Thunder

Thunder Ready to Show Regular Season Success Was No Fluke

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have been the league’s surprise team this year. Last summer, they shipped both of their superstars away and were seemingly entering a rebuild.

This season has been anything but that.

Despite a roster overhaul, COY finalist Billy Donovan has done an excellent job with this team. They ended the season with a 44-28 record– the franchise’s best winning percentage since Kevin Durant left in 2016. This has earned them the fifth seed and a first-round matchup with their 2019 summer trade partners, the Houston Rockets.

SEASON SERIES

These two teams squared off three times this season, with the Thunder winning twice. However, none of the three meetings came after the Rockets switched to their small-ball lineup. In the three games, the Thunder have averaged 112.3 points per game to Houston’s 105. On top of this, they have held Houston to just 41.9% from the floor and 23.4% from the three. The latter stat will be very encouraging for Billy Donovan’s squad, as Houston is known for their high-volume three-point shooting.

Another positive sign for the Thunder– they out-rebounded the Rockets by 9.7 per game. Since then, the Rockets have downsized further, so OKC can look forward to that matchup on the glass.

3 KEYS FOR OKC

Offensive Rebounding

In the eight seeding games, OKC averaged 9.5 offensive rebounds per game compared to Houston’s bubble-worst 5.1. This is an area that the Thunder need to take advantage of. The Rockets’ tallest player on the floor is usually 6’7″ Robert Covington. Steven Adams is one of the league’s elite offensive rebounders with 3.3 snags per game. This is a number he will definitely look to increase and punish the Rockets with. As long as they keep the energy high on the offensive glass, they will be able to generate a lot of second-chance opportunities.

Luguentz Dort: The James Harden Stopper?

Unfortunately for OKC, stalwart defender Luguentz Dort will miss Game 1 due to a knee injury. Veteran Andre Roberson will likely pick up some more minutes in his absence. He can provide good energy on defense too, but he is still finding his rhythm after missing nearly two full seasons. The Thunder will be hoping that Dort can get back on the floor for Game 2.

James Harden is one of the league’s most explosive offensive talents — that’s certainly no secret. In their first two matchups this season, he averaged 34.5 points. In the third meeting, however, he scored just 17 points and really struggled. This was largely due to Dort’s defense. Dort should definitely be guarding Harden for the majority of the series, as he has already proven that he can slow down the league’s back-to-back scoring champion. Including the restart, Harden has averaged 34.3 points per game this season, so Dort will have his work cut out for him. Any way to slow him down will be huge for OKC.

Free Throw Shooting

Both of these teams shoot a lot of free throws and they connect on a high clip. The Rockets attempt 26.1 per game on 79.1% shooting. The Thunder attempt 24.8 per game and knock down 79.6%. The general postseason trend points to a light whistle, but Harden is still likely to shoot around 10 a night. OKC should still look to attack the rim in hopes of getting to the line, though. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander loves driving to the basket. The Rockets’ lack of rim defense could certainly lead to some cheap fouls in his favor. Chris Paul is a veteran in this league and knows how to draw contact– 20% of his points come at the charity stripe.

PREDICTION

Overall, this should be an incredible series. In fact, on paper along with the narrative, it has the potential the most exciting series of the first round. One thing that we know for certain: Russell Westbrook will miss the first game due to a quad injury.

This is a huge blow for the Rockets, as Westbrook has been playing incredible basketball in 2020 and would have relished every matchup against his former team. It is expected that Eric Gordon, who recently returned from injury, will take his place in the starting lineup. Hopefully we can see Westbrook return at some point during the series, as it’s always good to match up against the best version of your opponent.

They might be underdogs, but if the Thunder can use their size advantage, superior defense and win the free throw battle, they certainly have the capabilities to beat this Rockets team and affirm that their regular season success was no fluke.

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About Eshan Arya

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