Thunder (21-15, 8-9 road) vs. Rockets (27-9, 14-3 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 930 AM (Spanish))
Time: 7:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 104.6 (15th), Rockets – 112.3 (3rd)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 103.9 (9th), Rockets – 104.8 (15th)
Here’s the good news: Russell Westbrook is still heavily mentioned when it comes to MVP candidates, and he is still averaging a statistical triple-double. Now here’s the bad news: the man he is most closely associated with in the MVP race is also having a crazy statistical season, posting absurd amounts of triple doubles, and has a better team and record than Westbrook. And to top it off, it’s the man whose departure from Oklahoma City is often looked upon as the first domino to fall in the eventual spiral that led the Thunder to go from potential dynasty to playoff also-ran in the span of 5 seasons.
The MVP race has always been about a narrative. Some years it’s easy to pick out the winner: look for the best player on one of the top 4 teams and, boom!, you have your winner. Even more of a no-brainer if its a first-timer. Win the award too many times in a row, and the voters start to look for a new “starboy”. Always remember who votes for the MVP: members of the media. No only are they voting on the player; the are also voting on the story. While this race between Westbrook and James Harden appears to be all about stats, the real tie-breaker for this race probably lies in the events that have taken place since October 27th, 2012.
If that date doesn’t particularly ring a bell for you, it was the day Harden was traded from the Thunder to the Rockets. That trade started the machinations that led to where we are today. Harden leading an offensive juggernaut that many thought would be derided by defensive deficiencies. And Westbrook carrying the Thunder after they lost their only other cornerstone player in the offseason. Both teams came into the season with lowered expectations. Both teams are technically over-achieving in regards to most of their preseason predictions. In essence, this MVP race may come down to one thing: team success. But don’t belie the fact that many writers still fault the Thunder front office for never allowing the Thunder to grow into the dynasty they were likely destined to become. Westbrook winning the award the year after Durant left makes for a great story. But Harden leading his team into the top 3 of the Western Conference, while also putting up crazy numbers on par with those of Westbrook, who plays for the team that traded him away before becoming a fully functional dynasty probably makes for an even better story.
Season Series Recap
This is the third of four meetings between the Thunder and Rockets. The first two games of the season series were in Oklahoma City, with each team grabbing a victory in games that were decided in the final minutes.
The Rockets come into this game with a record of 27-9, having won 16 of their last 18 games. They’ve scored 120 points or better in regulation 13 times this season. For comparative purposes, Oklahoma City has only done that twice. They are an offensive juggernaut led by “points guard” Harden, who is surrounded by some of the best 3-point shooters in the game in Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.
What’s been surprising though has been how well the Rockets have performed defensively. Ariza, Patrick Beverly, Clint Capela, and Montrezl Harrell are all plus defenders and clean up some of the deficiencies left behind by their more offensively gifted counterparts. But don’t get it confused. Harden, Anderson, and Gordon are all holding their own defensively. And that’s likely the reason the Rockets have been able to shoot up in the standings. The Sacramento Kings are also a good offensive team, but don’t have the defensive focus to be consistent. It’s one of the major differences between the Rockets of this season and the Rockets of last season.
Cameron Payne (foot)
3 Big Things
1. Perimeter Defense
I can probably put perimeter defense down for all three of the “3 Big Things”. The Houston Rockets lead the league in 3-pointers made by over 100 threes. It accounts for nearly 40% of their scoring. They let them fly at will and they have the personnel to make them. The Thunder defense has to stay on the shooters while also minding the paint. It’s an insane task that not many teams have succeeded in accomplishing against this team. You almost have to wish they have an off-night to keep up with them offensively.
2. Andre Roberson
Flat out, Roberson has stunk the last two games. He’s been a zero, at best, offensively, and he hasn’t made much of an impact defensively. But this is the type of game where Roberson shines. His length and lateral quickness allows him to get under screens and stay with Harden on the perimeter, which prevents him from causing too much havoc in the paint. Roberson will have to be on his game for the Thunder to have a chance in this one.
3. Attack the Paint
The Rockets are a lot better defensively than expect. But they aren’t the Memphis Grizzlies. Capela is a serviceable rim protector, but he’s literally the only one on the team with that skill. And even with that, he still only averages 1.6 blocks per game. This team can be scored on, and their most vulnerable area is in the paint. I expect Steven Adams to have one of the games he’s had lately (about 18-22 points and 8-10 rebounds) and for Westbrook to get into the paint at will.