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Thunder, settled Waiters face Rockets, new bench

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History says that OKC has the edge, but Houston's new acquisitions and the Thunder's recent struggles could turn our expectations upside down.

Feelin' good?
Feelin' good?
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

As dubiously pointed out by AK2themax in his preview for the Dream Shake, the Thunder are coming off of a five day rest tonight. The Rockets will be flying in from Orlando. Two nights before, the Rockets were in Brooklyn, and two nights before that, they were back in Houston. That's a long trip in a short time, and pretty much sets the Rockets up for failure.

Still, if you've been watching the Thunder over the past three games, there are certainly seeds of doubt in your mind. The Thunder were thwalloped twice on their northern California road trip, then proceeded to barely squeak out a win over the lowly Jazz at home. New acquisition Dion Waiters has sunk and swam, playing atrociously against the Kings but then rebounding with a solid performance against the Jazz. Thunder stars Durant and Westbrook have been similarly up and down, both registering a clunker each during the norcal voyage.

Sadly, the matchup between the Thunder and Rockets earlier this season doesn't offer much insight. It came when OKC's two max contract players were both out with injury. The Thunder, bereft of offensive options, packed the paint and forced the Rockets to shoot. For some reason, Houston was really, really off that night. That didn't open up things for Howard, who had trouble getting anything going down low. This turned the game into a low-scoring free throw fest. At the end of the day, despite both teams shooting dreadfully from the field, the Rockets won the game because they shot slightly better from the free throw line.

Obviously, Dwight Howard was one of the primary culprits behind Houston's poor shooting at the line. Howard doesn't have a very rosy history with OKC. Scott Brooks has been fond of using the "Hack-a-Shaq" technique on Dwight, and Kendrick Perkins was tailor-made to give Howard nightmares. In fact, Dwight Howard hasn't shot over 40% against the Thunder in a Rockets uniform. I could easily see that stat changing tonight if Perk gets in foul trouble or something, but in general Howard is a kink that the Thunder can easily wring out.

James Harden's performances against the Thunder since his 2012 departure have been very mixed. Overall he comes out to be subpar (shooting 39% with an A/T ratio under 2), but he's registered performances all over the map. Harden is definitely a streakier player who relies upon his shooting, so that explains the wild part of it. But as for why Harden struggles sometimes? I have to credit the defense of Thabo Sefolosha, as well as the Thunder's great ability to protect the rim. I have no doubt that Roberson is equally as able, but we have no way of knowing, as Roberson was also out with injury during the earlier matchup.

But enough about Houston's stars. Back in the day, we used to be able to laugh at Houston's bench. Daryl Morey and his moneyballing always seemed to come back and bite him, as his team constantly suffered from depth issues. Fortunately for Houston, a couple of mid-season deals and a surprise signing have allowed the Rockets to replace their old bench entirely. That's right. The promising talent like Kostas Papanikolaou, the dead-eye shooting of Francisco Garcia, and the veteran leadership of Jason Terry have all now been reduced to DNP-CD status. At least, as of one game ago.

Regardless, the new acquisitions have been great for the Rockets, as far as I can tell. Josh Smith definitely doesn't have inspiring averages, but there are nuggets of good performances mixed in a ho-hum gamelog. He's definitely played a positive role in at least a couple of victories. If Houston ever needed consistency though, they could just look to Corey Brewer. He has the potential to be a real game changer on the defensive end, grabbing key steals and constantly threatening passing lanes. Brewer's three point shooting could be better, but solid offense elsewhere and an ability to get to the line mitigate that. Lastly, Alexsey Shved is a really big point guard who works very nicely around the pick and roll. Shved hasn't really been a regular in the lineup, but he does play a more aggressive offense than either Papanikolaou or Terry.

I wrote the below paragraph without realizing that Francisco Garcia had been cut to make room for Shved. Alas!

Interestingly, Francisco Garcia, well known for being a Thunder killer, hasn't played since December 6th. Garcia shot just 2 of 7 against the Thunder on November 16th, and hasn't really had a solid performance to his name all year. This comes after a fall of heavy use as the featured player on the Dominican Republic national team this fall. I wouldn't attribute it to any real loss of skill, though. Garcia has always been a player destined for the fringe of rotations just because of how streaky he is. But Garcia's got a very dynamic offensive game, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the lineup and killing us from the weak side. (If Garcia doesn't play, I wouldn't be surprised to see Brewer fill his role.)

On the Thunder's end, I'd definitely continue to keep tabs on Dion Waiters and try to gauge how he fits into this team. So far, Waiters appears to have the green light to run plays for himself, mostly being given isolations or basic pick and rolls. Waiters can shoot well both off the dribble and off the catch, and his cat-like reflexes on defense net him occasional steals. Overall, it's easy to see him slotting in as this team's fourth or fifth guy, getting maybe a few less possessions than Reggie Jackson and shooting around the same amount of shots as Serge Ibaka. Still, there are definite downsides to Waiters' game. His decision-making is extremely inconsistent. One play Waiters'll be making advanced passes, and the next he'll be completely ignoring the open man. Defense is pretty much the same story. I wouldn't say it's due to lapses in concentration, as is the case with Jones and Lamb. Waiters is just a wildcard, and it's something that OKC has to accept.

In any case, tonight's game should be a close one. Given Howard and Harden's struggles against OKC, I'd say it's not likely that Houston gets an easy win. But hot shooting can heal all wounds, and the Rockets possess the roster necessary to turn this one into a barnburner. Still, with Waiters having five whole days to adjust himself to his new team and surroundings, I can't help but think that we'll be seeing the next level of Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 126, Houston Rockets 116 (2OT)

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 38
(Won 1)

(Won 4)
January 15th, 2014
The Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Turner Network Television
Injury Report: Mitch McGary, Terrence Jones (Out)
This Year's Matchups: Nov 16 (L 65-69)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Patrick Beverley
Andre Roberson SG James Harden
Kevin Durant SF Trevor Ariza
Serge Ibaka PF Donatas Motiejunas
Steven Adams C Dwight Howard