On the surface, there appears to be a legitimate talent gap between the Rockets and Thunder ahead of their round-one battle in the Western Conference playoffs.
Houston will have at least one MVP on the floor throughout the series, and a second could arrive to help carry the load by Game 3. Oklahoma City entered the year as a likely lottery participant, and many of its contributors are relative unknowns to most fans. But the Thunder are truly better than the sum of their parts. Few organizations get more out of each piece, and perhaps no team pounces on opponents' mistakes to a greater degree. This is clearly a team made in Chris Paul's image.
Oklahoma City's three-guard lineup encapsulates its overachieving nature. Paul entered the season viewed by many as a salary albatross, while Dennis Schroder provided more headaches than quality performances. There wasn't the same criticism lobbed at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, though his growth in year two has still taken the league by surprise. But the trio hasn't just survived together this season: they've thrived. Oklahoma City is outscoring teams by an outrageous 28.6 points per 100 possessions when its three guards share the floor, and head coach Billy Donovan often uses the trio in his closing lineup. Donovan would be smart to trot out the three-guard look early and often vs. Houston.
Defending the Thunder guards is a tall task for any team, but the aforementioned trio could provide serious problems for the Rockets specifically. All three guards excel at breaking down defenses at the point of attack, a problem for Houston's defense in recent years. Eric Gordon is the Rockets' best on-ball defender, though he's battled ankle and knee injuries throughout the season. James Harden is an elite post defender, yet his struggles with quicker guards are well documented. With Russell Westbrook potentially missing extended time, the Rockets perimeter defense could be exploited.
"Well the biggest thing is we have to keep them in front of us," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said on Monday. "They're very smart, all three [guards] have playmaking abilities. ...They use their bodies and angles and they produce. We have to counteract that with great team defense and great activity."
Oklahoma City would be smart to shy away from the pick-and-roll against Houston. Doing so simply invites a second defender near the point-of-attack, and considering the Rockets' collection of wings, there's no real mismatch to exploit via a screen. Harden and Gordon are more than comfortable sinking into the paint to defend Steven Adams or Danilo Gallinari. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are elite defenders regardless of where they are on the floor. Paul dusted Clint Capela time and again in January. He should have a more difficult time vs. Houston in August.
Paul and the Thunder are one of the league's more meticulous teams, often preferring to slow the tempo and milk possessions. But it may be smart for OKC to vary its attack against Houston. The Rockets remain a vulnerable transition defense, a product of both effort and style. Houston's propensity to launch from three creates a stream of long rebounds, allowing opponents to kick-start fast breaks with a slight advantage. The Thunder torched the Rockets in transition in January, and while doing so doesn't play to Paul's strengths, it certainly helps Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander. Getting back on defense has become a priority for Houston in recent weeks.
"It's tough because sometimes the shooter can't get back, you got guys offensive rebounding, so that's something we talk about a lot." Tucker said "If they get a couple layups early off our misses, we've got to get back."
The Thunder aren't the most supercharged offense in the league, entering the postseason No. 17 in offensive rating. But while Oklahoma City isn't incredibly dynamic, Paul guides one of the league's most meticulous attacks. Only five teams commit fewer turnovers per game. No team has been better in clutch situations. The Thunder have outplayed expectations to a severe degree this season, and they aren't looking to slow down now. Containing their three-guard lineup is necessary for the Rockets to advance to the second round.