A cathartic regular season is in Russell Westbrook’s rearview mirror. But the road ahead will likely lead to a painful end, sooner or later.
Westbrook, stung by the departure of Kevin Durant last summer, carried the Oklahoma City Thunder back to the playoffs. He led the NBA in scoring and became its triple-double king. He’s the favorite to be voted Most Valuable Player. He has answered all questions but one.
Is his individual brilliance enough to win a seven-game series?
The Thunder, seeded No. 6 in the Western Conference, go into the first round as significant underdogs against the third-seeded Houston Rockets. It’s not a one-on-one showdown between Westbrook and James Harden, not a duel to decide who deserves the MVP award, yet the media will play up that theme.
The Rockets are minus-400 series favorites over the Thunder (plus-330) primarily because Harden runs the point for a team with more offensive firepower.
“Westbrook is my MVP, but I don’t think he has enough to overcome this Houston team,” said Doug Kezirian, ESPN SportsCenter anchor and an NBA bettor.
The Rockets are loaded with lethal offensive weapons, and coach Mike D’Antoni encourages his shooters to pull a quick trigger. Houston launched an average of 40.3 3-point attempts per game, with a league-high 46 percent of its field-goal attempts from behind the line. Harden shot 9.3 3s per game, followed by Eric Gordon (8.8), Ryan Anderson (7.0) and Trevor Ariza (6.9).
D’Antoni’s free-wheeling system produced impressive results for the Rockets, who won 55 games, averaged 115.3 points and went 30-1 when scoring 120 points or more.
“There’s no preparation for teams bombing 3s when you stretch the defense,” Kezirian said.
Westbrook, who averaged 31.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds, will put up big numbers in the series. So will Harden, the league’s No. 2 scorer (29.1) and assists leader (11.2), and he operates an offense with a variety of options. Westbrook also must deal with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley, a relentless pest on the defensive end.
Houston is a 7½-point favorite Sunday in Game 1, and the total of 228 is the highest of any first-round matchup. The Rockets took three of four meetings in the regular season, despite Westbrook topping Harden in the statistical comparison. If the postseason storyline changes, it could be due to Thunder defenders running shooters off the 3-point line.
“It’s interesting the way they rely on the 3-point shot,” said Erin Rynning, a Sportsmemo.com handicapper and professional bettor. “The Rockets went cold a lot down the stretch. I certainly think the Thunder have got better than a puncher’s chance. I wouldn’t be in total shock.”
Houston finished 0-8-1 against the spread in its last nine games. Still, the popular theory is the Rockets might be more of a threat to Durant and the Golden State Warriors than any other team in the NBA.
“I think Golden State is going to cruise through the West, now that I see Durant back and healthy,” Kezirian said. “But if anyone is going to beat the Warriors, I think it’s the Rockets.”
A look at the rest of the West:
(1) Golden State (-20,000) vs. (8) Portland (plus-5,000)
The Warriors’ status as odds-on favorites to win the title was questioned on March 1, when Durant went down with a sprained left knee ligament and bone bruise. At the time, bettors overreacted more than oddsmakers. Durant returned sooner than expected, and he scored 29 points in 27 minutes against the Lakers on Wednesday. In reality, the biggest threat to Golden State’s playoff run would be an injury to Durant, Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson.
Damian Lillard (27.0 points per game) and CJ McCollum (23.0) are capable of shooting the Trail Blazers to a win or two in this series, but that’s their ceiling. Portland is hoping center Jusuf Nurkic, who has a fractured right leg, will be cleared to play this weekend. Against these odds, it’s probably better not to risk Nurkic’s health.
(2) San Antonio (-1,600) vs. (7) Memphis (plus-900)
Aside from Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs still appear too old and slow to take down the Warriors. Leonard closes the gap because there’s no better two-way player in the NBA. He averaged 25.5 points and shot 38 percent from 3-point range. Memphis simply cannot match up with Leonard or match moves with coach Gregg Popovich.
The Grizzlies’ chances of pulling an upset suffered a setback when guard Tony Allen injured his right calf in Wednesday’s regular-season finale. Allen would have been assigned to defend Leonard, but Allen is unlikely to play in this series. If San Antonio is to get exposed as too old and slow, it will happen in another series.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (-240) vs. (5) Utah (plus-200)
“The Jazz could beat the Clippers and it wouldn’t surprise me,” Rynning said. “These two teams kind of mirror each other.”
Both teams finished 51-31. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan give the Clippers interior strength that few opponents can match. But the Jazz can answer with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Point guard Chris Paul could provide the edge for L.A., or shooting guard Gordon Hayward could be the difference-maker for Utah.
“I’m not a big fan of Doc Rivers’ coaching,” said Rynning, who made a lower series price in the minus-170 range. “There are a lot of things I don’t understand, like how he sits Blake and D.J. at the same time. This series is going to be a wait-and-see approach for me.”
If we see a first-round upset, this one is most likely.