A tough, 6-game playoff series last year, followed by a 117-86 blowout loss by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 29 has turned this matchup into somewhat of a bitter rivalry for the Houston Rockets. Thursday night’s game will be seen as a potential stepping stone of elevating the Rockets from a playoff contending team, to a Western Conference contending team should they come away with a win. To gain some insight in the perspective of the Thunder, I spoke with Andrew Kennedy of Thunderous Intentions.
MM: There’s a lot of talk among the Rockets community of how the Thunder are now considered their new rivals. However, in the past 2 years, the Thunder have pretty much owned the head-to-head matchups. Does OKC see Thursday’s game as some sort of a ‘statement game’, or just another game on the schedule?
AK: I would say that they see every game as just another game on their schedule. Like you said, they have dominated the Rockets over the past two years and even blew them out without Russell Westbrook this season. The one aspect that does make this matchup a little more meaningful for the Thunder is going up against James Harden, who they want to make sure doesn’t go off against them.
MM: Are there any new updates or developments regarding Westbrook’s status?
AK: Once again, reports are that he is recovering quickly. Westbrook said he does not care about the timetable the team set for him to return. On one hand, that makes you feel like he may return before the All-Star break. But on the other, the Thunder may keep him out through the duration of the timetable to play it a bit safer this time. Either way, there’s little doubt that he will come back less than 100 percent.
MM: Without Westbrook, the Rockets may play to the same strategy they did in last year’s playoff series, which is to try their best to limit Kevin Durant, but focus mainly on not letting the role players be effective. How do you see OKC’s offensive strategy playing out?
AK: The Thunder look to run their same offense as if Westbrook was still healthy. They try and run the same sets and do a lot of the same things. Durant has been more aggressive taking shots with Westbrook out of the lineup, especially when the Thunder get down in games. But in terms of altering a game plan, the Thunder really don’t do that.
MM: It’s fairly difficult to shut down both stars on a team when they have 2 stars, but Dwight Howard shot just 4-13 from the field and was held to 9 points, while James Harden was held to 9 points as well on 2 for 9 shooting in the first matchup. Was there anything the Thunder did on defense to pitch out those awful numbers, and do they go into Thursday night with the same strategy?
AK: They were catching the Rockets on a back-to-back and Houston was also playing their fourth game in five nights when they last played. The Thunder were able to jump on them early as they were just playing harder for one thing. Dwight Howard has never been a tough matchup for the Thunder, who have plenty of size to deal with him. And like I mentioned before, they seem to make it their personal mission to take Harden out of a game when they go against him. Defensively, even without Westbrook, the Thunder have the tools to be elite.
AK: I definitely see this one being closer than the last one. The Thunder have been struggling lately and Houston being at home should help. The Thunder will be trying to bounce back from a loss and they are good at that. I think it will be close but I see the Rockets winning by a few points just because they have a little more offensive fire power right now.
Tip: 8:30 PM CT