Highlighting today's marquee matchup is an intriguing final regular-season battle between former teammates, and current MVP candidates, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Both Westbrook (31.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 10.4 apg) and Harden (29.5 ppg, 11.3 apg, 8 rpg) have compiled historic campaigns for their overachieving units.
Further, each playoff-bound iteration has remained hot over recent seven-game stretches.
Oklahoma City has won six-of-seven, with Houston keeping pace.
And while the Thunder (#3 OffRtg, #6 DefRtg, 6-1) and Rockets (#4 OffRtg, #10 DefRtg, 6-1) sit among the league’s elite since March 10, Houston boasts a tenuous 2-1 seasonal advantage vs. OKC.
During these two wins, decided by an average of two points, naturally, Houston’s floor-spacing (26 3PM) and ball-movement (26.5 apg) has edged Westbrook’s singular outbursts.
For the Thunder to break even versus a Rockets group averaging 117.2 ppg at home, healthy offensive flow and 48 minutes of defensive effort are essential.
Finally, as an indispensable peripheral narrative, this afternoon’s matinee serves as a quasi MVP-eliminator pitting Westbrook and Harden’s hopes against the field.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (41-30 #6 west) vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS (50-22 #3 west)
- Time: 3:30 PM ET
- Venue: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
- TV: ABC
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER KEYS TO VICTORY
- Victor Oladipo, X-Factor: Oladipo scored a season-high 29 points during OKC’s Nov 16 win opposite Houston. Further, that night, Oklahoma City’s two-way threat amassed ten rebounds, and five assists on 5-7 3PM. Versus the Rockets, Oladipo’s floor-stretching prowess is integral for Westbrook to operate at maximum capacity.
- OKC free-throw shooting: In a series this tight, effective free-throw shooting becomes paramount. Oklahoma City made 16-17 FTA in its lone seasonal triumph vs. Houston. Conversely, during losses to the Rockets, OKC shot 46-58 from the stripe.
- Steven Adams foul shooting: To punctuate the free-throw topic, this afternoon Steven Adams must overcome his 1-of-9 FTM slump.
- Place the onus on Harden’s supporting cast: Houston’s last defeat came Mar 17 vs. New Orleans. While Harden (41 pts, 14 rebs, 11 ast, 12-21 FG) triple-doubled, his teammates —25-70 FG— floundered. When Houston avenged this setback a week later, Harden’s crew —36-69 FG— fared significantly better.
- Three-point defense: This observation is obvious, yet ineluctable for any Houston (14.6 3PM, 40.3 3PA #1 NBA) opponent.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The Thunder is coming off a thorough interior domination —76-50 PITP— of Philadelphia. However, rugged front-line standouts Clint Capela and Nene should prove capable of averting such one-sided production from OKC’s bigs.
Nonetheless, in a clash of diametrically opposed styles, Oklahoma City’s front-line must battle to rebound effectively and contest three-point attempts from Trevor Ariza (2.4 3PG) and Sam Dekker (56 3PM) as Ryan Anderson will not compete.
Today’s contest is the first of a back-to-back set for OKC.
Expect amplified intensity from Houston, as its leader James Harden battles to remain locked with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard for MVP considerations.
While Westbrook remains a “dark-horse” MVP candidate, deep within the heart of Texas, “The Beard” and “Brodie” should engage in one of this season’s most energetic and memorable showdowns.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS AND INJURY REPORTS
The Oklahoma City Thunder has no injuries to report. The Houston Rockets list Ryan Anderson (ankle) as out vs. Oklahoma City.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
- Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
- Shooting Guard: Victor Oladipo
- Small Forward: Andre Roberson
- Power Forward: Taj Gibson
- Center: Steven Adams
- Point Guard: James Harden
- Shooting Guard: Patrick Beverley
- Small Forward: Trevor Ariza
- Power Forward: Nene/Sam Dekker
- Center: Clint Capela
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: +6
Sporting a slightly re-adjusted starting five, Houston is favored opposite road challenger Oklahoma City.
Today’s key matchup places Andre Roberson vs. James Harden. If Roberson can frustrate the NBA assist-leader’s angles, perhaps Oklahoma City can claim a seventh victory in eight outings.
Meanwhile, as eleven games remain, Houston has a virtual-lock on the West’s #3 seed. However, OKC’s post-season fate is still very much undecided. A desperate team is generally a dangerous team. And the Thunder is currently 1.5 games up on #7 Memphis, yet two behind #4 Utah in the conference’s pecking-order.
Potentially matched against Houston in the first-round, Oklahoma City realizes the implications of its final seasonal tilt vs. Houston.
Oklahoma City is 14-20 on the road, having won two-consecutive away from Chesapeake. Balanced Houston sports a 27-19 home record.