Fresh off a much needed four-game winning streak, the Oklahoma City Thunder return for a week at The Peake.
With just three games on the schedule this week, OKC will face off against two teams battling for playoff spots in the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. As it stands now the two teams are separated by just one game with the latter trailing the former.
The Thunder end their week with another Saturday night tilt with the San Antonio Spurs, who just reminded the basketball world that they too are having one of the best regular seasons in NBA history.
A seven-game streak is within OKC's grasp and it would definitely wipe the stink off what had been a lousy post All-Star break performance--despite Russell Westbrook triple doubles and Kevin Durant's 50-plus game streak of scoring 20-plus points. Let's get into the matchups for this week.
03/22 – vs. Rockets
FORECAST: Morning showers that could freeze as temperatures drop throughout the night
If I were running the Thunder I'd make sure that the latest Northwest Division Champions-their fifth in the last six seasons--banner was unveiled during this game.
No, it's not the one banner everyone in OKC so desperately wants, but it's a nice reminder to James Harden of the consistency and winning atmosphere he ditched to chase stardom, a pursuit that which in this season at least has proven to be fleeting.
However, and thankfully, the Thunder aren't as petty as I am. Since Harden became a Rocket in 2012, these folks have been a constant thorn in OKC's side. Whenever things seem to be going well for the Thunder it's usually Houston that brings them back down to earth.
With the Thunder coming off a stretch of four victories (all games they should have won, don't forget) it seems like just the time for Houston to stroll into town and once again cause a string of "WHATS WRONG WITH THE THUNDER" headlines to takeover your Twitter timeline.
Prediction: Thunder 113, Rockets 119
On The Doppler Radar: Steven Adams vs Dwight Howard
As opposed to some of the more basketball-themed perspectives that usually graces this section, I'm going to take the time to rant about the man-child that is Dwight Howard. During Sunday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, Howard sprayed a foreign substance--the bottle had white paper taped over the name--on his hands before entering the game. The substance is believed to be Stickum, which is illegal in the NBA. No penalty was taking against the Rockets or Howard during the game (you're better than that NBA), but the incident is under review. Afterwards, Howard stated that he has been using the spray for the past five years. Like really Dwight? Stickum? What purpose would Stickum serve you in a basketball game? Sure you could possibly gain an advantage rebounding, but the ball has to come back out of your hand eventually. And why would you touch the ball immediately after spraying it onto your hands? You had to know some of the residue would wipe off. How you didn't get caught red-handed in the moment is beyond me (credit to interim head coach JB Bickerstaff for swiftly removing the bottle in question for the scorer's table as the referee came over to tell the Houston bench Stickum is illegal).
03/24 – vs. Jazz
FORECAST: Partly Cloudy with howling winds
The Utah Jazz have long flirted with a playoff spot, always teetering between the seventh, eighth and ninth spots in the Western Conference standings.
They have a solid group of young players with Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, and Rudy Gobert. Utah has come closest so far to replicating the OKC method of building a contender through the draft.
Their biggest weakness this year has been their point guard play. With second year pro Dante Exum out for the year after tearing his ACL over the summer the Jazz turned to Trey Burke for most of the year. Burke is a rotation-caliber NBA player, but far from a starting point guard. At the deadline Utah added Shelvin Mack and he immediately took over the starting role from Burke.
Russell Westbrook posted a triple double in three out of OKC's four games last week and this looks like a great shot for number 15 this season, which would tie him with Michael Jordan for the third most triple-doubles in one season.
Prediction: Thunder 108, Jazz 102
On The Doppler Radar: Russell Westbrook vs Shelvin Mack
As noted above, this matchup is a clear advantage for the Thunder. Mack has a sturdy build, but is neither as quick, athletic, strong or tall as "Beastbrook." While they still need him to play within the flow of the offense, Russ will be able to beat Mack every time the two square off one-on-one. Where the Thunder could see huge dividends in this game is paint points for OKC. With Westbrook seemingly getting into the paint as he pleases, it will draw help from Gobert and give Russ the opportunity to find Adams and Enes Kanter down low for easy looks.
03/26 – vs. Spurs
FORECAST: Potential Heat Advisory Warning, High of 99 degrees
I can admit when I am wrong, and when I previewed the previous Thunder/Spurs game I misspoke and said that Gregg Popovich would probably rest his star players. He did not.
Instead, the Thunder battled back and forth--holding the lead entering the fourth quarter, which is a bad omen it seems for this squad--before ultimately losing like every other opponent who has faced the Spurs at the AT&T Center this season.
This time I'm going to make another bold prediction about what Pop will do. He's going to rest his stars. San Antonio just got done with one of it's toughest stretches of the season--four games against the Thunder, Trailblazers, Clippers, and Warriors--and won every game.
With the media now singing the praises of San Antonio, Pop and company will need something to get the media attention off them once more. A loss against one of the other championship contenders is a pretty simple way to accomplish that.
Prediction: Thunder 102, Spurs 88
On The Doppler Radar: Serge Ibaka vs LaMarcus Aldridge
Serge Ibaka was given a planned rest day off against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night and then was replaced late into the Thunder's four-point win over Indiana by Enes "Sixth Man of The Year" Kanter. In order for OKC to fulfill its championship potential, they're going to need the best out of all their players, especially Serge. Aldridge often got the better of Ibaka during his time with the Portland Trailblazers, but now as a member of the Spurs, and partnered with Tim Duncan, it seems like the two are destined to face off again. This meeting will likely mean nothing if the two teams meet up in the postseason, but at this point Air Congo needs a morale boosting game. Playing big against Aldridge and San Antonio certainly would help with Serge's ego.