At 1:26 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, April 18, in the final moments of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder finally learned who their opponent will be in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs.
The Houston Rockets slid to the eighth seed after being defeated 99-95 in overtime by the Los Angeles Lakers and will now matchup with the top-seeded Thunder for a series that seems fateful in at least one major way.
Here is a preview of the best-of-seven series that will begin on April 21.
The Thunder won the season series 2-1.
Here is a glance at the projected starting lineup for each team and how they compare. The Thunder player is listed first, followed by the Rocket counterpart.
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin
Westbrook finished sixth in the league is scoring and first among players at his position this season, averaging 23.2 points per game. He is not the most efficient offensive player, shooting just 43.8 percent from the field, while ranking second league-wide in usage percentage, however Westbrook is a capable distributor and has found a way to balance the scoring needs of himself and Kevin Durant.
Lin is a crafty point guard with a quick move to the basket and excellent passing ability. He is certainly not afraid of contact at the rim and will often drive the ball to the basket and then look for open teammates.
Lin and Westbrook may actually have trouble guarding each other, but overall Lin is a weaker defender and Westbrook a better scorer.
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. James Harden
Sefolosha’s greatest strengths revolve around his ability to provide lock-down defense and guard multiple positions. Typically, Sefolosha doesn’t look to create his own offense, but he will make teams pay when left open beyond the 3-point arc.
Harden enjoyed a breakout season for the Rockets–his first as a full-time starter. He ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring this season at 25.9 points per game, along with 4.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
Harden also defends well and is not afraid to take the big shot. No doubt he will have extra motivation in this series.
Harden will be an absolute handful for Sefolosha.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Chandler Parsons
Durant, an MVP candidate, is a prolific scorer and arguably the most complete player in the game today. Given his playoff experience and history, you can bet that from Game 1 of this series, Durant will be determined to guide the Thunder back to the NBA Finals–most likely for a rematch against the Miami Heat.
Parsons, in his second season, has an excellent 3-point stroke and is a major part of the Rockets offense, averaging 15.5 points per game. If he can run off screens and break free for open looks from the perimeter, he will be a pest for the Thunder’s defense.
The task of slowing down Durant is nearly impossible in a one-on-one situation, so Parsons would need a lot of help from his teammates if this is his defensive assignment.
Ibaka will cause problems at both ends of the court with his shot blocking and rebounding abilities. He led the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) for the second straight year and also established career-highs in points per game (13.2) and rebounds (7.7).
Having been a participant in the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, Ibaka might surprise opponents with his athleticism.
Smith, 22, showed his potential in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on March 27, scoring 18 points and grabbing 19 rebounds.
Ibaka is a more experienced player, but Smith may surprise.
The 6’10″, 270-pound Perkins is a hard-nosed, mentally tough player with championship experience, having won a ring with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Aside from being an imposing presence in the paint, Perkins is well known for doing the dirty work and providing intangibles that help his team win.
Perkins does not contribute much in the way of offense as he averaged just 4.2 points per game this season and is a career 60.6 percent free-throw shooter, but if he can bother and wear down his opponents, then he has done his job.
Asik was one of only 12 players to average a double-double this season, with averages of 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game.
Asik is taller than Perkins (7’0″), but at 255 pounds he gives up a little bit of weight.
I suspect that Perkins will be able to use his strength to push Asik away from the basket and out of rebounding position.
The Rockets and Thunder rely on their starters heavily as they rank eighth (32.3) and 11th (31.5) respectively in minutes per game. An advantage could be gained by the team that gets the most scoring production out of its reserves.
Sixth Man: Kevin Martin vs. Carlos Delfino
After being a starter for the majority of his career, Martin has made a smooth transition to the bench in Oklahoma City.
A pure scorer, Martin’s 14 points per game amount to nearly half of the Thunders bench production. He is able to stretch defenses with his shooting range and he is an excellent free throw shooter, however Martin is not known for being a presence at his team’s end of the floor.
Overall, Oklahoma City’s bench surrendered more points per game (33.7) than it scored (29.5) this season.
Delfino has 3-point shooting range, can bring the ball up the court, defend multiple positions, and overall is considered to be a gritty player. This season he averaged 10.7 points per game in 25.4 minutes of action.
Scott Brooks was promoted to head coach after the Thunder started 1-12 under P.J. Carlesimo back in 2008-09–the team’s first season in Oklahoma City. Since then, Brooks has guided the Thunder to a record of 234-146 in regular-season action.
Oklahoma City has also advanced to the playoffs in all of Brooks’ four full seasons at the helm, highlighted by a trip to the NBA Finals last June.
Brooks obviously has the luxury of working with a talented roster, but the players also benefit from the stability that he has provided over the years.
McHale just completed his second season as coach of the Rockets and is guiding the franchise into the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09.
Lin, Harden, and Asik are all new to the roster this season, so McHale is dealing with a core group of players that do not have playoff experience together. However, McHale has received credit for how far he has taken his young team.
Although they do not necessarily play the same position, the intriguing matchup to watch is Durant and Harden, a battle of each team’s best player. Both players will display an enormous amount of desire to win, which will make for an intense, hard-fought series.
For The Thunder To Win
The Rockets were the highest scoring team in the league on a per game basis (106.1), followed by the Denver Nuggets (106), and the Thunder (105.9). This may not end up being the typical grind-it-out, defensive minded battle that is often expected in a playoff series.
It will be important for the Thunder to find their offensive rhythm early as the Rockets could apply some pressure by employing their high-octane offense from the opening tip.
Likewise, a commitment to defense at all times, should give the Thunder an overall advantage.
For the Rockets To Win
If the Rockets can continue to score like they did in the regular season, that will be their best chance at success in this series. The Rockets are not particularly strong defensively as they allowed opponents to score an average of 102.5 points per game this season.
You can count on the Rockets putting up a good fight in this series.
Thunder in 5