The four-year, $52 to $55 million dollar extension the Thunder offered their Sixth Man following a less than award winning performance in the NBA Finals made okay fiscal sense. They needed to lock up Serge Ibaka to a long-term deal as well, which would have made both max contracts, well, expensive. So, they offered a bit less than the market rate. When Harden paused to think about it, consider the benefits of staying and taking less money, or going elsewhere and earning substantially more money, the Thunder pulled the trigger on a trade that sent him elsewhere.
Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, gladly accepted the acquisition of Harden after adding both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and gave him $80 million dollars over five years. He also presented him with the key to the team, the chance to become a regular starter and showcase the skills his former team seemed to ignore. They were focused on returning to the Finals and figured that they could find another bench player. The Rockets, on the other hand, wanted to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Now, each franchise will settle the debate on the court. The Thunder reunite with their castaway as he steers his new squad, the Rockets, back into the post season. The Thunder will not need reminding of the talent of their former teammate as he flies around the court, focused absolutely on proving his worth. The immense appreciation of his current team is unquestionable. Harden, as he has with each year in the league, improved in each statistical category despite the belief that he would fall off with increased minutes and more focused defenses. However, his scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocks all experienced a positive bump in the lead role.
Westbrook and Durant also improved their play, shouldering the burden left by their departed one-man bench. Durant upped his assist, steal, and block game, as well as shot with outstanding efficiency from the field and free throw line, netting 51% and 91%, respectively. Westbrook put up very similar numbers as last season, an impressive feat for a player once considered a liability as a point guard and a jump shooter. Kevin Martin, Harden’s replacement, did not replicate the numbers of his predecessor, but provided serviceable minutes in relief.
Obviously, Harden, Westbrook, and Durant will display the talents that made them All-Stars, Olympians, and Finals participants. Therefore, the winner in this match up must rely on defensive prowess since these teams ranked second and third in the regular season in scoring, the Rockets edging the Thunder by 0.3 points per game at 106. A stop here and there will mean the difference in advancing beyond the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
In each of the two victories by the Thunder this season, they have out shot and out rebounded the Rockets en route to wins of 22 and 30-point margins. They shot 54% to the Rockets 41% in a 120-98 blowout to welcome back Harden on November 29th, and won the rebound battle, 46-38. They made 48% of their buckets, to only 40% by Houston, and nabbed 53 boards, 17 more than the Rockets total of 36, in a 124-94 dusting in Houston on December 29th.
In the lone success for the Rockets against the Thunder, Harden and Lin blasted their backcourt competition with 75 of their teams’ points in a 122-119 battle in Houston. Durant struggled from the field, and his team shot matched the Rockets in shooting around 48% from the field. Although the Thunder won the rebound battle for the third time, they could only muster 6 more than their opponents, a tally of 48-42.
A simple evaluation of the victory would point out that Lin need to match Westbrook in both points and assists for the Rockets to have a chance. This goes without saying, as no team can be successful if their facilitator struggles. Asik would no doubt have to battle block for block and board for board with Ibaka. Even if Chandler Parsons could muster the type of fortune that pushed the Rockets into overtime with the Lakers on Wednesday night in an attempt to avoid this match up, his scoring will not balance out Durant. But, he might be able to pace Martin. Scoring balance will help the Rockets stay close, but defense and rebounding will put them in the win column.
These teams will run at each other full force and the team that slows one of the stars opposite them will win the game. The Thunder should win both of their home contests and take one on the road, ending the affair in five. But, the psychological advantage for Harden and a team completely behind him, fighting with him, and rooting for him to succeed in the face of his doubters is strong and cannot be ignored. His continued success will key any shot at dethroning the reigning Western Conference champs. Then, if the Rockets can keep the Thunder from owning the boards and platoon Parsons with Francisco Garcia, Terrance Jones, Carlos Delphino, and even possibly Thomas Robinson to simply give Durant some different defensive looks, Houston could luck up and force this series to a Game 6.
At that point, however improbable a Game 7 may seem, anything is possible.