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Thunder vs Rockets Preview: OKC looks to ground Houston for Christmas

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The Thunder started the month winning ugly, now trying to finish the month winning strong.

NBA: Preseason-Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Houston Rockets at “the Peake” in their annual Christmas day game at 7 p.m. after a very satisfying road win in Salt Lake City Saturday night.

Leading up to Tonight’s Game

I have watched the NBA for over 30 years and this has been, without doubt, the craziest month for any team I have ever followed. In the first 18 days of December, the Thunder managed a 7 and 3 record and those 7 wins were ugly. I’m not talking 4 out of a possible 10 ugly, I’m talking fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down ugly. But they were wins.

Finally, the Thunder put together a complete game on the 20th day of the month and throttled the Jazz by 28 points. It felt like Oklahoma City had turned a corner, only to see the team come right back with another game in which they blew a double-digit halftime lead to the Atlanta Hawks, the league’s worst team, in the third quarter and having to pull it out on a Russell Westbrook 3-pointer just seconds before the final buzzer.

That ugly win, the Thunder’s ninth of the month, may actually be the game we look back on and say was the turning point. Granted, it was a win, and at the end of the season, when we look back, all we will see is a “W” in the win/loss column, but the post-game interviews with the players may have told more about the game than the score.

Their words were right, but their eyes told a different story.

They say the eyes are the mirrors to our soul and even though the Thunder were glad to walk away winners, the eyes of the Thunder’s three All-Stars said they weren’t satisfied. Atlanta was a team they should have put away early. After leading at halftime by 14, just one more good quarter would have finished the Hawks and given the starters a chance to rest before getting on a plane and going into a game the following night, but the Thunder didn’t step up and another big halftime lead melted like butter in a hot skillet in the third quarter.

Early in the season, the team held a meeting. It had little long-term effect. Something tells me the real meeting occurred on the flight to Utah after the Atlanta game. Unlike the first meeting, which was basically a love-fest tea party, this meeting was raw and real. For all I know it may have been complete silence, but something changed. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but my first clue that something was different was Paul George almost getting into a fight with the Jazz’s Joe Ingles only seconds into the game.

That incident set the tone for the entire game. The Thunder, playing in their 3rd game in 4 nights were tired...and cranky. They were chippy with the Jazz and bitchy with one another - it was beautiful!

At one point Carmelo Anthony barked at his teammates for not running a play that forced him to put up a contested 3-point shot. He made the shot, but instead of celebrating he chewed some butts (sic’em Melo). Later, Melo didn’t close out on Thabo Sefolosha’s mid-range jump shot, and Russell Westbrook fussed at the future HOF’er for not putting pressure on a weak shooter (you tell him Russ). Later still, Westbrook gambled and let Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell get by him and put Steven Adams in a bad place. Mitchell made the lay-up and Adams berated his captain for not sticking with the defensive scheme and funneling the rookie to where Adams was waiting to contest. (atta kid, Steve-o!!)

I could not have been happier!!! THIS is how good NBA teams behave. They hold each other accountable and do what is necessary to get the job done.

This is why I recorded Antonio Daniels post-game tirade on November 29th:

When NBA players hold their teammates to a certain standard, it accomplishes two things. One, it serves notice that lackluster effort is not acceptable, and two, it forces the player holding teammates accountable to accept their criticism in return.

That is what Daniels was talking about. Not letting little things slide and allowing them to turn into big things, which then turn into losses against lottery teams. To stop just talking and start doing.

Personally, I think the Thunder saw that post-game show and more importantly, I think they got the message. Antonio Daniels is not some mouthpiece like Colin Cowherd or Skip Bayless. He’s a long-time NBA vet with a Championship ring on his finger.

Daniels has fought the same battles or more than anyone on the Thunder roster and there is nothing quite so sobering as having the undeniable truth dropped right in your lap from someone who knows.

But Daniels wasn’t done.

December came and the Thunder started winning, but again, ugly. After scraping by a severely depleted Spurs team on the 3rd by just 3 points, Daniels said in the post-game that you take the win, but the Thunder had to play better, and here of late, they have.

The Thunder was a tired team Saturday night, but in my mind, a much better one. They looked like a real NBA team for the first time this season and it couldn’t come at a better time because:

As the Thunder lay nestled all snug in their beds,
With visions of championship rings in their heads,
Old Beardy Clause snuck in without even knocking,
And left a toy Rocket in each Thunder stocking.

He talked all this trash then went straight to his work,
Then kicked all their dogs, what a horrible jerk.
And stinking a finger inside of his nose,
He cut a stinky cheese and to his limo he rose.

He hopped in the back and gave the chauffeur a five,
Screaming, “Adam’s woke up!! Get the hell out of here DRIVE!”
And I heard the big Kiwi yell as the Beard raced out the gate,
“You’ll pay for this tomorrow and you can count on that, mate.

What to Expect

The Rockets come into this Yuletide affair sporting an 80.6% winning percentage, tops in the NBA, but have lost their last two games, both at home and both without Chris Paul and Clint Capela. Paul is suffering from a strained left adductor — the same groin injury that has kept the Suns’ Devin Booker sidelined since Dec. 5th — but at this time it is unknown how long Paul's injury will keep him out of the Rocket's lineup.

Whether the Rockets will risk the injury-prone Paul with 50 games remaining in the season will probably be a game-time decision.

Capela has a bruised heel and, like Paul, his status for the game is unclear, while Luc Mbah a Moute, sidelined since 12/15 with a dislocated shoulder, is out till after the first of the year.

If Chris Paul is unable to go, it will dampen the appeal of a match-up between the Rocket’s number one ranked offense (115.4 pts/gm) vs the Thunder’s new and improved 3rd ranked defense.

For the second game in a row, the Thunder must protect the ball. OKC still sits on top of the league grabbing 10 steals a game, but the Rockets, like the Jazz, are hot on their heels at 9.1. Again, hitting free throws will be key. The Rockets are one of the best NBA teams at getting to the stripe and knocking them down while the Thunder have only the Los Angeles Lakers keeping them out of the cellar for FT shooting percentage, so matching their effort against the Jazz could be imperative.

As with any game of this magnitude, rebounding will play a huge role. The Thunder have a big edge on the offensive glass, the Rockets get the nod on the defensive glass but ultimately for this Thunder team, the third quarter result will decide the outcome.

If OKC takes care of business after halftime like they have in their last two meetings with Utah, they will likely walk away with their 5th win in a row. However, a relapse into a season-long pattern of letting down after the break will send a capacity crowd home on a sour holiday note.


Who do you think will win tonight?

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