Two could-be MVPs facing off in what should be a wild duel.
Of course it’s Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Of course it’s James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook. The two leading MVP candidates square off against each, settling their candidacies for the award once and for all.
No, that’s not really fair — Houston is favored because they won more and have a better team, and the MVP is a team award. However, the narrative will fall squarely on those two. There’s no way around it, and you can only imagine how the crowd will start buzzing or Twitter would start spazzing out when those two end up guarding each other for a possession. It will happen, someone will get roasted (that will 100 percent happen), and it will be a magical moment.
Oklahoma City implodes whenever Westbrook isn’t on the floor, and Houston has one of the league’s best benches — with two Sixth Man of the Year candidates! One key will be surviving the Westbrook-less stretches despite that.
Meanwhile, the Rockets’ biggest flaw is that their variability and vaunted three-point shooting could turn against them at a moment’s notice. Over a seven-game series, Houston is very confident their boundaries-pushing basketball experiment will work for them. But nothing is certain.
No series has a storyline as easy as this one, even if we won’t find out who the MVP is until after the postseason. (That will happen at an awards show this year.) The Rockets have unlimited shooting, the Thunder have Westbrook, and they should combine for thrilling basketball, even if the series doesn’t go long.
KEY MATCHUP: Clint Capela vs. Steven Adams
Really, the key matchup is the Houston bigs vs. the Oklahoma City bigs. If the Thunder are going to have a chance, they will need to rebound the hell out of the offensive glass, and clog up the Houston rollers to prevent easy dunks. Threes may or may not fall; the Thunder can only pray they get lucky. But preventing the cascade of players to the rim is a must.
Harden is so good with his two primary centers, Capela and Nene. For Capela, he’ll toss lobs, while he hits Nene with pocket bounce passes in the exact same situation. He knows their tendencies and where to find them. The offensive glass and how much the Rockets can score easy buckets could swing this series more than anything else.
FULL SCHEDULE (All time ET)
Game 1: Rockets 118, Thunder 87 (recap)
Game 2: Rockets 115, Thunder 111 (recap)
Game 3: April 21 at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: April 23 at Oklahoma City, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5*: April 25 at Houston
Game 6*: April 27 at Oklahoma City
Game 7*: April 29 at Houston