Tramel: Rockets are one of the Thunder's weaker playoff opponents
The Thunder plays the Houston Rockets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, and the Rockets are considered a formidable team. James Harden. Russell Westbrook (when he returns from a quad injury). An avalanche of 3-point shots.
And the Rockets are an intriguing team. They’re also the sixth-worst team OKC ever has faced in a playoff series, including the third-worst since the Thunder’s NBA Finals season of 2012.
That’s using point differential, the favored tool of the analytics crowd.
The Rockets finished 44-28, same record as OKC and Utah. Houston’s point differential was +3.0, which is solid but nothing close to the neighborhood of an elite team.
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This will be the Thunder’s 20th playoff opponent. These Rockets rank 15th in point differential (and in a virtual three-way tie for 13th in winning percentage).
Point differential is revered by the stat geeks because it somewhat takes away happenstance. A team that wins a lot of close games isn’t likely to sustain such trends in the playoffs. A team that wins by a consistently large margin is likely to sustain such trends in the playoffs.
Going by point differential, here is how OKC’s all-time playoff opponents rank:
1. 2016 Golden State: +10.8 (OKC lost 4-3)
2. 2016 San Antonio: +10.6 (OKC won 4-2)
3. 2014 San Antonio: +7.8 (OKC lost 4-2)
4. 2012 San Antonio: +7.2 (OKC won 4-2)
5. 2014 LA Clippers: +6.9 (OKC won 4-2)
6. 2012 Miami: +6.0 (OKC lost 4-1)
7. 2017 Houston: +5.7 (OKC lost 4-1)
8. 2011 Denver: +4.8 (OKC won 4-1)
9. 2010 LA Lakers: +4.7 (OKC lost 4-2)
10. 2018 Utah: +4.3 (OKC lost 4-2)
11. 2019 Portland: +4.2 (OKC lost 4-1)
12. 2011 Dallas: +4.2 (OKC lost 4-1)
13. 2013 Memphis: +4.1 (OKC lost 4-1)
14. 2013 Houston: +3.5 (OKC won 4-2)
15. 2020 Houston: +3.0 (series starts Tuesday)
16. 2011 Memphis: +2.3 (OKC won 4-3)
17. 2014 Memphis: +1.5 (OKC won 4-3)
18. 2012 LA Lakers: +1.4 (OKC won 4-1)
19. 2012 Dallas: +1.0 (OKC won 4-0)
20. 2016 Dallas: -0.3 (OKC won 4-1).
Now that’s interesting. The Thunder went 3-2 against the five best teams it has played in the postseason. It went 5-0 against the five worst teams it has played in the postseason.
Of course, much of that depends on the Thunder’s point differential. Hard to believe, but this is OKC’s sixth straight playoff series with a smaller point differential than its opponent. You have to go back to Dallas, in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, to find the point-differential advantage with OKC – or even a better record for OKC. That could explain the Thunder’s four-series losing streak.
This Thunder team has a +2.0 point differential. So that’s within a point of Houston’s. The Thunder was within a point (4.2-3.4) of the Blazers last season and within a point of the Jazz in 2018 (4.3-3.5).
The Thunder is 4-7 all-time in series in which it entered with a worse point differential.
The series OKC won: 2016 San Antonio (10.6-7.3), 2014 Clippers (6.9-6.4), 2012 San Antonio (7.2-6.2), 2011 Denver (4.8-3.8).
The series OKC lost: 2019 Portland (4.2-3.4), 2018 Utah (4.3-3.5), 2017 Houston (5.7-0.8), 2016 Golden State (10.8-7.3), 2014 San Antonio (7.8-6.4), 2011 Dallas (4.2-3.8), 2010 LA Lakers (4.7-3.5).
The Rockets are favored in this series and should be. Harden is impossible to guard, and the Thunder’s clutch-time magic seems to have worn off.
But a +3.0 is a small point differential. The Rockets are beatable.