Two MVP candidates will go head-to-head when the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder face off in the first round of the playoffs.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have both been outstanding for their respective sides this term, with both men being the leading the contenders for the prestigious award.
Harden has enjoyed another excellent campaign with the Rocket, being an unstoppable force on offense – averaging 29.1 points per game and 11.1 assists over the course of the term.
Westbrook has been arguably better for the Thunder. The departure of Kevin Durant heaped pressure on the 27-year-old, but he has performed beyond expectations, leading the NBA in points per game with his electric play on court.
Houston have been an impressive unit in Mike D’Antoni’s first season at the club and he can continue to enhance his reputation with a deep surge into the playoffs.
The Thunder have battled well without the 2014 MVP after coming close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals last term.
It should be a fascinating contest between two offensive powerhouses, with two of the NBA’s brightest stars taking centre stage.
We’ll now take a look back at both sides’ performances in the regular season and break down the odds for the first-round contest.
Houston appointed D’Antoni as their new head coach to replace Kevin McHale on a permanent basis, with interim coach JB Bickerstaff not considered as the permanent replacement for his predecessor.
The club crashed out of the first round of the playoffs under Bickerstaff’s tenure in a 4-1 defeat to the Warriors – with a demand for an improvement in the 2016-17 campaign.
D’Antoni has performed above expectations to guide his side to a 50-win season – aided by the brilliance of Harden and the offense.
Their season got off to a poor start in a high-scoring defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers, falling to six-point loss despite notching 114 points at the Staples Center. However, the Rockets bounced back with two victories on the spin against the Dallas Mavericks home and away.
Harden went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but even though he scored 41 points – it was not enough to secure the win as Tyronn Lue’s men ran out as victors at home.
December proved to be the month where the Rockets made their charge for the playoffs, winning 15 of their 17 contests. Harden was at the peak of his powers, while Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon played essential roles in victories, easing the pressure on their captain.
The Rockets appeared to be mounting a surge for the top two seeds in the playoffs, winning their first five games of 2017 to move to 31-9 in their campaign. However, Houston stumbled towards the end of January, suffering seven defeats, including one at the hands of the Warriors.
D’Antoni’s side have managed to maintain their level of form towards the end of the campaign, moving over the 50-win mark, but defeats against quality outfits will worry their coach and their hopes of winning the NBA crown.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The sky was falling during last summer when Durant announced his intention to sign with the Warriors. The 28-year-old had been the heartbeat of the Thunder since he was drafted when the club were known as the Seattle Supersonics.
His excellence on the court earned him hero status in Oklahoma and plaudits, including the 2014 MVP award in the 2013-14 campaign when he notched an average of 32.1 points per game.
However, the lure of the NBA Championship proved to be too great following his side’s defeat at the hands of the Warriors in the Conference Finals last year, despite inspired performances from himself and Westbrook – adding credence to the saying ‘if you can’t beat them – join them’.
This left the point guard to carry the fortunes of the Thunder, but he responded to the call with his best season in the NBA. He dominated from the off with a 52-point performance to guide his team to victory in their clash with the Phoenix Suns and has not relented since.
Durant loomed large against his old club, inflicting the first defeat of the season on the Thunder with a 39-point outing. However, Oklahoma recovered and were able to win more than they lost towards the end of 2016, ending the year 21-13 with the impressive scalp of the Boston Celtics on the road.
January was the only difficult month of the term, losing eight of their 15 matches. Westbrook was able to raise the level of his game to ensure that his side broke into the playoffs by the end of March, including 57 and 58-point displays.
The 28-year-old notched the most triple-doubles in NBA history by reaching the 42-mark, breaking Oscar Robertson’s record, but they will need a lot more from their star man against the Rockets.
Not even with Westbrook in their lineup were the Thunder able to cope with the offensive power displayed by Houston in their four contests this term. The Rockets won all four of their meetings, notching over 100 points in each of their victories.
Perhaps the only sign of encouragement for Billy Donovan’s side is that Houston have one of the worst defensive records in the NBA, which could allow Westbrook to steal the show.
Harden will make life incredibly difficult though, and he will be supported by Trevor Ariza, Anderson and Gordon around him, with Westbrook unable to rely on such backing from his team-mates.
It should be an enthralling duel between two of the best players in the league, but Houston should have enough to see off the threat even with their defensive issues and advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Therefore backing the Rockets at 7/201.35-2860.35-2.860.35 with Sportsbet Sportsbook would be a prudent option. However, the Thunder have the ability to make a strong effort in the series – as a result, taking a Houston 4-3 win at 17/54.40+3403.403.40-0.29 would be a sound punt.
A covering bet could also be employed, taking into account for a special effort from Westbrook to drag his side into the Conference Semi-Finals at 21/103.10+2102.102.10-0.48 .
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Eric has been a sports journalist for over 20 years and has travelled the world covering top sporting events for a number of publications. He also has a passion for betting and uses his in-depth knowledge of the sports world to pinpoint outstanding odds and value betting opportunities.
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