As Game 1 of the highly anticipated match-up between the No. 3 Houston Rockets and No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder has come to a close, there are still a number of story lines to watch for. Houston’s 118-87 win may have caused many to predict a Houston win, but there is still reason not to give up on this series yet. Of course, even casual NBA fans were drawn to Russell Westbrook‘s inclination to rack up triple doubles, James Harden‘s dominant season in his new role as point guard, and the high-caliber MVP battle between the two superstars. However, there are many less glamorous story lines that can potentially impact the outcome of this series. With that being said, here is a list of five things to continue to look for during the course of this match-up.
Oklahoma City’s Defense
You may not have known, but the Oklahoma City Thunder had proven to be a pretty formidable team on the defensive end during the regular season. Out of all teams, Oklahoma City ranked 10th in defensive rating, sixth in total shots contested, and third in defensive rebounding percentage. They also limited their opponent’s shot creation, ranking seventh in opponent second chance points, fifth in opponent fast break points, and fourth in opponent three-pointers made and attempted. Sunday night, however, the Thunder gave up 118 points on 49.5% shooting to the Rockets. In their four regular season games, James Harden has averaged a near triple-double with 29 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds. The Thunder have been a competitive team defensively in the regular season, but it’s now on them to show they can keep it up in the playoffs.
Houston’s Three-Point Shooting
The Houston Rockets ranked first in the league in three-pointers made per game (14.4) and three-point attempts per game (40.3). Three-point scoring is a major factor in the Houston offense. 46.2% of the team’s shot attempts were threes while 37.5% of their overall points came from three-pointers. Though they only hit on 10 of 33 (30.3%) attempts in Game 1, there’s little reason to believe these numbers will persist. Houston has long had the reputation of being a three-point threat, perpetuated by their General Manager and stat maven Daryl Morey. His belief in the efficiency of three-pointers over long twos has led his team to change their shot distribution in favor of going behind the arc. Thus, the Rockets were able to casually drop 118 points on the Thunder. With the Rockets shooting this well, they’ll definitely be a handful.
Russell Westbrook’s Minutes
Per ESPN writer and Thunder insider Royce Young, the Thunder will “likely play Westbrook more minutes in the playoffs.” Because the first game had gotten out of hand by the beginning of the fourth quarter, Westbrook only got to play 34 minutes. During the regular season, Westbrook had shown that he can take on heavy workloads, sporting a usage percentage of 40.8% and scoring 39.5% of his team’s points. Not only do these numbers represent career-highs for Westbrook, but they are also league highs for the 2016-2017 NBA regular season. If the remaining games of this series are more competitive than the first, Westbrook may have to carry his team on his back for 40+ minutes a night. Luckily, Westbrook isn’t fazed.
“I just go out when my name is called. I go out on the floor and play.”
The Harden-Beverley Back Court
Everyone knew to expect dominance from James Harden, but the one-two punch of Harden and Patrick Beverley wasn’t as anticipated. Beverley, infamous for his aggressive style of defense, went for 21 points and 10 rebounds while hitting eight of his 13 shots (61.5%). It is crucial for Beverley to increase his level of play in the playoffs to make Houston that much more intimidating. Teams normally have to game-plan for Beverley on the defensive end, but if he can consistently showcase his offensive game, it puts more pressure on opposing coaching staffs to scout his team. It may not be realistic for Beverley to remain a 20+ point scorer in the playoffs, but him making up for Houston’s disappointing bench play before the blowout began was more than needed.
Before the fourth quarter, the bench play for both teams was atrocious. Thankfully, fourth quarter garbage time boosted the stats for both teams. Houston has one of the best scoring benches in the league, totaling 39 points per game on 47.1% shooting. OKC’s bench isn’t too far behind with 36 points per game on 44.8% shooting. Even though, many are viewing to see the Westbrook-Harden MVP match up, bench scoring will be a less attractive key to success for both teams.
Game 2 of this series is set to tip April 19 at 8 pm EST on TNT.
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