Time: 7:00 PM Central Standard Time
Place: The Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Northwest
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), Newsradio 750 KXL
The Thunder return to action tonight after a two day layoff. During that time, no doubt OKC mulled over two consecutive defeats to the world champion Mavericks (Monday) and the Western Conference leading Portland Trail Blazers (Tuesday). In those consecutive losses, the Thunder reverted to a lot of bad habits that we had hoped had been washed away by last season's playoff run, combined with a productive off-season and high expectations. Meanwhile, the Rockets, who seem to always be getting the short end of the stick on something or other (nixed Pau Gasol trade, Yao Ming's early retirement), are hunting for an identity on which they can build a playoff run.
On paper, the Thunder should be licking their chops at the prospect of facing the Rockets now. Houston has just lost two consecutive games to the two Los Angeles teams, they are soft in the middle (25th in rebounding, 28th in scoring defense), and their best offensive player (Kevin Martin) is over six points off of last year's scoring average.
Meanwhile, the Thunder are coming off of two games where they lost their inside presence, turned into a jump shooting team, and failed to play the physical game that helped define last year's playoff push.
If the Thunder are serious about turning into a multidimensional offense, have an inside offensive presence, and regain their rebounding swagger, Houston is the team against which to do it.
This is what concerns me though - the Thunder's natural tendency is to be a jump-shooting team. Between Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, and Daequan Cook, they are currently averaging almost 20 3-point attempts per game (making 37%). On top of this high volume, they also are taking a high amount of shots from the 16-23 foot range, which statistically speaking is the least effective shot to take. Certainly the Thunder can win games taking a lot of jump shots, but so can teams like the Warriors. What made the Thunder special last season though was their ability to score in closer to the basket, finish at the rim, and get to free throw line. I think that if tonight's game turns into a jump shooting contest again, the Thunder will be allowing the Rockets to compete on a more even level than if Kevin Durant decides to take Chase Budinger and Terrance Williams down on the block for some post-game fun.
This facet, I think, will be the key to the Thunder's next two games against the Rockets. Will OKC seek to step outside of its jump-shooting comfort zone and exploit the Rockets weakness, or will they stay on the perimeter and see who wins a shootout between Durant/Westbrook and Martin/Kyle Lowry?
I predict a Thunder win tonight, but I don't expect it to be easy. Tonight's test will be about what the Thunder want to be this season, and whether they will truly take steps offensively to be the dynamic force that can challenge the rest of the league's elites.
Prediction: Thunder 102, Rockets 96