In what is one of the strangest twists of irony in the weirdest sports year in history, the Rockets face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs beginning Tuesday night from the bubble in Orlando, the same two teams who swapped All-Star point guards Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in the offseason.
To make matters more complicated, Westbrook will miss at least the first game of the series due to a strained quad. In case you forgot, the Rockets likely missed out on a championship when Paul was hurt during the Western Conference Finals and now they get to deal with Westbrook's injury against Chris Paul. The NBA gods are nothing if not ironic. Here are four thoughts.
Life without Russell Westbrook.
At this point, we know the Rockets point guard will not play Tuesday night. Beyond that, it is unclear. This is not just a better team with Westbrook, it is a team that functions more completely with him on the floor. He is their best first step to the basket, even more so than James Harden, and he pushes the pace more relentlessly than any of his teammates. If Harden is the car this team will ride to a title, Westbrook is the engine. His motor, his intensity and that interplay between he and his lifelong friend and backcourt mate make the whole team go. Hopefully, they won't have to wait long for his return because, with him, the Rockets are just the better team, period.
Setting aside injuries, nothing will prove more important to the Rockets than their ability to connect from distance. While Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, Jeff Green and Danuel House, Jr., have looked good to very good from beyond the arc, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker have struggled. When three of the team's five starters aren't hitting shots, it changes the entire dynamic of the game. This team is built to take three pointers and they will continue to do so no matter what happens. But, if they can't consistently make them, it could be a rough series.
Front court rebounding.
The biggest weakness for the Rockets is rebounding. Once Clint Capela was moved for Covington, it became obvious that no only was "smallball" reality, but rebounding would be a struggle. The Thunder have, at times, gone small against the Rockets, trying to match them size-for-size. But, center Steven Adams gives them all kinds of size and a significant interior rebounding presence. How much he plays, given OKC's desire to keep him close to the basket not chasing smaller guys around the perimeter, remains to be seen. Regardless, boxing out and gang rebounding will need to be keys for the Rockets.
Pace, pace, pace.
Coach Mike D'Antoni finally has the race car he always wanted and he has been given absolute freedom to drive it with reckless abandon. This is his chance. For the Rockets to be successful against OKC or any other team in the playoffs, they are going to have to put the pedal to the metal and run, run, run. Their handsy defense can provide the means to getting out in transition and the more they go, the better the opportunities they will create for themselves. Their engines are revved and they are at the starting gate. Time to let it fly.