By Liam McKeone
The NBA playoffs are the best time of the year and, this year, the premiere matchup is between James Harden’s Rockets and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder meeting in the first round of the playoffs.
This is a series that features two great teams, to be sure, but all eyes are on Harden and Westbrook. The leading MVP candidates of the year, both point guards constantly recorded triple-doubles as they led their teams to win after win in a tough Western Conference. Westbrook has had a record-shattering year, recording 42 triple-doubles (and counting!) and averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Harden has been no slouch himself, averaging 29 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists while leading one of the league’s top offenses.
The main difference between Harden and Westbrook is what surrounds them. Harden is on a team built around his strengths. Head coach Mike D’Antoni is renowned for his offensive schemes, and this year is no different. By turning Harden into a point guard and designing the entire offense around his ability to shoot threes and get to the basket, D’Antoni is the architect of yet another record-breaking offense. A starting lineup of Harden, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverly and Clint Capela has everything a modern offense needs: three elite shooters, a defensive stopper and a big man who excels in the pick and roll. Along with scoring machine and deadline acquisition Lou Williams, the Rockets have turned into one of the best offenses in the NBA, averaging 115 points with an astounding 40 three-point attempts per game. They secured the third seed in the West, and are comfortably considered one of the three best teams in the conference, along with the Warriors and the Spurs.
The Thunder, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Westbrook is single-handedly dragging his team to victory night after night. This was a team made to complement Kevin Durant, filled with defensive stoppers and skilled offensive big men, but Westbrook was all they had left after Durant went to Golden State, and he’s been on a season-long tear. One would think the Thunder would be better than the sixth seed, but Westbrook’s teammates haven’t picked up the slack, and defenses are now focusing on Westbrook and Westbrook alone. The team stumbles if Westbrook falters, but no one can shut him down. He’ll shoot 20 or 60 percent, but he’ll somehow get a triple-double and hit a 30-foot three pointer at the buzzer to win the game.
The combined greatness of Harden and Westbrook this season is what’s going to make this series one for the ages. Harden is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the game, but Westbrook is a one-man wrecking ball intent on a championship. The two will be going back and forth for at least four games, and hopefully more.