In many ways, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, Friday night's game six is yet another elimination game for the Rockets, but no one expected them to make the playoffs when they started the season. After slipping to the eighth seed, no one expected them to beat the Thunder, particularly after the drubbing they took in game one. But, even when Russell Westbrook went down, the consensus was OKC would finish them off anyway.
Now, here we are in game six and the door is open -- if only a crack -- for the Rockets. If we were to consider game one an anomaly for the Rockets and game five the same for the Thunder, the remaining games have been decided by three points or less. Even with Russell Westbrook, it took a miraculous shot in game three to win it.
Still, the Thunder are favored in game six if only by the slimmest of margins. Since we are talking betting lines, let's stick with the metaphor: the Rockets are playing with house money. Win or lose, their season was a tremendous success, which is why besides the home floor advantage, they should also have the edge in nerves.
The Rockets won this year by playing fast and loose. They ran the floor. They took a lot of threes. They scrambled and took risks. And it paid off. It led to some extremely frustrating moments as well as some seriously exciting ones. But, given their lack of experience and their still emerging talent, it was the only way they could play effectively. As they move forward in their development, they will need to take fewer risks as, we assume, they get better and will be able to compete with teams talent for talent. But, for now, that all goes out the window.
Keys to the Game
Stay Up in Durant's Grill The Rockets have not limited Kevin Durant in this series. He is still a force on offense. But, they have harassed him and pestered him to the point of frustration, mostly through Francisco Garcia. That must continue. He can score, but he cannot dominate.
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Beard Me James Harden needs another game like the last one where he is stroking it from distance and being the unstoppable force on offense. He also needs to understand that if he isn't hitting from distance, he must get into the lane and score or create opportunities for teammates. Don't go in there looking for a foul. Go in there to score or help someone else score. When he does that, he is at his best.
Own the Paint The Rockets have been remarkable in both rebounding and scoring in the paint in this series. With Omer Asik protecting the rim and deft passing in the half court, this must continue in order for the Rockets to win.
Shoot Well from Three This series is setting records for shooting beyond the arc. The Rockets will continue to bomb away, but they need to hit a high percentage. When they shoot under 35 percent, they struggle. When they shoot over 40 percent, they can beat anyone.
Let It Flow Guys like Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Aaron Brooks (right?) all just have to go out there and throw caution to the wind. Don't be reckless, but play with abandon. If they can contribute -- in Parsons' case, be a serious factor -- it will make everything easier for the team as a whole.