by Maurice Bobb / @ReeseReport

It had to come to this. James Harden, the once most feared beard in the great plains of Oklahoma City, returns as persona non grata, the enemy, looking to steal his former team’s post-season thunder and make them pay like they weigh for trading him away to a non-contender before the season. But after Sam Presti gambled away his most versatile player in favor of Serge Ibaka, a funny thing happened: the Rockets (45-27), armed with their first bonafide superstar since the Yao Ming dynasty fell, overachieved and scrapped their way back to the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2009 behind the stellar play and leadership from their $80 million lefty. Jeremy Lin and Harden—Beardsanity for the uninitiated—created the kind of exciting backcourt punch Houston hasn’t seen in quite some time, maybe ever.

All of these variables makes for an intriguing game within the game between these Western Conference rivals, but the disheartening truth is, at least for the Rockets is this: taking down the No. 1 seed is too tall of an order for this band of youthful merry men. OKC is now a powerhouse, with the record to prove it (60-22). They’re the favorites. And as much as they lost a step when they lost Harden, they didn’t. They actually won more games without him. Averaged more points. Got more efficient.

It’s unfair to compare ’12 to ’13 with the shortened season, but the Thunder’s winning percentage jumped from 0.712 to 0.732 for two reasons: Russell Westbrook, who matured and settled into his role, and of course, Kevin Durant, who, despite his otherworldly game in years prior, managed to improve enough to warrant the 2013 MIP Award. Durantula may have relinquished this year’s scoring title to Carmelo Anthony, but that’s all he gave up for the season. The lithe scoring machine from the nation’s capital learned to steady the ship, as did Russy, and spread out the team’s scoring, rather than try to pad his own stats in Harden’s absence. Kevin Martin filled in beautifully as the first man off the pine, tossing in 14 ppg in 27 minutes.

From the outside looking in, this matchup may appear to be nothing but a grudge match, but closer inspection reveals that these two teams will definitely keep things exciting with their style of play, which is getting out and running. Houston and OKC rank second and third, respectively, in points per game. Harden went on to become the League’s fourth leading scorer at 25.9 points per contest. The Rockets, outside of Omer Asik, lack the defensive prowess to stop Durant & Co. and therein lies the problem. The Thunder have home advantage and their house is one of the loudest, if not the loudest, in the L. They’ll win both games at Chesapeake Energy Arena before heading to Bayou City, where, if they’re lucky, Houston will steal one game.

I love the growth and potential of these Rockets since Harden’s arrival, but they’re not built to stand in the way of OKC making it back to the NBA Finals for round two against the Miami Heat.

Point Guard: Jeremy Lin vs Russell Westbrook

As much as I like how Lin has settled down into a respectable point guard, Westbrook is by far the better floor leader. He’s fearless, he’s the most athletic player in the League and man, oh man, can he get cookin’ when he wants to. Jeremy has his hands full with this one.

Advantage: Thunder

Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs James Harden

The Beard wins this matchup and it ain’t by the hairs on his chinny chin chin. He can get to the cup at will and even though Sef has seen what he can do ad nauseum, he won’t stop, can’t stop the reign. Look for Harden to really make a statement in this series.

Advantage: Rockets

Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs Chandler Parsons

I love Parsons’ game, the way he can light it up from three and takes it to the rack, but let’s not get it twisted, Durant is in another category. He’ll go to work on Chandler and the whole damn team and show us all why he’s so silky smooth with it. Parsons may have nightmares by the time this is over.

Advantage: Thunder

Power Forward: Serge Ibaka vs Greg Smith

The Rockets have a knack for finding obscure talent and Smith falls into that category. He’s young and is taking McHale’s tutelage to heart, but he won’t be able to get anything by Serge Iblocka. The Senegalese PF will muscle in the middle and still pop out for the J. Plus, he’ll more than likely want to prove his worth compared to Harden.

Advantage: Thunder

Center: Kendrick Perkins vs Omer Asik

Perk has the title under his belt, but the stone-faced center has lost a few steps. Omer, on the other hand, is on the rise. His defense and acute sense of the ball on rebounds makes him an incredible off-season pickup for the Rockets. Score one for Moreyball. (If Morey’s not the GM of the Year, somebody’s effing up.)

Advantage: Rockets

Bench: Rockets vs Thunder

The Rockets have a few aces on the bench, including the surprising Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino. But the Thunder’s bench mob is more experienced and productive. K-Mart can light it up like a starter and Nick Collison’s defense is incredible. If I had to bet my money on this, I’d put my lunch money on OKC’s reserves.

Advantage: Thunder

Prediction: This is easy. OKC. In five games, six if they let Russ get trigger happy. But with all the pressure that’s on Durant’s shoulders to win the chip, I don’t see him letting that happen. It’ll be entertaining, but the series’ll be over before the street lights come on.

OKC Wins 4-1.