The Oklahoma City Thunder begin their Western Conference title defense against another high-octane, offense-first team in the Houston Rockets.
After falling to the Miami Heat in last season's NBA Finals, the Thunder came back with a vengeance. They shipped out reigning Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, just days before the start of the campaign, and won 60 games for the first time since the organization was in Seattle back in the 1997-98 season.
"We had a good regular season," said head coach Scott Brooks. "It's time to move ahead and look to the next step."
Being in this position is exactly what the Thunder expected. There is no celebration, this is where the season truly starts for Oklahoma City.
It was a bit of a shock that the Rockets will be the opposition.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Houston had what appeared to be one of the weakest rosters in the league. They signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, but the move for Harden proved to be the difference maker.
And now, Harden will play his former team, littered with close friends, and fellow Olympic gold-medal winners. Now, Harden is the main guy, a role that sent him to his first All-Star game and probably to one of the All-NBA teams.
"It comes with the package," Harden said. "I have to do a good job of handling it well, and making sure I'm doing the right things. Obviously I'm new to this, so I might make some mistakes, but I just have to continue to work at it."
Houston had occupied the seventh seed through much of the final stretch of the season, but a Wednesday night loss to the Los Angeles Lakers dropped the Rockets to seventh.
The Denver Nuggets led the NBA in scoring, but Houston was second, followed by the Thunder. Both teams love to push the tempo and hoist shots. OKC tied for ninth in opponents scoring and Houston was 28th, so it's fair to say, while the Rockets' interest in defense may be passing at best, the Thunder can generate stops.
The Thunder won two of three this season against the Rockets, including a win in OKC and a win in Houston. The Thunder averaged 121 ppg in those three contests.
The two sides haven't met in the playoffs since the Thunder moved from Seattle. In the 1996-97 postseason, the Rockets eliminated the Sonics in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
BACKCOURT: Both teams feature at least one player who will make an All-NBA team.
The Thunder have Russell Westbrook, who nearly matched his career high with 23.3 ppg. He's as explosive a scorer as there is in the NBA, plus, he's a nightmare defensively, applying constant pressure. Westbrook's motor never dies and he's played in every game his entire career. Thabo Sefolosha is the other starter in OKC's backcourt and he's primarily a defender, who most certainly will be charged with trying to contain Harden. Sefolosha did average 7.6 ppg and shot 42 percent from long range.
Harden proved he's a franchise player. The Thunder couldn't afford to pay him, Kevin Durant and Westbrook, so Harden headed to the Houston heat. His numbers skyrocketed with the additional responsibility. The Beard averaged a career- best 25.9 ppg, which ranked fifth in the NBA. Harden averaged two more assists per game than his previous best and he shot respectable percentages from the field (44), 3-point range (37) and free-throw line (85). As the assist numbers show, Harden is an elite playmaker and lethal shooter. Lin wasn't in Time Magazine this season, but he scored 13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg and 2.9 turnovers per night.
FRONTCOURT: Durant did not win his fourth straight scoring title, but came close. He will once again be first-team All-NBA and his numbers actually improved in some crucial areas. He shot 51 percent from the field, 90 percent from the foul line, a career high, and 41.6 percent from 3-point range, which was up last season. His assists went up from 3.5 last season to 4.6 this one. Durant even posted personal-bests in steals and blocks. He will probably finish second in the MVP race. Serge Ibaka improved his offensive game considerably and is now a legitimate option, not just a shot-blocker and rebounder. Kendrick Perkins is pretty much a wide body at this point.
The Rockets' front line is not the strength of the team, but it's not as bad as people think. Chandler Parsons emerged in his sophomore season. He averaged 6.0 ppg more in his second season, shot 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from long range. Asik came in the offseason and was penciled in as the starting center. He didn't disappoint. Asik averaged 10.1 ppg and 11.7 rpg and tied for 14th in the NBA in double-doubles. The power-forward spot has been a bit of a problem. Greg Smith took the job later in the season and works hard.
BENCH: Trying to replace the reigning Sixth Man of the Year is no easy task. Kevin Martin, a bona fide scorer in this league, came in the Harden package and put up 14.0 ppg, which was a low since his second season in the league. He is not the playmaker Harden is, but can make open threes. Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson and the venerable Derek Fisher are solid hands.
The Rockets' reserve situation is a little murkier. Carlos Delfino is a reliable double-digit scorer. From there, head coach Kevin McHale is still tinkering. Francisco Garcia sees some time, as does rookie Terrance Jones and Patrick Beverley is a disruptive force at times. There is no consistency from this group outside Delfino.
COACHING: Scott Brooks is a former Coach of the Year and knows how to maximize this roster. His rotations are set, his reputation is solid and he has been here before.
McHale has never been here, well not as a coach. As a Hall of Fame player, McHale participated in more playoff situations than most, but as a head coach, he's a rookie. As a player, McHale was a great defensive stopper, but he adapted to the strength of this unit and opened up the floor. He's of the old school and while he's not an "X's and O's" guy, he has the respect of his team. What remains to be seen is if McHale's offensive style nets results in the postseason. If recent history is our barometer, it doesn't.
PREDICTION: "When we play teams that are happy to play up and down, we've got to be better."
That came from McHale after a 20-point loss on Dec. 29 to the Thunder.
The problem is, the Rockets play a very specific way, reliant on the opposition not being able to sustain the pace. This is a horrible draw for the Rockets because the Thunder play Houston's style, and play it better.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICITION: THUNDER in 5.