriors held him to a lower field goal percentage. The Rockets still scored 123.5 points per 100 possessions in their two home games and had the league’s fifth best offense against the Thunder overall, because Harden’s teammates shot 77-for-134 (57 percent) from 3-point range over the two games at the Toyota Center.

Making the pick

While the two marquee stars will draw most of the attention, the fact is the Rockets simply have a deeper bench that gives them a tremendous advantage. Harden can draw the defense to him and then get the ball to his supporting cast of outside shooters in Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams and Trevor Ariza and also toss a few lobs to center Clint Capela. While Victor Oladipo has had a few moments this season, the Thunder are too much of a one-man band. Rockets in 5.

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Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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