Start Time: 7 p.m. CT
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
The last time the Oklahoma City Thunder saw the Houston Rockets, the two teams were locked in a fierce Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. Houston prevailed in that game behind a James Harden block but a lot of things have changed for the Rockets since that game.
The Rockets moved Russell Westbrook for John Wall; Westbrook did not like the Rockets’ culture or his role and moved swiftly to end his tenure in Texas. The change did not stop with the roster; Daryl Morey departed for Philly and Stephen Silas was appointed as head coach of the Houston Rockets.
Houston is still a team that harbors championship ambitions; it will be up to the Thunder to spoil opening night at the Toyota Center.
The Rockets will reportedly be without Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and several other Houston Rockets teammates due to COVID-19 contact tracing, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Wednesday.
Several Houston Rockets, including John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and possibly more, are expected to miss tonight's season opener vs. OKC due to coronavirus contact tracing, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 23, 2020
Three Points to Note for the Thunder
Horford came to the Thunder in the Danny Green trade and Al has looked incredible in the preseason. Horford was advertised as a washed-up, slow-footed big who could no longer play in the league at a high level. The reality is totally different; Al Horford still looks to be a very good NBA player.
I have to say that I did not buy the idea that Horford was washed; it never made sense that a player who was integral to Boston’s deep playoff runs in 2018 and 2019 would suddenly be a terrible basketball player. Preseason suggests that it was Philly’s lack of spacing that made the team a terrible fit for Al.
Horford’s role in Oklahoma City is a tidier fit for Al. The Thunder will tap into Horford’s versatility rather than limiting him to a stretch big role. Horford’s versatility as a passer is a boon for the Thunder. Oklahoma City can rely on him to pass out of the post or the hand-off effectively; a proficient passing center provides so many options in the half-court.
At the surface level, Horford’s multi-layered offensive game will mean that Coach Daigneault will have little trouble building an offense that works. Coach Daigneault will not have to accommodate any flaws or quirks on that end of the floor.
Horford will not be in Oklahoma City for the long-term; he will have a lot of value in the trade market if he has a strong season in OKC. However, Horford fits neatly with the brand of basketball that the Thunder want to play going forward.
The NBA has become a lot more technical, every single player in the front-court must be able to handle the ball and they should be good passers. Teams who can put five playmakers on the floor are adept at dissecting defenses and get quick, efficient offense.
Horford is a capable passer and he is a good shooter from outside. Horford can be important in building an offensive identity for the Thunder that involves a center who can make plays and create for teammates.
Darius Bazley displayed huge growth in his first season in the league. Bazley went from being a skinny rookie to being a capable, calm rotation player. Bazley has the opportunity to establish himself as a starter and show the sort of star potential that the Thunder desire out of him. In the preseason, Bazley has shown that he is realizing his potential.
Bazley was a solid interior defender last season which was fairly surprising as most rookies struggle hard on defense for their first few years in the league. Bazley seems to have built on that solid foundation during the offseason. In the two games against the Chicago Bulls, Bazley’s defense in space was significantly better.
When Bazley guarded Markkanen or when he was switched onto a guard, Darius was very good at putting himself in positions where he could cut off driving angles to the rim while still being in a position to contest jumpers from deep. Bazley was not that sort of player last season; he was reactive to the opposing team’s offense instead of dictating the play.
Darius’s defense in the preseason was impressive and I am curious to see how his improvement carries over to the regular season. The Houston Rockets have a lot of efficient offense in the front-court in the form of Christian Wood and Demarcus Cousins. Both players present different match-up issues for Bazley.
Wood is a polished scorer from all three levels and his mobility will mean that Darius Bazley will have to guard Wood all over the court. Bazley’s decision making will be tested; Darius will have to think carefully about the poison he picks when defending Wood. He will have to evaluate what look he is comfortable giving up.
Despite all of the injuries that Demarcus Cousins has suffered, his technical base has not diminished. Cousins is a strong big who has the grace and poise of a dancer when working inside. DeMarcus is difficult to stop as a roll man and the Rockets are going to be very strong in the pick and roll.
Cousins is a threat inside but the same can be said for John Wall and the speed that he possesses. Pick and rolls involving Wall and Cousins are going to be a headache for Bazley. James Harden’s ability to shoot efficiently from deep adds another layer of offense to the pick and roll for Coach Silas.
