Rockets-Thunder playoffs: Harden has early edge, but can Westbrook and OKC adjust?

In the first battle of MVP candidates between the Rockets and Thunder on Sunday, James Harden definitely got the best of Russell Westbrook. Harden finished with 37 points on 13 of 28 shooting, along with nine assists and just two turnovers in a Game 1 win. He was brilliant. 

Westbrook, on the other hand, was a flaming disaster. He finished with 22 points on 6-of-23 shots, with more turnovers (nine) than assists (7), and a minus-25. 

It was outrageous, how different their games were. 

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Westbrook vs. Harden in Game 1 NBA.com

You notice all those green circles for Harden in the paint? Harden tore the Thunder to shreds in the pick-and-roll, constantly isolating off switches and burying them. Steven Adams did a fantastic job against Stephen Curry on switches last postseason, but Harden is a totally different player. A much better passer and stronger, Harden gets him on skates and then gets the shoulder in to draw the foul:

And the big weapon was Clint Capela. When the Thunder didn't switch, Harden read it and threw the lob over and over to Capela for dunks:

Here, this is just an isolation against Andre Roberson, who does a great job on Harden. In this next clip, Harden slowly lulls Roberson to sleep, then sticks his left leg out just a bit, seemingly just to dribble between his legs. Roberson doesn't adjust ... and just like that Harden is gone, straight to the rim:

The key for the Thunder in Game 2 is going to be help defense. OKC decided to stay home, switch, and mostly try and contain with two guys in the pick-and-roll so that they didn't leave shooters open, and the Rockets absolutely shredded them. The Thunder are going to need better efforts from Adams to crowd and contain, but they also have to bring help from the weakside to "tag" Nene and Capela on the roll, with the understanding that they have to then recover on closeouts if Harden kicks. 

This is crucial: if you bring help, you have to anticipate the kickout and run the 3-pointer off as hard as you can. The Rockets want to shoot those shots, and will make a fair amount, but it's better than lying on the ground, waiting to be dissected by Harden. 


As for Westbrook, look at all those perimeter jumpers. Westbrook settled constantly, and the Rockets did a great job of attacking him with multiple guys whenever he drove. Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley stayed with Westbrook, and the Thunder star just couldn't get where he wanted to. Victor Oladipo has to make more shots, but Westbrook is also going to have to find ways to get to the rim. 

Here's the odd thing: Westbrook was under 50 percent on drives this season, the only player in the top 10 list of drives per game to shoot less than 50 percent. He made his money on perimeter shots, the two-dribble jumper off the pick especially, and matched Harden at 34 percent. We think of Harden as the perimeter shooter and Westbrook as only a guy who drives, but those weren't their identities this season. Westbrook needs to get some of those to fall. 

The Rockets played up on Westbrook early:

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But once he was out of rhythm, they started to back off:

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Westbrook needs to make shots, obviously, for the Thunder to even the series, but expect better adjustments on both ends of the floor from both Westbrook and his teammates in Game 2. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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