The Houston Rockets come to town to face off against your beloved Oklahoma City Thunder in a game that features the return of Russell Westbrook. This was the game that fans looked forward to the most, as it will be Russ’ first game back in the Peake since being traded.
There will be plenty of raw emotions in display during this game. Expect for thunderous applause to be heard in the pre-game as Russ is introduced to the crowd. The Thunder are notoriously known for not doing tribute videos for ex-players when they return, but Russ will be the exception as I am highly confident there will be a tribute for him.
Emotions aside, this is a January regular season game against two of the hottest teams in the NBA. OKC comes into this game with the 2nd best record in the NBA since Thanksgiving at 15-5 while the Rockets, finally healthy, come into this showdown with a 12-5 record over the same stretch.
The man has entered the building.
1. Thunder defense must play smart
How will the Thunder defend one of the best offenses in the NBA?
Coming into this game, the Rockets are 2nd in the NBA in ORTG at 115.5 and 1st in the NBA in %PT 3PT at 39.2. Which means that nearly two-fifths are their points come from beyond the arc. The Rockets are also 29th in the NBA in FGM% AST at 52.0 and 1st in the NBA in Iso Poss a game at 22.8.
All this information just goes to show you the type of team everybody knew that the Rockets would be. They overemphasize threes and paint twos while relying heavily on isos. This shouldn’t be a surprise since they have two of the highest USG% players in NBA history with James Harden and Westbrook. Harden and Westbrook lead the league in Iso Poss a game.
If you take away the three point line, the chances of beating the Rockets increase significantly. In wins, the Rockets are shooting 37.5% from three on 43.5 attempts, but in losses, those numbers plummet at just 30.7% on 45.9 attempts. OKC have been an elite perimeter defending team this season, ranking 3rd in both Opponent’s 3PMs a game with just 10.8 and Opponent’s 3PAs at 31.3. The Thunder will need to put an extra emphasis on defending the three this game and avoiding any fouls from there, especially with this Rockets team that leads the league in FTAs a game, at 26.7.
OKC has got to do their best containing Harden which leads me to my next note...
2. Respect the Beard. But don’t fear him.
Look. Defending James Harden is nearly impossible. If he isn’t hitting stepback threes on you then he’ll find a way to create contact on his drives to the basket. Harden is having one of the greatest scoring seasons in NBA history, and all teams can hope to do is limit the efficiency and force Harden to earn his points, as the Hawks did in last night’s Rockets victory.
It will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan plans on defending Harden — last time they met in late October, OKC threw multiple defenders on Harden throughout the game. I expect a similar game plan with Terrance Ferguson, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander taking turns on him. Ferguson and Gilgeous-Alexander have the length and athleticism to hound and chase Harden all night long while Schroder has been an aggressive defender and looks forward to tough match ups.
Harden struggled from the field last game, only shooting 8-21 and just 2-6 from three. If OKC can keep Harden in the single digits in 3PAs, then that’s a massive win. But despite the poor shooting, Harden still managed to score 40 points with over half of them coming from the free throw line, where he went 21-22 (OKC only shot 24 free throws that game).
The Thunder will need to avoid falling for Harden’s trickery and keep their hands away from him, don’t reach in and don’t fall for his pump fakes. In half court sets, I would send an immediate double team to Harden as soon as he touches or is near the ball, let the other Rockets players beat you.
3. OKC is not the same team as before
Last time these two teams met up, OKC was still early in the learning curve, getting used to each other, and figuring out each other’s role. The Thunder lost that game late because they weren’t sure who their closer would be.
Three months later, Chris Paul has embraced that role. If this game is close in the fourth quarter, expect Paul to take over once again. The Rockets are aware of how clutch Paul has been this season, so it will be interesting to see how they plan on defending their former teammate. Who will take the responsibility, Westbrook or Harden? Or will the Rockets give someone else a shot like PJ Tucker? The Rockets have stepped up on defense in the clutch, ranking 9th in the NBA in DRTG in the Clutch at 98.3.
This should be a fun game to watch for both on and off the court. On the court, it will feature two of the hottest teams in the NBA, while off the court it will mark the return of Russ to OKC, and to a lesser degree, Paul’s chance to knife his old team. The NBA knows this too as it will be played exclusively on TNT, the Thunder’s first nationally televised game of the season.
The Thunder have the opportunity to show the rest of the league on prime time that they’re a legit playoff team by beating one of the elite teams at home, and on a special night where people will be thrilled to both watch Westbrook’s tribute, but to also send him home with a loss.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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