By A. Suave Francisco
The Oklahoma City Thunder just completed their 82nd game of the season in a losing effort, dropping one to the Denver Nuggets 111-105. The atmosphere in the Chesapeake Energy Arena was still uncharacteristically electric, due to Oscar Robertson being in attendance.
Nevertheless, the regular season is over and the Thunder are back in familiar territory--the playoffs for the sixth time in 7 seasons. They finished a little lower in the Western Conference standings at sixth, but Russell Westbrook's historic season overshadowed it all.
There's no hiding now. OKC will face the (54-27) Houston Rockets in a best-of-seven series for a spot to presumably play the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Rockets won the regular season series over the Thunder 3-1 while averaging 105.6 points per victory. Other than the continued superior play by Westbrook, the Thunder have to find a way to slow down Houston's stout offense.
First and foremost, Andre Roberson will have to continue playing defense at a high level against MVP candidate James Harden. In the previous four games against the Thunder, Harden has shot 35.4 percent from the field and 22.9 percent from 3-point range. Well under his season average of 44.2 percent shooting and 36.3 from long range. In the playoffs, without Harden, the Rockets won't have the same success they had in the regular season, so Roberson is key to the Thunder's success in the first round.
The defensive effort doesn't stop with Roberson either. The Rockets have 6 players that shoot better than 35 percent from the 3-point line. Roberson's defense on Harden may slightly overshadow the other player's success. That won't be an issue if players like Westbrook, Oladipo, Abrines and McDermott step of their defense on the perimeter.
Westbrook needs his team to step up on the offensive end. The implementation of sound offense and defense from this Thunder team has never been more important because, without both, there's no way to beat the second highest scoring team in the NBA in a 7-game series. More of the supporting cast will have to put the ball in the basket. Meaning Alex Abrines, Domas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and maybe even Semaj Christon will have to get the ball into the basket more often to spare Westbrook from feeling like he has to take each and every game over in the final minutes.
The Thunder finish (47-35) on the season, Westbrook destroyed the record books in one season alone and the team is headed to the playoffs. The series will automatically draw a ton of coverage due to the Westbrook vs. Harden MVP matchup and hopefully, it'll live up to its hype.