Turbulent Times

Examining how Houston will fare without Russell Westbrook: A Rockets-Thunder series preview

Composite photo by Jack Brame

When it was first reported that Russell Westbrook would miss at least the first few games of the first round, Rockets fans fell into a panic and self-loathing state. To some extent, the panic is understandable. Having a star player go down with injury days before the playoffs is never a great place to be in. Star players, unlike role players, have qualities and on-court production that are irreplaceable.

The Rockets are also playing a really good first round opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder. I will give my prediction soon, but this injury just made the series much more like a traditional 4-5 matchup in that it's closer to a toss up now. However, the self-loathing from Rockets fans is probably a good place to draw the line. Houston, even without Russell Westbrook, will still be (and should still be) considered the favorites to win this series.

Prediction:

Rockets in 6

Why?

Part of why playoff basketball is exciting is because it's incredibly sophisticated, matchup-driven, and you can attack a series from a bunch of different angles. However sometimes, and I'm guilty of this too, we overanalyze it. We try and give reasons why we reach certain conclusions beyond what is right in front of our face. Sometimes playoff basketball can be simple.

That's kind of what's happening here. I'm tempted to give you a convoluted explanation as to why I arrived at this prediction, but my answer is quite simple. The Rockets, for at least 36 minutes a game, will have a top five NBA player surrounded by average shooting at four other positions. And the Thunder, as good as they are (and they're quite good), don't have that. The Rockets, in theory, should be good enough to defeat this first round opponent because they have James Harden.

In practice, there are of course a number of factors that could prevent the Rockets from toppling the Thunder. Let's get into that.

1. The minutes without Harden

This is where Houston will miss Westbrook's presence the most. There will be 8 to 12 minutes a game where the Rockets will be on the floor without a dynamic playmaker. The franchise hasn't had to deal with this problem in the playoffs since 2017. As it was then, this will be a glaring issue until it's not.

The Rockets will have to lean on Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon to take on extra ball handling and playmaking responsibility. Rivers has historically thrived with the team in these circumstances. Rivers plays better with the ball in his hands and the Rockets haven't needed him to play like that unless there's an injury. Rivers will likely see a significant uptick in scoring.

Gordon, on the other hand, just returned from an ankle injury and hasn't caught a rhythm shooting the ball from three-point range this entire year (31.6% from deep the season). It's really hard to say what Rockets fans should expect of him come playoff time. As in past years, he is Houston's biggest X-factor going into the playoffs.

In general, expect the Rockets to be in the red when Harden sits. The goal should be as close to neutral minutes as possible. If they can be -4.0 per 100 possessions instead of -11.0 or something like that, that's a huge plus.

2. The rebounding

Already a weak rebounding team (27th in rebound percentage), the Rockets are losing one of their best rebounders in Westbrook. Even though their strategy as a team is to forgo the rebounding battle every night in favor of turnovers and deflections, there's still a limit to how awful you can be on the glass. Players who have a history of being good rebounder (P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, James Harden, and Jeff Green) will need to help pick up the slack until Westbrook returns.

3. The shooting

On the season, the Rockets are in the bottom third of the league (21st) in three-point percentage. For context, Houston was 12th last year. They have to be at least average to have any chance in this series. A lot of their struggles this year have come from Eric Gordon's struggles, but everywhere else, they really only have two above average shooters (James Harden and Ben McLemore).

As stated earlier, the Rockets should still be favored to win because they have Harden surrounded by shooting. You need both of those elements to beat a team as good as the Thunder. The Rockets could get away with bad shooting in a playoff game before because Russell Westbrook would generate a ton of unlikely points. They don't have that in their back pocket anymore, so every game they lose will most likely be because they shot poorly from beyond the arc.

I used to have a category in these playoffs previews titled "most important stat". It's not necessary for this preview. The most important stat is obviously going to be Houston's three-point percentage.

4. Houston's defense

I often talked about Houston's defense this year as what could propel them into that top tier of title contendership. For the purposes of this series, they really only need to continue being average. James Harden plus shooters will provide a close proximity to what the Rockets were offensively during the regular season, so they don't need to become something they're not (yet). Losing Russell Westbrook may actually help Houston defensively.

If Eric Gordon defends like he has in past playoff series for the Rockets, they only have to account for one sub-par defender in their starting lineup (Harden). The bench is another story, but in totality, it's not hard to see Houston cobbling together an average defense from minutes 1-43 of every game.

