Houston Rockets, NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder

Everyone’s a heel: Previewing the Houston Rockets versus the Oklahoma City Thunder

All of the NBA’s greatest heels are circling around this single series, with vengeance on the mind of both the Rockets and Thunder.

Having survived the NBA Bubble’s first stage, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets will play a first-round playoff series starting this Tuesday. Then again, neither team really survived the early bout of games in Florida, seeing as how both teams entered the Bubble in good standing.

Houston has played .500 ball at the Disney Complex but can boast about its wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Still, as a fourth seed, the regular season was somewhat more belabored than recent Rocket efforts — or maybe that was simply the strained aura created by filing paperwork for wins. The Oklahoma City Thunder on the other hand has been somewhat surprising. They are a fifth seed and that is more than many expected, and they, too, played .500 ball inside the Bubble and can boast about a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, these wins against the Lakers were not exactly hard to come by (the Lakers have only won two games since the league crumpled its geography).

And so the Rockets and the Thunder have scrapped and clawed and Euro-stepped their way into being the Western Conference’s fourth and fifth seeds, meaning they will meet in the NBA Playoffs’ first round for the third time in what has been a rather incestuous decade between the two franchises.

When the teams first locked horns in 2013, the Thunder was fresh off a trip to the Finals, but Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook now found themselves facing old bearded teammate who was as a Houston Rocket had been transformed into an overnight superstar. The two Oklahoma City stars were dead set on teaching their old teammate a lesson, but Houston managed to push the series to six games — and this was all before Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers parted ways. And it should also be noted that Russell Westbrook missed all but two games in the series due to injury. Still, the gap between Durant and Harden did not appear as large as some in Oklahoma City may have liked, and in a matter of a few more seasons, he too would make his exodus.

When Oklahoma City and Houston met again in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Westbrook was still on the team and this was still before Paul George was brought in to be his running mate, and on his own, or believing he was on his own, Westbrook’s derecho-like approach proved a poor match for a Houston team that featured James Harden, Chris Paul, and a plethora of shooters. The times were a changing, and the changes were leaving the Thunder behind. Such is the way with fast-moving storms.

The stories of the Rockets and Thunder are indelibly intertwined

Now Russell Westbrook and James Harden are teammates again. They are both Houston Rockets, and they are surrounded by talent that sometimes fits and sometimes doesn’t. Pairing Jeff Green and Robert Covington together in the frontcourt sounds like a horrendous idea for anyone familiar with whom gets traded when the going gets tough, but they are the pairing Houston will hang its hopes on. DeMarre Carroll is hanging around and so is Luc Mbah a Moute. Danuel House and Ben McLemore are too, and Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker would just like to say what’s up.

They are all interesting individuals who appear to have made concessions as competitors that, yes, teammates do matter and learning a role can always extend a career. These lessons have been hard-earned for some and for others they have happened in the blink of an eye. But Jeff Green was once in Oklahoma City with Harden, Westbrook, and Durant. He was the player deemed expendable when, once upon a time, he was traded for Kendrick Perkins’ championship pedigree. Having initially signed a 10-day contract with Houston in February, how strange would it be now if he ended up being the player Westbrook and Harden needed all along?

The NBA is full of twisted tales.

In August of 2005, a hurricane swept through the Gulf of Mexico. This storm wreaked havoc, as did the flooding that followed it. The levee system in New Orleans failed, leaving citizens stranded on rooftops and bridges. The rest of the country looked on in a state of shock and disdain, and history was taught because history was being lived. The pact between a people and its government felt irreparably broken, but the disaster could largely be written off as regional. Life was bad in specific places, but life, as usual, could largely carry on as if nothing had happened everywhere else. Specifically, professional sports, including basketball would still happen, but the New Orleans Hornets would have to play out the season in Oklahoma City as the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.

In his book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis (2018), journalist Sam Anderson wrote of the awkward scenario:

“Local ecstasy went far beyond any reasonable response to the basketball on display. The Hornets lost roughly half of their games and missed the play-offs, but OKC’s arena was almost always sold out, and it became instantly notorious as one of the loudest places in the league. This was not run-of-the-mill sports fandom. It was an eruption of emotion from a deep primal well.” (41)

The best player on that Hornets team was Chris Paul, which means in the deep fossil record of basketball on the plains he is a precursor to Jeff Green, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook. Even if Oklahoma City fell in love with basketball because of its desperation to be recognized and not Chris Paul’s young genius, it feels safe to say his brilliance at least played a hand in carving out a home for the Seattle SuperSonics in the middle of the American prairie. In other words, maybe the Point God didn’t finish the play, but he still notched the assist.

That was fifteen years ago, and, now, due to a disaster of a different sort, Chris Paul is playing for Oklahoma City, but he is not playing in Oklahoma City. After jilted runs on would-be contenders in Los Angeles and Houston, one could write a narrative that depicts Paul as a basketball Napoleon — banished with all his competitive perfection and endless ambition to a rebuild, but Chris Paul doesn’t really appear to believe in rebuilding.

Since the drafting of James Harden — the first player ever drafted by Oklahoma City — , the franchise has been something of a turnstile for NBA talent. Los Angeles’ Paul George, a solid portion of the Indiana Pacer core, and Toronto’s Serge Ibaka have all played out a portion of their careers here and then moved on (or been sent packing perhaps prematurely), but the departures have never halted the arrival of new talent.

Paul is still a force. He leads the team in VORP by a solid margin. He averages 17.6 points per game and 6.7 assists, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schröder, and Danilo Gallinari all score more frequently. As a result, one could possibly argue the Thunder offense is more balanced than Houston’s, but that would require hyper-focusing on what Harden and Westbrook provide scoring-wise and ignoring how many other Rocket players tend more often than not to land in double digits as a result of Harden and Westbrook’s playmaking. Houston’s offensive skill is likely to render this series into a predictably flat existence — easy shot-making and long, slow trips to the foul line — , with the occasional spark of tension and intrigue perhaps a hip check or raw jersey grab away.

Oklahoma City is the more physical team due to rugged New Zealand oil rig Steven Adams — the longest-tenured member of the Thunder along with Andre Roberson. With Houston’s Clint Capela and Nenê no longer on the Houston roster (they were traded to Atlanta in February), Adams is likely to devour the offensive and defensive boards in the series between the two teams. And yet the possibility exists that the frontcourt pairing of Green and Covington could leave Adams dazzled. Still, the pairing of Adams’ brute strength and Paul’s craftiness could transform this twenty-first-century basketball match-up into a land grab.

In what is likely to be a series with a fairly predictable result, perhaps the real point of interest here is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — what will he do in a high-stakes series against one of the NBA’s best backcourts? Paul and Schröder and Gallinari are all known commodities, as are Harden and Westbrook, but Gilgeous-Alexander is only 22. He is as young as Paul is old, and plays covered by the pollen residue of all those young Thunder players who are now no longer in Oklahoma City but somewhere else.

The narrative could be written that this is solely a chance for Chris Paul’s vengeance, for him to let his wrath be known, but that would only make him so much more like Harden and Westbrook that, in a sense, it’s difficult to fathom how revenge could truly be wielded clearly and cleanly by anyone. This is a river lands history. The castles and bridges exchange hands with such frequency that the cultures and languages undergo something akin to quantum entanglement. If that’s too austere and distant, then think of this series as the culmination of a long-developed professional wrestling plot where everyone gets a turn. No babyfaces here, only heels, and more heels.

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