Few imagined when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded cornerstone Russell Westbrook to Houston for Chris Paul last summer that the teams would meet in the playoffs this season.
Most expected Oklahoma City to rebuild after sending All-Star Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, then Westbrook to the Rockets. The thought was the Thunder would eventually trade Paul and Danilo Gallinari -- the veteran players they got back in those deals — and focus on the future and the slew of draft picks they acquired.
Instead, the Thunder didn’t trade Paul or Gallinari.
Paul returned to All-Star status and embraced his role as team leader. Gallinari had one of the best seasons of his career. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander -- the young player the Thunder got in the deal with the Clippers — emerged as Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season. And the team, under coach of the year finalist Billy Donovan, actually had a higher winning percentage this season than last.
Now the Thunder and Rockets will open their playoff series on Tuesday in central Florida after posting matching 44-28 regular-season records.
As Westbrook says in his slogan -- “Why Not?”
Westbrook’s status his unclear. He missed the team’s last two seeding games with a right quad strain. He averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game this season.
“I don’t think they have a specific time on it yet,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Friday. “Hopefully it’s sooner than later. Obviously, we have to hold serve until we get him back.”
But the Rockets still have James Harden, who led the NBA with 34.4 points per game this season.
BALANCE vs. VOLUME
Houston focuses heavily on Harden and Westbrook offensively while the Thunder rely on balance.
Gilgeous-Alexander leads the team with 19.0 points per game. Dennis Schroder -- a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year -- averages 18.9. Gallinari averages 18.7, Paul 17.6 and Steven Adams 10.9.
BACK IN THE BUBBLE
Schroder left the bubble for the birth of his second child. He returned for the final seeding game and played well with 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting in a loss to the Clippers on Friday.
“I felt great,” Schroder said. “Being away for six games, it’s always tough but I kept myself staying ready and was practicing, working out a little bit.”
ADAMS vs. SMALL BALL
Adams, at 7-foot and 265 pounds, will be factor in the series. He could be a difference-maker for the Thunder or the Rockets could run him ragged.
Adams is a capable scorer who shoots 59% from the field and averages 9.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.
Houston traded big man Clint Capela earlier in the season and now usually puts no one taller than 6-8 on the floor. Robert Covington, at 6-8, is the team’s leading rebounder. Harden averages 6.6 and P.J. Tucker uses his 6-5, 245-pound frame to average 6.6 boards.
The Rockets led the league in 3-pointers made and attempted per game. Harden leads the league in both makes and attempts while shooting 35.5 percent beyond the arc.