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Houston Rockets' small-ball would face 'ultimate test' against Los Angeles Lakers, says Charles Barkley

Watch the Rockets face off against the Thunder on Tuesday morning live from 2am on Sky Sports Arena

Russell Westbrook
Image: Russell Westbrook returned from injury in Game 5

An absorbing encounter with the Los Angeles Lakers looms for the Houston Rockets should they round off their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. 

They enter the matchup with a 3-2 lead after routing the Thunder 114-80 in Game 5, marking the largest winning margin in a playoff game in the team's history.

Monday's NBA playoff games

  • Gm 1: Heat @ Bucks | 11:30pm
  • Gm 6: Rockets @ Thunder | 2am Tuesday | Sky Sports Arena

James Harden led Houston with a game-high 31 points after finishing 11 of 15 from the field, while Robert Covington supported with 22 points along with 20 from Eric Gordon.

A meeting with the Lakers awaits for one of the two sides after Los Angeles came from one game down to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1.

James Harden starred with 31 points as the Houston Rockets took a 3-2 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first round playoff series. 1:54
Harden starred with 31 points as the Rockets took a 3-2 lead over the Thunder in their first round playoff series

"I want Russ (Russell Wilson) and Harden against the Lakers," former 11-time All Star Barkley said on Inside the NBA.

"To me that would be the ultimate test of that small ball. Like okay, 'we're going to play with all these little dudes and we're going to shoot a bunch of threes'. That would be great to see.

"When they make threes, they're going to win. The key is, can they do it for four games against a good defensive team and can they rebound the ball?

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"Because if they put them little dudes out there against AD (Anthony Davis), Dwight (Howard) and JaVale McGee, they're going to have a very tough time against the Lakers on the boards. That to me is going to be the difference."

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The Rockets received a boost in Game 5 against the Thunder as Russell Westbrook returned to the floor for his first appearance since August 11.

Westbrook, who had been out with a right quad strain, finished with seven points, seven assists and six rebounds in 24 minutes having missed 10 of 13 shots and both three-point attempts.

While it will naturally take him time to reintegrate, his availability comes as welcome news to Harden, with whom he'll share the workload.

Russell Westbrook felt 'blessed' to return from injury for Houston's Game 5 triumph over Oklahoma City in their first round playoff series in the Western Conference

"Russell Westbrook is obviously going to score better, you know that as the series goes on he's going to score more," said Kenny Smith. "But the thing that we want to see is, can he create the pace?

"Because the Rockets want to play fast and at times James Harden has been worn down as series have gone on or the playoffs have been going on.

"But with Russell Westbrook he won't have that issue so he doesn't always have to control the pace, control the game, make the play. Now he gets three to four possessions off, even when Russell is missing he was getting three to four possessions off and that's what the Rockets need."

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The Rockets will also be hoping Westbrook's return can be cushioned by the likes of Covington after his bubble-best 22 points.

Jeff Green has meanwhile proven a valuable contributor with 78 points, 35 rebounds and 11 assists in the series so far, including 10 boards in Game 5.

Highlights of Game 5 of the Western Conference first round playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. 2:13
Highlights of Game 5 of the Western Conference first round playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets

The Rockets' last meeting with the Thunder saw them limit their opponents to 35 points in the second half, while Harden finished with a series-best 73.3 field goal percentage having got the better of Oklahoma rookie guard Lu Dort.

Though Dort has impressed against the Rockets talisman, his continued inefficiency on the offensive side has been costly.

The 21-year-old hit on just three of 16 field goal attempts and missed all three-point efforts on Sunday, taking his series tally to 12 of 46 from the field and five of 32 from behind the arc.

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"I think part of his growth is understanding when to shoot some, when to drive some and when to pass some," said Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Dort.

"He probably had a mix of a lot of those in the game. The other thing, too, is with the way that he has guarded James Harden in the series - he's done a great job - he just didn't have a very good offensive night.

"But those same shots were there in Game 4. He made a couple of them, and he also made some big plays. He's not going to be perfect, none of us are perfect. But you're going to get great effort from (Dort).

"He just didn't shoot the ball well. Our whole team didn't shoot the ball well."

Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers dunks the ball against the Dallas Mavericks during Round One, Game Six of the NBA Playoffs 1:24
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The threat of Oklahoma's three-guard lineup including Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder leaves little room for complacency. And Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni knows it.

Before even beginning to think about the Lakers, Houston must first finish the job in hand.

"They're not going anywhere," said D'Antoni. "It's going to be a dog fight the next game, and we'll see what happens."

"To close people out is one of the hardest things to do. We've got to win the next game, and they've got to win the next game. There will be no letting down, hopefully, on our side. There better not be."

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