Thunder-Rockets 2020 Round 1 Playoff Series Preview
Starting on Tuesday evening, the Thunder and Houston Rockets will go to battle every other day until one of the two squads wins four games. In sweeping generalities, that’s pretty typical of a first-round postseason series in the NBA, but this year, this seven-game matchup will feel completely different.
Down in the Orlando bubble, there will be a very limited home court advantage, despite the fact that Houston (44-28) will technically be the 4th seed and the home team for games 1, 2, 5 and 7. Houston won a three-way tie-breaker between Oklahoma City and Utah by winning the Southwest Division. The 5th-seeded Thunder (44-28) will “host” games 2, 3 and 6, meaning OKC fans and signage will line the perimeter of the neutral site courts on Walt Disney World Resort’s campus. Even a veteran like Chris Paul, who has competed in the playoffs 11 out of the past 12 years, thinks his experience may not mean as much in this new environment.
“What's funny is the series are long, each possession is important, each game is a pivotal swing but we're in a situation that none of us have ever been privy to,” said Paul. “I’ve played in 102 playoff games, but I've never played in one playoff game in a bubble. Your home court is predicated on virtual fans and just so happens to be the jersey that you wear. So I'll be able to draw from past experiences in arenas with screaming fans, but I don't have any experience to draw from, from here, so it's gonna be a new experience for all of us.”
The Thunder and the Rockets squared off three times during the 2019-20 regular season, with OKC winning the season series 2-1. Still getting on its feet early in the year, the Thunder dropped its fourth game of the season, on Oct. 28, to the Rockets down in Houston. It was a 116-112 loss, with Houston’s James Harden scoring 40 points while the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder notched 22 apiece.
OKC bested Houston twice in January, in meetings that fell within 11 days of one another. The first win was an emphatic one, a 113-92 home win for the Thunder that marked Russell Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma City for the first time since being traded last July for Chris Paul and a pair of first round draft picks.
That victory inside Chesapeake Energy Arena also coincided with the unveiling of the Thunder’s City Edition uniforms, which honored the victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. That one was a rout for the Thunder, who took a 10-9 lead early in the first quarter and never trailed after that. Paul helped lead a balanced attack where six players scored in double figures, then nutmegged Houston’s Isiah Hartenstein on his way to a jumper for a bit of flair to cap it off.
Less than two weeks later, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Thunder traveled to Houston and surged back from a 15-point deficit with 7:18 left in the fourth quarter to steal one, 112-107, from the Rockets. Rookie Thunder guard Lu Dort made his first career start in this game, helping to hold Harden to 1-of-17 shooting from three-point range. Danilo Gallinari was sensational down the stretch as he racked up 25 points to go along with 28 by Paul and 23 from Schröder.
Oklahoma City and Houston have also met in the postseason twice before, with each team winning a series. The Thunder won in the first round in 2013 despite Westbrook suffering a meniscus tear on a right-at-the-whistle collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley. In 2017, the Thunder fell to the Rockets despite Westbrook averaging 37.4 points per game. Now, Westbrook is with the Rockets. Paul, who was traded to Houston in 2017 for Beverley and others, will be lined up across the court from his fellow All-Star point guard and friend. On top of all that, these two teams are staying at the same hotel inside the bubble, the Grand Floridian.
“When these guys stay in the league as long as they do there's always going to be some form of a history,” quipped Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
The Thunder’s defense has contributed to 187 blocks at home this season! Through the Blocks for Bucks campaign, the law firm of @PhillipsMurrah will provide $18,700 to the Thunder Cares Foundation! Visit https://t.co/wtvUiKAH67 for Thunder block highlights! #BLOCKSFORBUCKS pic.twitter.com/3q1B2Sb2v1— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) August 15, 2020
Despite all that experience against one another this season and before, these teams haven’t faced off since the Rockets completed a bold and unprecedented trade, shipping off Clint Capela, its starting center, in a four-team trade that brought back former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robert Covington. The impetus was to fully lean into Houston’s overarching strategy of spreading the floor, running in transition, getting to the foul line and launching three-pointers.
The Rockets went 8-6 during the remainder of the regular season after the trade, then went 4-4 in the seeding games in the buildup to the playoffs.
While the Thunder often threw out triple-point guard lineups during the regular season to great effect (the best net rating of any three-man lineup in the NBA), it still often plays with a traditional big man like Steven Adams and players like Gallinari and Nerlens Noel, who will have height advantages against their Houston counterparts. Houston plays small with a front-line of P.J. Tucker (6-5, 245), Danuel House (6-6, 215) and Covington (6-7, 211), but nearly every player in its limited 8-man rotation has above-average length, quickness rebounding ability and defensive prowess.
“Although that people say they're small, I do think they have great length and I think they have great physicality,” said Donovan. “We're going to need everybody based on what the game is dictating. I do believe Stephen and Nerlens can contribute as they have all year long. And we've had the opportunity to play Darius Bazley at the five, if we wanted to do that as well. It's about us playing to our identity, and what has made us a good team, and can we execute and do those things at a high level for 48 minutes.”
The Thunder will have to find ways to utilize its size advantage with Adams, Noel and Gallinari without sacrificing anything on the defensive end. In the regular season, before the Capela/Covington trade, the Thunder did this by posting up Adams and Gallianri on guards like Harden, which led to foul trouble for the Houston All-Star or easy buckets for the Thunder’s bigs.
“We need to keep moving the ball and not get stuck on their switching,” said Gallinari. “They switch a lot, so we'll be able to get mismatches close to the rim.”
“They play one way, we play another way,” added Gallinari. “We’ve been doing that since the beginning of the season. As we can see and everybody can see, it’s been pretty successful, so hopefully it will be as successful as it was in the season for this playoffs.”
Whether the Thunder will remain committed to those tactics in the face of Houston’s added quickness remains to be seen, but Donovan knows that the Rockets will switch almost everything defensively, meaning OKC will have to be prudent when it attacks those mismatches. Going one-on-one can take the Thunder out of its normal offensive rhythm and flow but can also be a generator of catch-and-shoot jumpers, drawn fouls or easy finishes.