Thanks to Chris Paul‘s stunning performance on Monday, we’re going to be treated to yet another Game 7 on Wednesday night — and this Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets matchup (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App) has it all, from drama-friendly superstars to coaches on the brink.
This game will decide a lot more than just who plays LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, so let’s dive in and examine the five big questions that will determine the winner of this make-or-break bubble tilt in the Western Conference playoffs.
1. Will James Harden show up?
Harden is the best player in this series. He’s probably the most dominant offensive force in the world, but he also has a tendency to disappear in his team’s biggest moments.
We’ve seen it before, and it happened again in Game 6 on Monday. With four minutes left, the Rockets led 98-92 and they seemed destined to advance to the next round. But after Paul hit a couple of huge 3s to tie the game and the Rockets needed their chef to cook, he took a break out back instead.
During the regular season, Harden averaged more than one touch per possession and nearly six dribbles per touch, per Second Spectrum tracking.
In those final four minutes on Monday, Harden touched the ball just four times and dribbled 11 times in Houston’s final eight possessions.
Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook had 10 touches and 60 dribbles in that same span.
At the exact moment Houston needed its MVP and scoring champ to put this series away, he disappeared as the Thunder outscored the Rockets 12-2 and stole the win. If Harden asserts himself in Game 7, Houston likely will advance, but history says that’s a big if.
2. Will Chris Paul get buckets?
Paul remains one of the most underrated shooters in the NBA, and when he gets going, the Thunder are an extremely dangerous team.
In OKC’s three wins in this series, Paul has been both active and efficient as a scorer, averaging 26.7 points per game. In their three losses, Paul’s scoring has dipped to 16.7 PPG.
CP3 can make winning plays from everywhere on the floor in crunch time, and he’ll be motivated to eliminate his old pals from Houston. An aggressive CP3 would seriously help the Thunder pull this one out.
3. Will Westbrook pull up or attack?
There are two Russell Westbrooks: the one who attacks the teeth of the defense and the one who heaves bricks from the perimeter. Which one will we see more of Wednesday?
Westbrook is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NBA. He can get downhill, attack the rim and find open shooters as well as almost any guard in the league. But in the past two games, he’s taken too many jumpers, making just three of his 13 tries. As someone who used to game-plan against Westbrook with the San Antonio Spurs, I can tell you that opponents rejoice every time Brodie rises up for a jumper — especially in the postseason.
Here’s why: Out of 53 NBA players who have tried at least 500 jumpers in the regular season and playoffs, Westbrook ranks last in efficiency, with an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of just 39.8%. How bad is that? Anthony Davis ranks 52nd … at 44.7%.
Westbrook is by no means a lost cause. He’s ferocious near the bucket, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson as the only players to average at least 15 PPG in the paint this season. He needs to be more disciplined with his shot selection in this one.
4. Will the Thunder make 3s?
This one should scare Rockets fans. The Thunder have been lousy from downtown all series long and have still managed to take Houston to seven. But as we saw Monday night — when OKC hit nine 3s in the second half — the Thunder can get hot in spurts.
Second Spectrum’s shot-quality metrics reveal that the Thunder have undershot 3-point expectations all series long, with an eFG nearly 7 percentage points worse than expected given location and defender distance. Luguentz Dort (30 percentage points worse than expected) and Dennis Schroder (11 percentage points worse) are the primary culprits here.
In a single game sample, OKC overperforming on 3s could easily be the difference.
5. Will Houston take care of the ball?
The Rockets’ microball experiment means they get destroyed on the glass. Since exporting Clint Capela in January, they have ranked last in rebounding percentage, affording their opponents more chances to score. That’s not incredibly surprising, but it does make Houston’s turnover numbers exceedingly relevant.
In their three wins this series, the Rockets have averaged 8.3 turnovers per game and won the turnover battle in each victory. In the Game 6 loss, Houston turned it over 22 times, tying a season high, with Westbrook and Harden combining for 12. That can’t happen again.
This one game will decide a lot more than just who gets to stay in the bubble. It’s partially a referendum on the blockbuster trade last summer featuring Paul and Westbrook. And if OKC wins, it could spawn major changes in Houston.