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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