Biggest strength for the Thunder: Everything.
Given that the Thunder finished with the second best record in basketball, there’s about five things I could write about here. They’re just a very good overall team. With two top five players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder were the second most efficient offense in basketball. Durant is pretty much impossible to defend one-on-one, while Westbrook is probably the most athletic guard in the league and made significant strides running the offense this year. The Thunder finished 29th in field goals attempted because they finished 2nd in free throws attempted and first in free throw percentage. It’s hard to stop a team when they have two elite scorers and get to the free throw line about as much as anyone. In addition to their ridiculous offense, the Thunder also boast a very capable defense. Oklahoma City quietly finished with the league’s fourth ranked defense, directly ahead of Chicago, Boston, and Miami.
Biggest strength for the Rockets: Analytical offense.
The Rockets aren’t fancy offensively, featuring a heavy amount of isolation and spread pick and roll, but they’re super effective in what they do. Houston was the 6th most efficient offense in basketball behind ex-Thunder star James Harden. GM Daryl Morey is considered one of the premier analytical minds in basketball and has built the Rockets offense in the mold of a computer simulation of how offense should be run. The Rockets took the second most threes in basketball, the third most shots less than 5 ft away from the rim, and the fourth most free throws. In Jeremy Lin and Harden, Houston has two ball handlers who excel in both getting to the rim and kicking the ball out to the corners for open threes. They’ve also got a plethora of shooters who are more than capable of raining in threes.
Biggest Weakness for the Thunder: Scott Brooks.
I don’t think the Thunder have one glaring weakness that will hur them in this series, but in general it’s probably the head coach. I’ve never been a huge fan of Scott Brooks. I’m not enamored with his vanilla isolation-heavy offense or his lineup management. I get the idea behind giving your best players the ball and letting them go to work, but the Thunder are painfully vanilla offensively, running basic pin downs that result in high elbow iso’s for Durant or a plethora of high pick and rolls for Westbrook. Though Oklahoma City destroys teams when playing small with Durant at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5, Brooks insists on using these lineups sparingly. In this series, Oklahoma City should employ this type of offense quite often against a Rockets team that plays small-ball most the time itself. Is Brooks going to kill them in this series? Absolutely not. Moving forward, I think he’s probably the biggest weakness the Thunder have.
Biggest Weakness for the Rockets: Defense
Houston’s two best defensive players are Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik, but overall the Rockets are a below average defensive team. They ranked as the 17th best defense in basketball, allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions. For as great as he is offensively, Harden is just a terrible defender. Lin can match up with most point guards, but struggles with exceptionally quick ones. I imagine he’ll struggle greatly trying to keep Westbrook in front of him. I like Patrick Beverley defensively as a third guard coming off the bench and he might take minutes from Lin, but that hurts the Rockets offensively. Apart from Asik, the Rockets aren’t nearly strong enough in their defensive front court. They don’t have the depth to keep teams from scoring when Asik sits, which causes them major problems considering he played just 30 minutes a game this season.
Prediction: Thunder in 4
While these should be enjoyable fast paced games with high point totals, the Thunder will take care of business handily. Houston’s a young team on the rise and just making the playoffs was a great accomplishment for them, but they have about a 0.00005% chance to win this series. I don’t think the Thunder are going to blow them out every game, but the Rockets just aren’t talented enough at this point and time to win. Houston would have to shoot lights out and Russell Westbrook would have to absolutely implode, neither of which I see happening. Harden returning to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder will make for a fun media narrative, but he won’t get the best of his former team. Not this season at least.