By Lee Jenkins
April 18, 2013

This won't be the most competitive first-round series, but it may be the most entertaining, however long it lasts. Conventional wisdom says pace slows and scores dip in the playoffs, but that won't be the case with Houston and Oklahoma City, who rank second and third respectively in points per game. These franchises have been linked since Oct. 27, when the Thunder sent James Harden to the Rockets for a package highlighted by Kevin Martin. Emotions will be high with Harden trying to prove why he turned down a lucrative contract extension with the best team in the Western Conference, knowing he would probably get shipped to an upstart. The Rockets exceeded expectations, and so did Harden, who emerged as the NBA's fifth-leading scorer. But the Thunder haven't exactly slipped, either. Without Harden, they have improved in almost every relevant category, and are winning at a higher clip.

Why The Thunder Will Win

Houston is where Oklahoma City was as a team three years ago, a young No. 8 seed, testing itself against the established Lakers. The following season, the Thunder reached the Western Conference finals, and after that, they made it to the Finals. They lost Harden early this season but they didn't miss him, scoring more points in his absence, sinking more free throws and handing out more assists. They are better than they were, not because Harden is gone, but because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue their unabated growth. Without Harden, both could have taken more shots, and neither did. They have become more selective snipers, more willing passers and more determined defenders. Teammates have followed suit and the Thunder don't play as much one-on-one as they once did. The Oklahoma City core has been together five years, preparing for this moment. They won't allow for a first-round upset or anything even close to it.

More series previews:West: Thunder-Rockets | Spurs-Lakers | Clippers-Grizzlies | Nuggets-Warriors

Why The Rockets Will Win

They will space the floor and make 20 three-pointers a game. Harden will outplay both Durant and Westbrook. And Jeremy Lin will put on a two-week recital that trumps anything he did during Linsanity. Oh, and it might help if some of the Rockets grow a few inches, which is theoretically possible given how young they are. In all seriousness, the Rockets won't be able to defend the Thunder, but they can definitely run with them and score with them. They should be able to steal a game or two, thanks to their speed and three-point shooting, and Harden proved in Oklahoma City he can close playoff games. He might be able to win a duel against Durant or Westbrook, though probably not both, and therein rests the challenge. Whatever happens, this experience is invaluable for the Rockets, who are about to take the first of many steps toward the Thunder and long-term contention.

Keep An Eye On ...

Harden. He suffered through a brutal Finals with Oklahoma City last year, scoring 12.4 points on 37 percent shooting, and now he's back in another post-season pressure cooker. Harden played only one game at Oklahoma City this season and shot 3-of-16. He was much better in the next two meetings with the Thunder, but both of those were at home. As eager as Harden will be to show what Oklahoma City is missing, the Thunder will be just as eager to demonstrate how successfully they've moved on. There will be no secrets in this series. He knows them and they know him.

More series previews: East:Heat-Bucks | Knicks-Celtics | Nets-Bulls | Pacers-Hawks

The Pick

Thunder in 5. The Rockets may score 100 points, rain threes and run the Thunder to exhaustion, but they can't beat them in a series, not yet. Durant and Westbrook used to be vulnerable in ways a first-round opponent could hope to exploit, but that's no longer the case.

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