Drama in sight? Paul's revenge, Westbrook's injury and James Harden's pressure

There may not be a first-round tie with more ingredients to be exciting than the Rockets-Thunder. Many pending accounts.


What if the Lakers suddenly return to the level of March, they show that their offensive bubble spike has been a matter of low interest and caution at the start and they feed on the defensive weaknesses of the Blazers no matter how much Damian Lillard scores? triples from the very limits of the Disney World bubble? What if Luka Doncic can't do magic, or not enough, for the Mavs to force the Clippers to really force the machine? What if Simmons 'injury at the Sixers and the Celtics' excellent level turn the return of the great historic rivalry in the East into a wreck?

In a first round without an audience and without trips, one more handicap for weak teams, maybe (or maybe not), finally, we end up putting our five senses in the two fights, which promise to be really tough, between quarters and fifths : Pacers-Heat in the East (45-28 one and 44-29 the other) and Rockets-Thunder (44-28 both) in the West. The first is a good series. With good players, hard-working teams and the glamor of Miami facing again (as in the days of LeBron and Wade) the tradition of Indiana, the state where basketball is more than a sport. And yes, Jimmy Butler hooked up on Regular Season with TJ Warren. The series can be beautiful, even ... but it is likely that it will not have the component that ignites the real playoff qualifiers that end up capturing everyone's attention, including the general public: the drama. The NBA playoffs need drama, for that in large part seven games are played. The surprise factor is reduced, but historical rivalries are built, maddening confrontations, unbreathable ecosystems ... the drama. And maybe this Florida reboot has gifted us, we'll see, one of the series with the most drama of recent years: Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Rockets, again without safety net

The life of the Rockets, in fact, is pure drama. They have not been removed from the playoffs since James Harden arrived in 2012 (from the Thunder) but they have not played a Finals since 1995, with Hakeem Olajuwon (a quarter of a century already completed). Used to losing to the Warriors four times in five years (the last two extremely traumatic), this time they were relieved that the Bay Area didn't even travel to Florida. There was no danger in sight ... or yes. The first round has left them a very tough tie (a priori), full of symbolism (surely) and without Russell Westbrook (who arrived last summer, from the Thunder) in the first games. At the very least: Doctors say that if he comes back in less than 10 or 14 days the chances of relapse are high, Westbrook is perhaps the least suitable player in the world to play without the constant turbo on and Mike D'Antoni continues to do that. dark statements that are usually not at all flattering when talking about muscle injuries (the treacherous quadriceps, in this case): “We know nothing, we will see day by day. Time will tell. Hopefully he'll come back sooner rather than later, but we don't know. Until then, we will try to maintain the service without it. ”

The irony: Chris Paul left the Rockets (to the Thunder) last summer because he was on his way to 35 years old (he already has them), his opportunity with James Harden had passed (2018 and 2019 playoffs), he had a contract Mastodontic (he started the course with three years and 124 million guaranteed) and he was injured too much. However, Paul, in OKC, has played 70 of the 72 games, has had no physical problems and reaches a series against his ex in which the one who is not due to injury is precisely Westbrook, the one who took his place as Harden's partner . And the drama: Harden was in OKC between 2009 and 2012 and Westbrook between 2008 and 2019. Together, and with Kevin Durant, they lost the 2012 Finals against the Miami Heat. The series also measures two most reputable brains: the magician Sam Presti against the mathematician Daryl Morey. Two classics on the bench, a Mike D'Antoni who usually get rashes in the playoffs and a Billy Donovan who begins to have in the NBA (fabulous season) a reputation similar to the one he amassed at the University of (precisely) Florida . Hell, you can scratch all you want: D'Antoni was a roommate, in his years in Milan, with Vittorio Gallinari, Danilo's father, the Thunder's starting power forward.

Without Westbrook, the Rockets face the ghosts of recent years: excessive dependence on Harden, exhaustion of him in the last minutes of games (more with each meeting that passes, of course) and, therefore, secondary that they have to put in more shots than necessary and they implode under the pressure of a system that does not put more than eight or nine players in the rotation. Harden has returned to play a fabulous season and in the bubble he has averaged 33.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.6 assists. But in his duels against the Thunder, who have a lot of defensive chicha on the outside, he has remained (if the data serves) at 32.8% in shots.

Another irony, this very black one: the radical version with which the Rockets have shone in the second half of the season, the one that got rid of Clint Capela and plays literally without any pivot (the ultra small ball), is designed to maximize ... Russell Westbrook, who will be out at the start of the series (remember: at least). More pace, more spaces in attack, more transitions, more shooters: better for Westbrook, who left the Thunder after generating a cult of the person that ended up being almost unhealthy in OKC, just after the departure of Kevin Durant. In a moment of wild emotions, Oklahoma hugged him. And he produced monster numbers, an efficiency that went down the toilet and three first-round playoff eliminations. The Rockets know, and that's the plan they have finally offered, that the more he runs in transition and the more avenues open to the rim, the less he shoots out.

More issues to monitor in the Texans' kitchen: Eric Gordon has missed six bubble games through injury and is trying to pick up his pace at forced marches, and Danuel House has not been in the last three with a heel problem. It is a warning in case the tie reaches one of those points in which every detail, however minimal it may seem in the grand scheme of the universe, ends up being transcendental. So are the series to seven games. Drama.