Bazley will be uncomfortable on defense against Houston and there will be moments when he struggles to contain Cousins or Wood. However, it will be important for Darius to trust his instincts and maintain a short memory. I am interested to see how Bazley’s versatility on defense translates to a game against the Rockets’ balanced offense.
A lot has been made of Aleksej Pokusevski’s thin, skinny frame; a lot of this talk has meant that Pokusevski’s technical abilities have gone under the radar. During the first three preseason games, Aleksej has shown a lot of promise as a ball-handler and as a shooter.
I did not expect Pokusevski to be proficient with the ball but he looks comfortable handling the ball. Pokusevski’s dribble is tight and controlled; there is no wildness when Poku is running the offense. When Poku is on the ball, I do not feel worried that the defense will knock the ball away and create turnovers.
Poku’s ball-handling is fairly basic at this moment in time but he has displayed elements of real quality in preseason so far. In the second game against Chicago, there was a possession where Pokusevski caught the ball at the wing and drove to the rim. Poku pulled out a nice cross move to beat the defense and get a score at the rim.
The cross was fast and fluid; it was a guard-like move from a player who is 7’0 tall. As a player, Pokusevski is closer to being a guard than a big man in terms of his skillset. Aleksej Pokusevski has also shown the ability to be effective off the ball.
Coach Mark Daigneault has introduced a new action into the Thunder’s playbook. Oklahoma City has started running an off-ball set involving a screener and a player who shoots off that screen. Pokusevski has frequently been used in this action as the shooter.
Coach Daigneault has had Pokusevski coming around the screen before taking an open jumper from downtown. Poku has been very good at knocking down shots on the move which is a positive sign for the Thunder going forward. Pokusevski obviously has confidence in his shot and the Thunder can get even more creative with the actions that they run for Poku.
For the last four years, Houston has run a guard-heavy offense. The offense has revolved around the talent of James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. Houston has always had an efficient offense but lack of size in the front-court has meant that the Rockets’ playoff ambitions fizzled out year after year.
The new GM, Rafael Stone, addressed the lack of size in free agency by adding Christian Wood and Demarcus Cousins. Christian Wood was one of the break-out players in the NBA last season. The Andre Drummond trade unlocked Wood’s potential and he started to put up All-Star stats.
Demarcus Cousins was one of the best bigs in the league in his time in Sacramento and New Orleans. Cousins was simply unstoppable on offense due to his ability to play like a guard despite being a bruising, powerful center. Injuries have curtailed Cousins’ career and this season will be the first time in a long time that DeMarcus is healthy.
Houston will be a force on offense; the combination of Harden, Wall, Cousins, and Wood will be incredibly powerful once the starting lineup gels together. However, the defense in the front-court will be a little more suspect for Houston.
Christian Wood is not known to be a great defender. Demarcus Cousins was effective on that end of the floor in New Orleans but his injuries will have sapped some of his lateral quickness and explosiveness.
I would like to see the Thunder put Houston’s bigs into space and force them to make difficult decisions. Oklahoma City has the talent to run a legitimate spread pick and roll with Gilgeous-Alexander, Horford, and Hill. The spread pick and roll can be used as a tool to stretch Houston’s defense out.
The offseason has been defined by two dominant stories, Giannis’ Supermax extension and Harden’s desire to leave Houston for greener pastures. One of these questions has been resolved; the Harden question is still outstanding.
Harden will eventually be dealt; a trade to get a player like Pascal Siakam or Ben Simmons makes too much sense for Tilman Fertitta to turn down. However, I am more interested in seeing how Harden looks on opening night.
In the past few years, we have seen players such as Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler ask for trades. In the Butler example, Jimmy played hard in the games that he was available but he claimed that he had ‘general soreness’ so that he could sit out games as a form of protest. The situation was different in New Orleans, Davis simply played disinterestedly until the trade eventually happened.
I am curious to see how Harden makes his displeasure with the Rockets known. For the eight years that Harden has been in Houston, he has played hard every single night. It will be interesting to see if the same sort of buy-in still exists.
After being presented with the Mavs jersey it’s pretty inexcusable now pic.twitter.com/hoD74f94Ip— ThunderChats (@ThunderChats) December 16, 2020
The Thunder recently announced a new jersey for the upcoming season and it looks similar to a Mavericks jersey from last season. I have to say that Nike’s jersey design has just been lazy when it comes to the Thunder.
Oklahoma City and the Thunder have so much rich history to tap into when it comes to designing unique, interesting jerseys. The jersey that was announced last week is pretty poor when you consider what the Thunder could have had.