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Streaking Thunder bump into evolving Rockets

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Playoff seeds are on the line, and Houston has a couple of new tricks up their sleeve.

It's a well known fact that the only thing that a lightsaber can't cut through is Russell Westbrook.
It's a well known fact that the only thing that a lightsaber can't cut through is Russell Westbrook.
W. Bennett Berry

The Thunder play the Rockets again tonight, and the stakes couldn't be higher. The Rockets head into tonight with a record exactly at .500, just a year after getting to the Western Conference Finals. Houston is currently in a tie for seventh, which would put them in the playoffs. But a loss tonight would drop Houston into a tie for eighth with Utah. With just 12 games left in their season, every game counts.

Meanwhile, on the Thunder's end, it appears they are comfortably nestled in the third spot. OKC is 11 losses behind second place San Antonio, meaning it would take a miracle for OKC to snatch that seed. The Clippers are only four losses back of the Thunder though. So really, the rest of this season will be about clinching that three seed and hopefully getting some rest for the Thunder's superstars. Winning tonight would go a long way towards that.

Unfortunately, both teams are dealing with major injury issues. James Harden is dealing with a tweaked ankle, and may not be able to play tonight. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant is dealing with an elbow issue that kept him out of Monday's practice. Still, I would expect both superstars to put in time tonight. It's just too important of a game to miss. In arguably less important news, Thunder backup forward Kyle Singler was out with a back injury on Saturday against the Pacers. Anthony Morrow and Cameron Payne ended up splitting Singler's minutes rather efficiently, but I'd fully expect Singler to return to the rotation upon full health.

The Thunder have seen the Rockets twice so far this season. The first matchup, on November 2nd, saw the Thunder playing without defending swingman Andre Roberson. Obviously, this led to some defensive problems against James Harden. In that game, Harden got to the free throw like 17 times. Nevertheless, this early season game came down to late game execution. From my recap:

The last shot that wasn't taken by Durant or Westbrook? A Serge Ibaka Dunk, with 8:08 to go in the fourth quarter. What is this, 2011? I'm not writing a recap for the Western Conference Finals, am I? Durant and Westbrook were ballhogging it, plain and simple. It's almost as if the two were in their early twenties again, taking turns trying to furiously prove their worth.

Then again, I really can't blame KD and Westbrook for taking the offense over like they did. During the third quarter, the Thunder had 8 turnovers and only scored 14 points. D.J. Augustin simply couldn't deal with the Rockets pressure, and Dion Waiters barely even got to touch the ball. Meanwhile, Enes Kanter was in the post failing to isolate Dwight Howard and Clint Capela. Ibaka might have been an option, but he was shooting just 1 of 4 outside the paint. So really, Durant and Westbrook were the only players that had anything going.

And for all my whining and crying about how OKC didn't move the ball in the fourth, the stats are actually in their favor. The Thunder shot 45%, outrebounded the Rockets 14-9, and had 5 assists to 3 turnovers in the fourth quarter. The only thing that allowed Houston to take control was their greater three point percentage, as they were 4 of 11 during the fourth while the Thunder were only 2 of 10.

Why was Houston able to shoot better from beyond the arc in the fourth? They took their shots from the corners. Both Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley were able to nail open shots provided to them by the ball movement of the Rockets offense. Meanwhile, the Thunder didn't take a single serious three from the corner during the entire second half.

So, here I sit back at the same conclusion. If the Thunder had players in the corners ready to hit threes, maybe they would be walking out the door with a victory.

To this day, the Thunder struggle with three point percentage. On the year, the Thunder's 35% completion rate is just 15th best in the NBA. But the Thunder have arguably improved their late game execution. Most recently, the Thunder were able to overcome the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night in a tight fourth quarter battle. Kanter was a big part of OKC's offense down the stretch, and may be solidifying himself as the team's third option. Serge Ibaka was OKC's old third option. But Ibaka didn't even take a shot during the fourth quarter of the Pacer game.

