Is anything gonna be better than this Western Conference first round? I couldn’t have plotted it better myself — all four matchups are the exact ones I was hoping would shake out going into the final weeks of this regular season, not an obvious NBA TV series among them. (OK, maybe Warriors-Nuggets, but that’s more about the market sizes and lack of marquee players than any comment on the likely quality of the games themselves.) The four series should be filled with enough drama for an entire postseason, with player comebacks, long-simmering feuds, stylistic clashes, and a whole lot of across-the-board star power. It’s gonna be great, seriously.
But before that starts — like, TOMORROW — you gotta know your subplots for each series. Here are the five biggest for each of the Western Conference first-rounders.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (1) VS. HOUSTON ROCKETS (8)
1. James Harden vs. His old team.
Duh. This subplot is worth two or three regular subplots just on his own. The two teams behind the biggest trade of the season (technically last offseason, whatever) meeting up in the first round of the playoffs, with the biggest name moved in the deal taking his new team from the lottery to postseason respectability, and his old club prospering even further in his absence. And there’s absolutely no telling how Harden will perform in the series. In three regular-season games against the franchise that drafted him, Harden had 17 on 3-16 shooting, then 25 on 6-17 shooting, then 46 on 14-19 shooting. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a couple games of each in this series.
2. Sam Presti vs. Daryl Morey
Most debates about the league’s best GM will include these two guys at the forefront, the rare front-office types with visibility and name recognition on par of their head coaches and even some of their players. Even before they pulled off the biggest and least-expected trade of the year in tandem, they were associated with each other for their smart drafting, innovative cap-management techniques and ability to see both the short and the long game. But after the Harden deal and this upcoming first-rounder, they’ll likely be mentioned in the same sentence for the rest of their careers.
3. Derek Fisher vs. the Rockets
Yeah, technically Fish was an ex-Rocket (as were, of course, Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, as well as Hasheem Thabeet for a minute there), but he never actually played a game in H-Town before being cut and re-routed to OKC, so that’s not why he’s listed here. Rather, he’s listed for this play in the 2009 postseason, where he responded to his Lakers getting muscled around by the tougher Rockets in their second-round matchup by absolutely decking Luis Scola (who probably flopped a decent amount, but still), then giving a kind of “What? Me worry?” head-scratch. The list of teams around the NBA that hate Derek Fisher for various reasons is a long one, and the Rockets’ case against him will likely only get stronger after he gives Jeremy Lin a forearm shiver this postseason (and somehow gets Lin called for a charge in the process).
4. Winston Garland Flashbacks.
Journeyman point guard and Leigh Ellis trading card favorite Winston Garland made the news last year for something he had done nearly two decades earlier, when he illegally snuck on to the court at the end of the Rockets’ Game Seven of the ’93 Western Conference Semifinals matchup with the then-Seattle SuperSonics, a minor and ultimately inconsequential cheat that went unnoticed until Ethan Sherwood Strauss noticed it and wrote about it for ESPN. Memories of the play and moment will be especially strong for one guy involved with this series: Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who was on the sideline right next to Garland when he made his out-of-bounds creep, and who played with the Rockets for two-and-a-half seasons, even winning a championship with them in ’94.
5. The divided loyalty of the Oklahoma City RedHawks.
The triple-A team of the Houston Astros — and a bunch of future stars they surely are — is based out of OKC, called the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Who will such part-time major leaguers as Jordan Lyles and Jimmy Paredes, or prospects like Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Villar, be rooting for in this series? In any event, the Triple A club should do a promotional scrimmage with the big league club at some point in this series. At best, the Astros would be 3:2 favorites.