When the NBA changed their first round playoff format in 2003 from a five game series to a seven game series, arguably the greatest league in the world opened the door for historic first round playoff match-ups to occur, which was not possible prior to the change.
Everyone can remember the magic that occurred during the 2009 first round series in which then Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose led a young Chicago Bulls team against the defending champion Boston Celtics, which ended up being one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history.
Rose blew the doors open on the conventional wisdom that stars need to go through a progression and a journey before they reach superstardom. Truly the only measuring stick for success comes with winning, and especially winning in the postseason.
In Game 1, Rose led the Bulls to a victory over the defending champion Boston Celtics with 36 points, 11 assists and 4 rebounds. Rose put on a show that no other player in league history had ever duplicated. But Rajon Rondo, the young and improving star that he was at the time, matched Rose blow for blow. Rondo had 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in Game 1.
The series had moment after moment that brought the entire NBA stratosphere to its feet and enjoy the spectacle that the two teams were showcasing. Bulls guard Ben Gordan exploded for 42 points in Game 2, but Allen became the hero when he drained the game winning shot to tie the series 1-1. In Game 6, Allen had 51 points to bring the series back to Boston for a pivotal Game 7.
Derrick Rose averaged 19.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.3 assists during the series, but Rondo had something to prove, he had to show that he belonged with the Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Rondo averaged 19.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 11.9 assistes per game and he also recorded three triple doubles in the series.
Rondo and Rose put on historic performances which helped to jumpstart their respected careers, and neither one has turned back (even though they are both recovering from ACL injuries).
As great as the 2009 first round series was between the Celtics and Bulls, there may be one first round match up that could go down as the greatest first round series, or greatest playoff series in NBA history.
If the Western Conference standings remain the same as they are as of print and the San Antonio Spurs do not let up down the stretch of the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets are on a collision course to meet in the first round.
The Thunder hold the second seed out west and the Rockets are in the seventh slot. Just imagining the subplots of the series is already giving me goosebumps.
Oklahoma City Thunder' General Manager, Sam Presti, had to make an extremely tough decision at the start of the season. Would he play out the year with the dynamic trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden all poised to play at an extremely high level after flopping in five games in last year's NBA Finals? Or would he make the smart money move and not spend max money on a third player and parlay the reigning Sixth Man of the Year for valuable assets?
Presti chose the latter and made the calculated decision to receive value for his budding superstar rather than watch him walk away at the end of the season, whether they won the title or not.
The Thunder have won the season series with the Rockets 2-1, and won the first two games quite handily. However, in their last meeting, both Jeremy Lin and James Harden exploded for monster games in a come from behind win which most likely will be their signature win of the NBA season.
Jeremy Lin had one of his best games of the season against one of the best teams in the Association with 29 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.
Harden had arguably the best game of his pro career when he torched his former team with a career high 46 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
Jeremy Lin struggled to capture the magic that was Linsanity at the start of the season. It is obvious by his recent performance that he is playing with a much higher level of confidence since his offseason knee surgery.
Jeremy Lin took over New York City and added an excitement the NBA has never seen in that capacity, of a star seemingly blossoming out of no where and capturing the imagination of the league. Lin had averages of 14.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
In his first season in Houston, Lin is averaging 12.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His production is nearly the same now as it was during Linsanity, but day by day he is becoming more comfortable with his surgically repaired knee and the combination of Harden and a young core of Rockets.
Jeremy Lin is a developing star in this league and in only his third season, expectations are high, but he seems to continue to meet all of the expectations placed on him. However, he is the Robin to the Rockets Batman, James Harden.
James Harden is now officially a superstar. He was arguably the best playmaker on a Thunder team that lost in five games to the eventual champion Miami Heat. We all knew Harden was a potent scorer, but did anyone think he would dominant the league with his new role as a leading man.
In James Harden's first two games as a Rocket, he showed the Rockets why they made the smart money move and traded for one of the Association's brightest young stars. Harden's debut with the Rockets may have been the best debut by one player with a new team in NBA history. Harden had 37 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists and 4 steals in a convincing win over the Detroit Pistons. Two days later, Harden made a point to steal the national attention away from the new look Los Angeles Lakers and the defending Miami Heat by scoring 45 points. In Harden's first two games with his new teammates, he averaged 41.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7 assists and 2.0 steals to start the season.
Since Harden is now the star of his own team, he is looking forward to leading them deep into the postseason.
But the subplot thickens. Harden must face his former team, the team that sent him away and had decided that it was not worth chasing a title for one more year.
The #2 Thunder and the #7 Rockets could match up in what could be the best playoff series of all time.
Both Kevin Durant and Westbrook have picked up their scoring and their playmaking responsibilities since Harden's departure and have become overall better players in their own right. The Thunder are arguably the best team in the West, but the Rockets may have a chance to push this series to seven games, or even win the series and shock the world.
The Thunder are on a mission to return to the Finals and avenge their loss to Miami, but they are on a crash course with the only player they absolutely should not want to face, their former lightning in a bottle, James Harden.
Last season, Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.0 steal per game during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign. However, since being traded to the Rockets, Harden had to step up his game, and that is exactly what he did. Harden currently has averages of 26.2 points, 4.8 rebounds 5.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
A matchup with his former team is the perfect stage to showcase his superstar abilities and how he has officially arrived as one of the league's best players.
The Rockets have a nice core of players, but the series will not be about anyone else besides James Harden.
The Rockets were able to attain two budding stars this offseason in Lin and Harden. Their future is bright, but the present may be just as exciting.
If Harden can have a series for the ages and dethrone the reigning Western Conference champions, the NBA world will bow down to the greatness of Harden and the Rockets can look to build on a successful season with their new core of youngsters.
The Thunder will be the overwhelming favorite in the series, and may be projected to win the series in 5 games. But I have faith in a little something called payback. If Harden wants to be a superstar in this league, what better way to make that statement than by beating the team that casted him aside.
James Harden and the Rockets are beginning to round into form as the playoffs approach, and a matchup with the Thunder would cause the NBA world to stop, look, and enjoy the potentially historic matchup in the hopes of witnessing something we have never seen before.