Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (-10, 213)
James Harden was a key cog on the Oklahoma City squad that reached the NBA Finals last season. Now the Houston Rockets’ star would like to end the Thunder’s season in the opening round. Houston visits Oklahoma City in Sunday’s series opener and the Rockets are in the playoffs for the first time in four years, primarily because Harden emerged as the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer. Oklahoma City traded Harden when it couldn’t reach contractual terms with him.
The Thunder won two of the three regular-season meetings but Harden exploded for a career-high 46 points in Houston’s 122-119 victory on Feb. 20. The eighth-seeded Rockets lack the postseason experience that the Thunder possess. “Guys have never been in this situation, they’ve never been in the playoffs,” Harden said. “Blessed and fortunate to have been there a few times and whatever advice I can give, I just let it out.” Oklahoma City earned the top seed in the Western Conference despite the Harden deal that brought backup guard Kevin Martin to town. “We felt we moved on pretty quick, and it’s shown through what we’ve been able to accomplish this year with our record,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
TV: 9:30 p.m. ET, TNT
ABOUT THE ROCKETS (45-37): Harden averaged 25.9 points as a lead option and will be expected to carry the flow. Yet Houston does have a few other solid options in forward Chandler Parsons, center Omer Asik, point guard Jeremy Lin and forward Carlos Delfino. Asik averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds and his performance will be crucial for Houston to give Oklahoma City a stern test. “You’re talking about a team that went to the finals last year in Oklahoma City,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale told reporters. “That place is going to electric Sunday night. It’s going to be a big, big high-energy crowd. They’re going to be excited. Our guys have to be excited to do it.”
ABOUT THE THUNDER (60-22): There are expectations of Oklahoma City returning to the Finals but the Thunder know the road will be tough. “Most people say a 1-8 seed (matchup) is supposed to be easy, or a 2-7 seed,” forward Kevin Durant said. “We’ve never had an easy series. Never. Last year was so tough against Dallas, it took all we had for us to beat those guys. This year, Houston. I think they’re playing better than an eighth seed and play so well. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Durant averaged 26.3 points against Houston this season while point guard Russell Westbrook averaged 23.3 points, 8.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds. Forward Serge Ibaka also excelled, shooting 64.5 percent from the field while averaging 16 points, 8.7 rebounds and four blocks.
* Rockets are 1-5 ATS in their last six games overall.
* Over is 4-0 in the last four meetings.
* Under is 5-1-1 in Thunder’s last seven home games.
* Thunder are 5-1 ATS in their last six games vs. a team with a winning record.
1. Oklahoma City’s two victories over the Rockets were by scores of 120-98 and 124-94.
2. Asik recorded double-digit rebounding outings in eight of the last 10 games.
3. Martin averaged 17 points in the three outings against Houston.