We have arrived at the first-round series in the NBA Playoffs with perhaps the juiciest storylines. Last offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped off all-star forward Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for a multitude of draft picks. A day later, they traded their franchise point guard, Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for aging veteran point guard Chris Paul and more picks. Now, the two teams face off in the first round of the playoffs.
The Thunder were not expected to be in the playoffs as last season indicated they were starting a rebuilding process. They accumulated multiple draft picks and acquired young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the George trade. They looked to be mediocre with an aging Paul, a developing Gilgoeus-Alexander, and a thin bench.
Instead, they gained a top-five seed led by a top four who have carried the team through the season. Gilgeous-Alexander has looked ahead of schedule, averaging 19 points per game (PPG). Paul has continued to show why he is a Hall of Fame talent with 17.6 PPG and 6.7 assists per game (APG).
Point guard Dennis Schroeder and forward Danilo Gallinari have chipped in with 18.9 and 18.7 PPG respectively. They have a top-heavy arsenal that can give many teams trouble, especially being top 10 in field-goal percentage (FG%) and free-throw percentage (FT%). The Thunder alternated winning and losing in every game in the bubble, finishing 4-4.
The Rockets are a top-four seed in the West for the fourth season in a row, losing to the Golden State Warriors the last two seasons with Paul as their point guard. With former OKC teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook being reunited, they immediately went to work, lighting up the scoreboard with the NBA’s second-leading offense in PPG. Harden and Westbrook averaged 34.3 and 27.2 PPG respectively. After trading center Clint Capela to Atlanta in February, the Rockets embraced small ball, having a 6’7 PJ Tucker at the center spot. The Rockets went 5-3 in the bubble.
The Rockets have a major problem coming into this postseason with Westbrook being out with a quad injury indefinitely. I think with the Rockets being shorthanded, they will not be able to keep up with the top-heavy Thunder lineup and will fall to their former point guard in a thrilling seven-game series.
Prediction: Thunder in 7