The last time these two teams met the Houston Rockets were still seeking their first victory having started the season 0-4. After they beat the Thunder and went on a mini win streak everyone in H-Town assumed they had just got out of the gate slowly. Alas the team continued to vacillate between looking like last year’s squad and a team who had seemingly lost all ability to defend.
Inconsistency has been their consistency. Having past the half way mark they now need to close the gap on the teams in front of them on the playoff ladder. Specifically two Southwest rivals (Dallas/Memphis) as the ideal first round playoff partner would definitely be a team other than the top two seeds (Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs).
Ben Casey highlighted OKC may be a better opponent in his Daily Rocket Science this morning based on an article Jake Hyman of Hoops Habit wrote, however I believe their ideal opponent is none other than the team they shell shocked in round 2 last spring: the Clippers. Given that, the Rockets need to move past 2 teams at a minimum and ideally aim for either the 5 seed (or 4 seed if possible). The Rockets are a full game back of Dallas and 2.5 back of Memphis. And before everyone jumps up stating how great the Clippers have been, take note that entering this week they’ve beat ONE team who is a top defense (Miami) and were 0-9 entering the week versus the top 10 overall teams. That’s not exactly a team anyone should be scared to face.
The Rockets bring a 5 game winning streak versus the Thunder into Oklahoma City. But, don’t expect OKC to not be aware of that stat and for James Harden’s All-Star buddies and former teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to be looking to even the season series.
Let’s break it down:
Houston Rockets Game Day: Rockets vs. Thunder
Venue: Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City
Game Time: 8:00 PM EST – 7:00 PM CT
TV: Nationally on NBA TV and locally on ROOT and FSOK
Radio: 790 AM and WWLS 98.1FM OKC / 930AM (ESP
Last season the Rockets swept the Thunder in their 3 contests and also won the lone contest this season:
- November 2nd in Houston – Rockets won 110-105
- November 16th in OKC: Rockets won 69-65
- January 15th in Houston: Rockets won 112-101
- April 5th in OKC: Rockets won 115-112
- Donatas Motiejunas – still out with back pain, CBS Sports lists him out until Jan. 30
- Sam Dekker – remains out recovering from back procedure and listed on CBS Sports as out until Mar 1 minimum
With 3 All-Stars to choose from in Harden, Westbrook and Durant it would seem an obvious pick to select one of them, however with Roberson out for the Thunder the defense of Harden may fall to Westbrook. Likewise the new smaller 3 guard line-up with Corey Brewer at the small forward and Ariza at the power forward has been creating a better chemistry on the court and the Spurs game not withstanding created a more fluid team on both ends. Therefore the potential positional match-up which might be the main one to focus on is: Of note
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka versus Trevor Ariza
Ariza’s move to power forward has paid immediate dividends and offers Bickerstaff with several options off the bench (Capela, Jones, Smith) to play either center or power forward. Ibaka is always dangerous to block shots hit from the perimeter, but in Ariza he’ll need to defend for Ariza to do the same thing while Howard atrols the paint. And if Bickerstaff does stick with this small line-up he’ll have Capela available to defend Kanter when he enters the game.
Of note: the Thunder had a really tough time in the games Adams missed which highlights how much the Thunder depend on him defensively.
This past off season the Rockets were attempting to do what the Thunder did during the season: shore up their bench with depth and retain core contributors. So far the Thunder are benefiting from that depth while the Rockets are learning injuries and chemistry aren’t something you can control.
When someone says “on paper” a team is better the above chart is about as perfect of an example as you’ll find. That said the Rockets have at times this season been much better than their record reflects. Likewise the Thunder though offensively competitive with the Warriors have been inconsistent on defense while they learn new schemes and get certain members of their bench to step up. As mentioned above the games Adams missed created issues for OKC and they may find the same issues with Roberson out, especially since he would have guarded Harden.
Keys to Winning:
- EARLY FOCUS: With the Rockets playing a back to back Friday/Saturday they need to attempt to reserve their energy as much as possible for the game Saturday. Though the second game features a team much lower on the ladder in the Washington news the Wizards held a players only meeting should translate into a solid effort from them on Saturday and Houston will be the unlucky recipients of John Wall and companies renewed defensive focus. If the Rockets could find a way to jump on the Thunder to get an early lead it would behoove them to do so.
- MOVE… people and the ball. The Thunder have a host of active, youthful players and for the Rockets to win they’ll need to keep OKC active defensively or they’ll just steamroll the Rockets.
- REBOUND: The Thunder are the best rebounders in the league per rebound percentage, so staying within reach on the boards is essential to staying competitive in the game. OKC will turn any defensive board into a fast break or push pace, so this point can’t be over stressed.
- PACE: The Rockets have chosen to slow their pace down slightly as they attempt to turn over the ball less and be more focused in their game play. Still they’ll need to pick and choose when they increase the tempo against this very savvy Thunder squad.
- EQUAL OFFENSIVE DISTRIBUTION: Perhaps more than any other team the Rockets will need to have even offensive distribution specifically to keep Westbrook and Durant busy defensively. The Thunder are just too strong to let their best players off the hook on defense. Then again, we might get another offensive shoot out like the Dallas game when both teams shot the lights out and then elected to play defense at the end of the fourth quarter.
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The odds makers favor Oklahoma City by 8.5 points with an over under of 221.5 points. Early action is heavily on the Thunder to meet those odds. That in itself makes me lean toward the Rockets to cover the spread since the Rockets have their 5 game win streak versus the Thunder in hand, and Harden always plays well versus his former team.
The factor that has me questioning that thought process is the Thunder’s last two games. To wit, they lost to the Nets and barely beat the Timberwolves. Given those showings the Thunder will be looking to get back on track with a solid effort on both ends of the court.
I’m hard pressed to pick a winner, but since the Thunder are at home they definitely will have the edge. Regardless, this is sure to be an active, exciting game with plenty of action.
For more exciting news and stories on the the Oklahoma City Thunder visit our affiliate Fansided site: Thunderous Intentions
Make sure you catch up on our entire Team Preview Series, our Houston Rockets Player Profile Series as well as our SCS Round Table Sessions to help you get through the early season. Above you’ll find the links to the Thunder season preview and as always stay with Space City Scoop for all things Houston Rockets.