The last five minutes of games will be a huge undertaking for the Rockets. The Thunder have a beast of a closing lineup that revolves around their three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. Here are their numbers together for the season:

Offensive RTG: 127.1
Defensive RTG: 98.6
Net RTG: +28.6

These numbers are insane for a group that's played together as much as they have (401 minutes). The Rockets without Westbrook will be tempted to close games with Harden, Gordon, House, Covington, and Tucker. Tucker and Covington are versatile defenders who are capable of defending perimeter players, but they will likely have their hands full with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. This is the central dilemma of Houston's closing lineup against the Thunder.

Defending those three guards will likely be a huge undertaking for Harden, Gordon, and House. Gordon has been a reliable playoff defender, but House and Harden are too inconsistent to leave both out on the floor in these moments. It may be prudent for Houston to swap out House for Austin Rivers when they see Oklahoma City pulling out this lineup. Rivers is a more consistent one-on-one defender against quicker guards and, more importantly, asking one inconsistent defender (Harden) to step up in these moments is more feasible than asking two.

Either way, it's going to be interesting to see how Houston fares defensively against an equally guard heavy team.

There's no doubt that the Rockets are in a tough spot. If it were up to them, they would be at full health playing the Utah Jazz in round one. Things didn't go their way and they're here now. The Thunder are better and they have a leg up health-wise. With that said, Houston should still be favored to win this series.

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Watson's accusers appeared on Real Sports on Tuesday night. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s heavily promoted and much anticipated examination of Deshaun Watson’s legal mess involving alleged sexual misconduct shed little new light and merely presented a summary of well worn he said/she (x22) said accusations and denials.

The episode debuted Tuesday night on the premium cable service and will be repeated dozens of times throughout the week on HBO’s platforms. Check your local listings for times and channel.

The segment was hosted by Soledad O’Brien who presented compelling face-to-face interviews with two of the quarterback’s accusers: massage therapists Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes. Their stories were detailed and graphic. Both cried during the interviews.

Solis: “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying. I told that I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Solis said she felt threatened when Watson, before leaving the session, allegedly told her: “I know you have a career to protect, and I know that you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”

Solis added, “That’s when I got really scared because that sounded like a threat to me.”

Hayes: “He wanted me to kind of make a V motion in his pelvic area. I just kept massaging and did what he asked, until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it.”

Hayes said that Watson had an orgasm, which she said was “mortifying, embarrassing and disgusting.”

O’Brien asked Hayes why she continued to have contact via email with Watson after their encounter.

Hayes: "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. He could've physically assaulted me. He could've bashed my business, so I had to protect myself and my business the best way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes."

O’Brien pointed out that two separate grand juries in Texas heard criminal accusations against Watson and neither found enough evidence to indict him.

Solis and Hayes, and 20 other massage therapists have filed civil suits against Watson. The cases aren’t expected to reach a courtroom until next March. Both sides could reach a settlement before then which would effectively shut down any legal action against Watson. However, both sides say they aren’t interested in any pretrial settlements. That’s what they say now, anyway.

After being banished to the sidelines for the 2021 season by the Houston Texans, Watson signed a historic, 5-year fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Hayes said she feels Watson “is being rewarded for bad behavior." Solis said, "It's just like a big screw you. That's what it feels like. That we (the Browns) don't care. He can run and throw, and that's what we care about.”

Watson currently is participating in preseason workouts with the Browns and, at the moment, is cleared to play the upcoming NFL season.

That is unless the NFL suspends Watson for some, most or all of the 2022 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is nearing completion of its independent investigation into Watson’s case and will reach a decision “shortly,” probably this summer. The NFL and NFL Players Association mutually agreed to have former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson decide whether or not Watson violated the league’s Personal Conduct Policy and what discipline should be handed down if he did.

The Browns are scheduled to play the Texans on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

O’Brien said, while producing the Real Sports piece, she tried to interview Watson, his attorneys and the Cleveland Browns for their side of the story. All declined.

During a press conference in March to announce his joining the Browns, Watson denied any inappropriate behavior with the massage therapists.

Watson: “I never assaulted any woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone around me. I’ve never done the thing that these people are alleging. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way.”

Leah Graham, a member of Watson’s legal team, sat for an interview after O’Brien’s segment was complete.

Graham: "It's 22 women. It's one lawyer. There's only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. (Houston attorney Tony) Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.”

My reaction after watching the Real Sports segment? We weren’t in the room when the massage therapists worked on Watson. We weren’t in the grand jury room when evidence against Watson was presented. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what will happen if these cases go to trial.

Until then all we have is one big, lurid, embarrassing mess. In American courtrooms, defendants are presumed innocent. That’s often the opposite in the court of public opinion. We’ll just have to wait while the wheels of justice grind painfully slow.

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