You've got to wonder how people would react if James Harden walked the streets of Oklahoma City.
For a man who once adorned everything from buildings to cakes, he's definitely spawned a lot of hate around these parts. It was only a year and a half ago that he was stepping off the plane after the Thunder's NBA Finals loss, presumably a large part of the team's future. Now, all of that seems like a distant memory. Harden (presumably) refused to take less money as part of a contract extension, and was dealt hastily to the Rockets. Those same Rockets faced the Thunder in the first round of the 2013 Playoffs, injuring Russell Westbrook and the Thunder's championship hopes in the process. Through this process, Harden and his team have become heels in Oklahoma City, with many fans eagerly awaiting the two team's first matchup.
That heated atmosphere may have reached a flash point last Friday, when it was announced that Russell Westbrook would undergo his third knee surgery following Beverly's injury. This will cause him to miss roughly 6-7 weeks of action. The injury came in the midst of an extremely hot start from the Thunder, and many are predicting that it will be very difficult without Westbrook in the fold.
Early results are mixed. The Thunder are 3-1 without Westbrook so far, with two wins against the Jazz, a win against the Bobcats, and a loss to the Timberwolves. The Bobcats game was the only one to come down to the final moments, and featured a signature fourth quarter takeover from KD. It also featured some excellent defense, as the Thunder were able to hold the Bobcats to 85 points. There are definite areas of concern though, as the offense looked extremely sluggish, Reggie Jackson didn't live up to the hype of being a starter, and there was a definite lack of shot creators.
Tonight's game should serve as a true test for the Westbrookless Thunder, as the Rockets are the first truly quality opponent that team has had to face since the 2013 Playoffs. The Rockets will play this game as their fourth in five nights, but they are capable of beating anyone in the league, boasting victories against the Spurs and Blazers. Houston has had their share of injury trouble though, and it always seems that they're missing one player from their rotation. They're usually capable of recovering ably, but they also have definite down nights. If you need any evidence of that, just look at their recent blowout losses to Sacramento and Indiana.
Which Rocket team will show up tonight? I don't have the answer, but Xiane over at the Dream Shake has an excellent article detailing what it takes to overcome his beloved team. I'll co-opt his six main points below, and surmise as to whether the Thunder have a shot at achieving each of those goals.
1. Score a lot. Ouch. Given Friday night's offensive performance, it's really hard to see this team scoring the ball in bunches. Granted, the Bobcats were playing a really slow pace, but it doesn't make up for the Thunder shooting sub 40% for much of the game. If the Rockets play more freely I can see the Thunder staying with Houston, but I just don't see them getting much of an advantage, especially with Ibaka well-covered outside of the paint.
2. Shoot the three well. Really well. Again, ouch. The Thunder are a bad three point shooting team in the first place, so it's hard to see them get consistent numbers here. Lamb and Jackson, two primary options in the area, have combined to shoot 33% over the past four games, and the team seems to be in a bit of a slump.
3. Shoot everything else well, too. This one is obvious, but it shouldn't be too hard. Even without Westbrook, the Thunder generally can manage to shoot above 40%, and have a relatively efficient offense.
4. Keep the FTs close, even with Hack-a-Howard. Scott Brooks has used the hacking strategy before, and I wouldn't put it past him to use it again. But this one should be absolutely no problem for the Thunder to fulfill. The team excels at attacking the rim and getting to the line, and is 5th in the league when it comes to free throws taken per game.
5. Hope Houston Can't Hit a 3. Actually, I would be more troubled by this one with Westbrook on the floor. When he plays with the starters, the Thunder are notoriously bad about giving up open threes, simply because he gambles a lot on defense. Furthermore, when he's on the floor, the game is almost constantly in transition, which lends itself to more open shots created by the chaos. But with Jackson on the case, the Thunder tend to spread out the floor and defend the perimeter better.
6. Benefit from injuries and constantly shifting lineups. Obviously both teams are benefiting from each others' injuries, with Westbrook and Beverly both out. But the Thunder will hugely benefit from the four game in five night exhaustion on the part of the Rockets, especially considering that all four games were/will be on the road.
At the end of the day, when you consider the emotions in play, you've got to think that this is going to be a close matchup. There's no way the Thunder will go down without a fight after what happened, but it's nigh-impossible to see them outscoring the Houston Rockets after the loss of Russell Westbrook. I think that certain players, like Ibaka, will struggle to find shots against quicker opponents, while others, like Reggie Jackson, will thrive from the pressure. It will be a unique game to be sure, but considering that Dwight Howard presents one of the few matchups where Kendrick Perkins is actually useful, I've got to go with the Thunder in this one.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 101, Houston Rockets 99.
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