Carlson: OKC Thunder-Rockets playoff series will be great — even from the couch
A couple times over the past few years, we’ve gone about the business of ranking the Thunder’s rivals.
We've called them the RIVAL rankings — Relevancy, Intrigue, Vitriol, Approach and Links — and we originally developed the points-based system in April 2014. The reason? The Thunder was preparing for another playoff series against the Grizzlies.
Remember those old-time bear-wrestling matches? Zach Randolph and Kendrick Perkins threatening fisticuffs. Overtimes. Nick Collison bleeding.
Oh, what fun.
Four years later, we did the RIVAL rankings again, and Memphis took a tumble from the top spot. Golden State assumed the position. Those were the days, of course, of major hostilities between Kevin Durant and the Thunder. He said he was leaving, Russell Westbrook said, “I’m comin,’” and everyone in OKC said the Warriors were Public Enemy No. 1.
But here’s the thing about those rankings: the Rockets were a high-ranking constant.
No. 1 in 2014.
No. 2 in 2018.
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Now as the Thunder and Rockets prepare to begin a first-round playoff series Tuesday, the rivalry still burns hot. Thunder fans have never gotten used to seeing James Harden in Rocket red, and even though Patrick Beverley is no longer in Houston, blood still boils over the days he was.
Rocket fans have their own hangups, including a couple contentious playoff series and an MVP award they wanted to go to The Beard and instead went to The Brodie.
Ironic, then, what this season has wrought.
Russell Westbrook, he of the controversial MVP, is now a Rocket, and Chris Paul, labeled by many in Houston as the problem holding back the Rockets, is now a Thunder. And a beloved Thunder at that.
Imagine the electricity in the arena when these two clash.
No, really. Imagine it. Because that’s all you’re going to be able to do. This series, of course, is happening far from the madding crowds. The playoffs are in the bubble in Orlando, just as every NBA game has been since the restart began, and that means sizzle is replaced by sterile, hype gives way to hollow.
There’ll be no games at The Peake or the Toyota Center. No taunts of The Beard or CP3. No cheering Russ or jeering Russ or wondering how the heck to react to Russ, provided his strained quad muscle lets him make an appearance in this series.
(But really, who among us doesn’t expect him to play?)
Still, you have to think that even though the court will be neutral, the games will be charged. These two teams could play in the middle of an empty field in the Panhandle, and emotions would run high.
Can’t put former teammates who are alpha superstars on the same court without some friction.
But playoff emotions have long been magnified by the fans in the stands. Jam-packed arenas. Home-court advantage.
It makes for glorious moments, times you don’t think the crowd could get any louder, then it does. Times you can’t hear the person next to you. Times you legitimately wonder if a roof has ever been blown off by sound.
These playoffs will have none of that.
It’s a shame.
I understand why it has to be this way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be bummed about it.
Any chance the virtual fans for these games have a boo function?
This Thunder-Rockets series promises to be as good as they come in the first round. There are other match-ups worth watching, of course. Dame Time vs. the Lake Show. Kawhi-PG13 vs. Luka-Kristaps. Embiid and the Sixers vs. Tatum and the Celtics. But OKC-Houston ticks all the boxes.
The teams should be competitive; the Thunder won two of three games during the regular season. They have star power. They have history, both recent and distant. And of course, they have animosity.
This series will be entertaining.
Even watching from the couch.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.