The Team That Shouldn't Be There

In 2018 the Rockets, who had won 65 games with Chris Paul alongside Harden, had the Warriors on the brink of KO (3-2) when Paul suffered a fatal muscle injury. He did not play any more and those of the Bay came back and sentenced some Cavaliers without bellows in the Final (4-0). In Houston and in a seventh game that seemed like a Super Bowl (the winner would be champion seeing the null possibilities of some Cavs that LeBron had taken to the Final against logic), the Rockets, the mathematics team and the revolution of the 3-pointer, missed 27 shots in a row from the line of three. There is no way to introduce factors like this (the human, the chaos) into Daryl Morey's equations. But that black fact and Paul's injury left a feeling that it had not been but it would be, a good omen erased at a stroke (it had not been and was not going to be) by, of course, the Warriors. In the second round, Kevin Durant was injured at 2-2 and the fifth game was even, and the Rockets not only lost that but also delivered the sixth, on their track. The next thing was an ugly Paul-Harden divorce, Morey's promise to the base that he would not be traded, and finally his trade to put another die (Russell Westbrook) in Harden's cup and again seek elusive luck on the mat. , where chaos turns into evening gowns with math.

Echoes of Morey's pressure reached the office of Sam Presti, perhaps the NBA's best general manager and a gambler ruminating his own rebuilding after Damian Lillard and the Blazers fanned (4-1) a very disappointing Thunder and in which Westbrook was paired with Paul George, who in the summer of 2018 had rejected the Lakers and LeBron and had signed for four years and 137 million to remain in OKC. The big moment for the franchise in the post Durant years. So much so that it was even established on July 7 as Paul George Day in Oklahoma City; the date lasted on the calendar basically a few months.

Kawhi Leonard's arrival at the Clippers required a second star. After groping among others Harden (of the Rockets ...) the desperate crawl of the Angelenos ended in Paul George, who forced his departure from where he had decided to stay, with meadow parties included to celebrate, just a year before. Presti, beginning to realize that the love (which will last forever) between Westbrook and the Thunder was getting stuck in the miasma of toxic relationships, saw George's departure as an opportunity to gracefully break up with Westbrook. And in the fine print, the seismic movements done, he sent Jerami Grant to the Nuggets. The shuttle to, theoretically, a deep reconstruction and never seen in NBA history: 15 first rounds of draft under control between 2020 and 2026. And the option to make even more cash with the contracts of newcomers Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, a good poster player like Dennis Schröder or another classic like Steven Adams, who might no longer be necessary if the youth movement prevailed.

But Presti had other plans: With enough material in drafts to set the NBA on fire for five years, he preferred to stay with Paul, Gallinari, Schrörder and Adams. And he enthusiastically prepared the room for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who the Clippers parted with too much joy in Operation Paul George. In the last draft, more wood, he fished a second round for falling from 21 to 23 and there he took Darius Bazley, an imposing projection forward who had skipped the NCAA and had, therefore, fallen in the selection below what its real value deserved. And after the day of the selections, he acquired Luguentz Dort, a Canadian guard who began the course with a two-way contract and has finished it as a starting guard and guard defender of the rival stars.

Those Thunder, whom nobody counted on for the playoffs last summer (because nobody believed they would not move more chips in the market), have ended up winning 44 games (44-28) the same as the Rockets who took Westbrook; and 61.1% overall, up from the previous three seasons, the three that the supersonic point guard played without Kevin Durant. The Thunder have returned to the playoffs, ten tickets in twelve years since their arrival in OKC, and have played excellent, ultra-competitive, and very old-school basketball in times when that, between so much triple and so much mathematical management of efficiency, is increasingly appreciated. Paul, one of the best point guards in history, although his character drives anyone who does not have him on his side, he has been healthy and has played a fabulous season (17.6 points, 5 rebounds, 6.7 assists). Gallinari (another very good player when he accompanies the physical) has averaged 18.7 points and 5.2 rebounds, Dennis Schröder (should be Best Sixth Man) has gone to almost 19 points and 4 assists and Gilgeous-Alexander, a young star With much more talent than media focus, he has hovered around 20 points and 6 rebounds.

With excellent work from Billy Donovan, the Thunder have been a physical and tough team on defense and lethal in the even finals, with the attack of the three bases that ends the games (Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder) articulating the quintet with best net rating in the NBA. A nucleus of experienced and talented professionals instead of a reconstruction with young people and birds of passage: an extraordinary management of Sam Presti in times in which selling future and stock of possibilities has become the specialty in many firms. Real results. The Thunder have played four Western Finals and one NBA Finals since being in OKC, they've been a fantastic team this season and they go into the playoffs as a tough opponent for anyone. Especially if the mental factor is included, for a Rockets who can't afford to lose to Chris Paul. Not after getting rid of the foundation the way they did. They know that in Texas, also that to begin with (we must insist: at least) they will not have Westbrook.

And if there is a player, only one, who can feed on that rival's anguish, feed his ghosts (very intimate for him) and make things happen from there, that is surely Chris Paul. Crisp, very tough as a competitor, extraordinary (historical) as a playmaker.

Around their essentials, the Thunder have formed a rotation with muscle, strength and defensive power: the aforementioned rookies Dort and Bazley (three games followed by more than 20 points in the bubble the second, in addition), Noel, Diallo, Nader, Ferguson and an Andre Roberson who has returned to play after more than 30 months of nightmare. Dort, a priori Harden's first defender, has a slight knee sprain and is doubtful for the start of the tie on Tuesday. But beyond that, Billy Donovan has players to harass Harden, force him to sweat, tire and miss shots (he's going to do the numbers anyway). To put important pitches in the hands of the secondary players: Convington and Tucker are essential in defense but they have shot poorly in the bubble, Green and McLemore have had more aim but they make the D'Antoni less tough, who do not know with what Eric Gordon they are going to count. With everything on track and good percentages, the Rockets are favorites. But things are twisted in the first game and Chris Paul appears there, who has defined the tie as "interesting" .

Y we already know what interesting means in the mouth of the Winston-Salem guard. It means careful. It means revenge. And it means, above all, the great ingredient in any playoff tie with real life: drama.

Photos from as.com
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