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Ragged Thunder meet un-elite, yet pesky Rockets

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With Payne out, can OKC avenge their early season loss?

It was only a matter of time....
It was only a matter of time....
W. Bennett Berry

It's been a frustrating season for Houston Rockets fans. Just a year after getting to the Western Conference finals, the Rockets have been in a constant struggle to stay above .500. The roster hasn't changed all that much, despite the additions of Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton. Instead, the Rockets problems can be attributed to chemistry.

Trying to patch the holes in Houston

Management in Houston is desperate to win now, with the roster built the way it is. So two major tweaks have been made in-season to try and get the Rockets back to their winning ways. The first tweak was firing coach Kevin McHale 11 games into the season. Replacing McHale is the much more no-nonsense J.B. Bickerstaff. Since taking over, Bickerstaff has gone 21-16. The other big move the Rockets made was trading for Josh Smith. Trading for Smith was a bit of deja vu, as the Rockets had traded for Smith last season. When Smith arrived on the Rockets last season, he averaged 12 points on 44% shooting, 6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists with 2.4 turnovers. But what Smith really brought was energy. Here's how Josh Reese of the Dream Shake described it:

Smith has a short and poor-lived run with the starters when he first got to Houston. But that was quickly forgotten when he was moved to the bench and was able to have so much success. Smith became part of the "Headband of Brothers" unit. When the Rockets starters didn't come out with the energy they needed, Kevin McHale would insert Corey Brewer, Jason Terry and Smith and the team's pace, energy and speed would pick up. This year, the Rockets thought they didn't need Smith and he would play less, which in theory was true. With a fully healthy Terrence Jones and a fully healthy Donatas Motiejunas, they would have been right.

Smith's return has been mized thus far. Through four games with the Rockets, Smith is averaging 8.5 points on 28% shooting, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists with 2.0 turnovers. But the shooting numbers don't appear to be especially important at the moment. The Rockets are focused moreso on playing as a unit, and Smith is the second or third best assister on the entire team. Having that kind of ballhandling presence come off the bench is a huge plus. I say this because, as it stands, the Rockets have the third worst turnover percentage in the NBA. For a supposedly elite team that prides itself on it's offense, that's a titanic problem.

Thunder deal with injuries and high expectations

The Thunder have been winning at an acceptable rate. But the wins have been closer than Thunder fans would like over the past week or two. Part of this has to do with high fan expectations, as the Thunder are only a year removed from being close to the top of the Western Conference. But the Thunder have had their share of issues as a team as well. Those issues are: Perimeter shot defense, a lack of ability to generate turnovers on defense, and a surplus of turnovers on offense.

Exacerbating those issues have been recent injuries to key Thunder players. Steven Adams sat out two games with an elbow issue. Starting shooting guard Andre Roberson has been out two games with a knee injury, and figures to be out at least two more weeks. Backup point guard Cameron Payne will sit out tonight with a concussion, and could miss multiple more games.

The cumulative effect of the injuries has been more minutes for players that had been effectively squeezed out of the Thunder's rotation. That is, D.J. Augustin, Anthony Morrow, and Nick Collison. All of these players have very exposable flaws to their game, and haven't been having the best of seasons. Blaming them exclusively for the close nature of recent games would be foolish. But it's obvious that, at this point, they're a downgrade.

I'd also look to poor play from some of the Thunder's ancillary scorers. Serge Ibaka has been less productive than his usual self. Over the past six games, Ibaka is averaging 9.5 points per game, despite averaging 13.0 on the season. Additionally, Ibaka is shooting 21% from three, while taking over two attempts per game. I'd also look to Enes Kanter, who hasn't been so much unproductive as he's been inconsistent. Kanter went 0 of 6 against the Nets, and shot 33% against Brooklyn. For a guy who averages 55%, both outings were disastrous.

Also, the Thunder are dealing with a particularly tough part of the schedule. Not in terms of opponents, but in terms of how much they have to play. In the past 17 days, the Thunder have had three instances of three games in four nights, and have had no two day breaks. Six of those games have been on the road, while only five have been at home. Basically, it's been a lot of traveling with not a lot of time to relax.

Last time, this time

The Thunder will likely see tonight's game as a way to prove their legitimacy. The Rockets beat Oklahoma City way back on November 2nd. Back then, the Rockets decided to go small and pressure the Thunder. This allowed Houston to force 24 turnovers on the night, a solid 9 more than the Thunder's average. OKC tried to respond by going small later in the game, but this just allowed Houston to score in the paint more effectively. Besides that, Durant and Westbrook had trouble getting other players involved late in the game.

In a nutshell, that November loss encapsulated many of the issues the Thunder were facing at the time. Everything from integrating new personnel, to limiting turnovers, to defending the three point line. A win tonight would go a long way towards proving that the Thunder have solved those issues. I'm particularly looking for good performances from Kanter and Ibaka, whom have both been below par as of late and in that early season game.

But the stars will have a role in this as well. It took James Harden 37 points to beat the Thunder last time. Meanwhile, KD had 5 turnovers and Russ had 7. All of those numbers are well above the season averages for each respective player. I'm thinking that if KD and Russ can tune down the turnovers tonight, it will tone down James Harden's scoring as well.

Also, watch for Josh Smith off the bench. Wouldn't have a problem with Collison getting minutes tonight specifically to deal with him.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 106, Houston Rockets 102.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 49
@
25-23
(Lost 1)

35-13
(Won 2)
January 29th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, ROOT Sports Southwest
Injury Report: Andre Roberson (Out), Cameron Payne (Out), Donatas Motiejunas (Out), Sam Dekker (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 2 (L 105-110)
Probable Starters
Patrick Beverley PG Russell Westbrook
James Harden SG Dion Waiters
Corey Brewer SF Kevin Durant
Trevor Ariza PF Serge Ibaka
Dwight Howard C Steven Adams