Rockets (21-11, 8-7 home) vs. Thunder (24-5, 13-1 home)
Offensive Rating: Thunder – 108.6 (6th), Rockets – 109.9 (3rd)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 100.6 (2nd), Rockets – 105.3 (16th)
Pace: Thunder – 96.7 (5th), Rockets – 95.8 (6th)
Good news for the Thunder: If there’s any team they should have a decent idea how to play against without Russell Westbrook, it’s the Rockets. OKC spent four of the six games in last postseason’s series against Houston playing without Westbrook, and won two of them. The first time, it was all Kevin Durant all the time. The second win, the Thunder got a bit more help from the other pieces and Scott Brooks even made a rash move changing the starting five to start the second half of Game 6.
But with the Rockets changed now with Dwight Howard in the middle, OKC will probably approach this game more traditionally. The Rockets still don’t have a traditional power forward, so there could be ample amounts of smallball ahead, but there’s no doubt the Thunder’s interior players will play a big role tonight.
The Rockets are dangerous when they pick up tempo and get the 3-ball going, so the Thunder will need to be mindful of pace, especially without Westbrook. Normally, a helter skelter style fits OKC because Westbrook and Durant excel in that way, but I’m not so sure the Thunder should try and push too much tempo tonight. Playing fast is good. But playing smart is better.
(And just a reminder for those prepping their vocal chords for some enthusiastic booing: The Player That Crashed Into Him isn’t playing tonight because of a broken hand.)
Houston coming in: The Rockets have won three straight, including last night against the Pelicans
1. Dwight Stoppers. Big night ahead for Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams and Nick Collison. Especially for Perk, because this is the type of night where he can at least earn some of that contract. He has a reputation for getting under Howard’s skin and slowing him down, and that’s precisely what the Thunder need him to do. At the same time, if Serge Ibaka shows he’s capable of holding his own against Howard, the Thunder could create a big advantage by playing smaller.
2. Hands off. Don’t touch James Harden. Just stay away. Or else you’ll be watching him parade to the free throw line 49 times. (And yes, I realize I’m one to talk considered the calls KD gets.) But Harden can produce effective offensive games while playing a horrible offensive game just by getting to the line. The other night, he made two shots and scored 27 points because he hit 22-25 from the line.
3. Rhythm, feel and confidence. Sample size is small (just four games) but the Thunder average about three possessions fewer a game without Russell Westbrook. They don’t play as fast, they don’t play as loose, they don’t play as confidently. Westbrook is a one-man fast break waiting to happen, but the Thunder seem to become much more halfcourt oriented and less about freelancing and playing free. As long as KD’s hitting shots, it works. But they need those easy transition opportunities, those explosive 6-0 spurts.
Tip at 6:00 CT. Go Oh Cray See.