Kanter was arguably the reason the Thunder were able to beat the Rockets during their second meeting, on January 29th. From my recap of that game:

After the 10:57 mark of the fourth quarter, the Thunder didn't let their lead get smaller than 6. It definitely felt like the Thunder had control of the game from that point on, but the Rockets were certainly lurking close enough to make you worried. The Thunder had Kanter at center for the duration of the quarter, and it showed on their interior defense. The Rockets shot 4 of 6 inside the paint. The Rockets also had 11 free throws during the quarter. But the Rockets couldn't get their offense going anywhere else. Houston shot just 2 of 17 from outside the paint in the fourth.

On the other end, OKC was just a bunch of Enes Kanter. There were a couple KD moves, a Morrow three, a Waiters finesse layup and a Singler drive. But that all pales in comparison to Kanter's 14 fourth quarter points. The Thunder ran a pretty quick offense, opting to run with the Rockets. It worked out, as Houston was consistently trying to force turnovers. By not allowing Houston to get organized, OKC won out a lot of offensive possessions.

That all sounds very good on the surface. But the hidden truth is that Dwight Howard was ejected from that game in the middle of the third quarter. The Rockets only had Capela on the bench. Enes Kanter specializes in a power game, so any size advantage he gets can be critical.

Thus, I feel like the Thunder's fate tonight may rest with Serge Ibaka. Ibaka sat out Friday night's game against the 76ers due to rest, and appears to be struggling with all aspects of the game. But the Thunder will need Ibaka's jumpshot to go tonight, because the Rockets will be able to counter Enes Kanter with Dwight Howard. And I think we're past the point of hoping Dion Waiters has a breakout offensive game, sadly.

Not only that, but Ibaka's defense will be critical. In the starting lineup, the Rockets have finally been able to call upon the services of Donatas Motiejunas at power forward. Motiejunas was injured on March 25th of 2015, but finally returned to the Rockets lineup on December 5th of last year. Bad luck again struck Motiejunas when he had a setback in his back pain recovery on December 31st. This kept Motiejunas out again until the trade deadline. It appeared that Motiejunas would be sent to Detroit in a throwaway deal. But the Pistons voided the deal, and Motiejunas returned to the Rocket lineup on February 27th.

Motiejunas is a serious offensive threat. The hook shot, the pick and roll finish, and the three pointer are all Motiejunas' friends. Ibaka will need to be both a rim protector and stretch out to the three point line, which has been difficult for him in the past. But the Rockets may be giving a lot of time to someone who's a different type of offensive threat entirely. The Rockets signed Michael Beasley on March 2nd, fresh off a stint as the MVP of the Chinese Basketball Association. Beasley fills in as backup power forward. Beasley works best with the ball in his hands, and can be an effective three point shooter. Collison certainly isn't the type of player that would deal best with Beasley, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Thunder run small.

Motiejunas had 18 points against Memphis on March 14th. And Beasley has come along as well. Here's how Beasley and Motiejunas did on March 18th against the Wolves, courtesy of The Dream Shake:

Beasley is now averaging 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds on 52.9 percent shooting in the 7 games he's been in Houston, and if he keeps this up, the additional minutes Josh is calling for should be soon to follow. Beasley is averaging only 16.4 minutes as a Rocket, though he's logged 24 minutes per game over his last 3.

The Rockets also got another nice game from Donatas Motiejunas, who finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks and also shot 8-12 from the field. D-Mo is slowly rounding into form and is combining with Beasley for a potent 1-2 punch at the previously inept power forward position.

But it gets better. On Saturday night against the Hawks, Michael Beasley went off for 30 points. Not only that, but Beasley had 12 of the Rockets' 14 fourth quarter points. Hopefully Durant would be able to shut down Beasley in a late game situation, and hopefully Ibaka can lock down Motiejunas before that.

Since Roberson is playing tonight, I really have a hard time seeing Houston win this one. But if enough threes go down, the Rockets can win against any team in the league.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 122, Houston Rockets 115.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 71
@
35-35
(Lost 1)

48-22
(Lost 1)
March 22nd, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Turner Network Television Only
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (Questionable), Kyle Singler (Questionable), James Harden (Questionble)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 2nd (L 105-110), Jan 9 (116-108)
Probable Starters
Patrick Beverley PG Russell Westbrook
James Harden SG Andre Roberson
Trevor Ariza SF Kevin Durant
Donatas Motiejunas PF Serge Ibaka
Dwight Howard C Steven Adams