Rockets (6-4, 4-3 road) vs. Thunder (6-5, 4-3 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 – 99.0 (24th), Rockets – 108.3 (6th)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 100.5 (8th), Rockets – 105.7 (22nd)
There are many factors contributing to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s current 4-game slide. The Thunder’s inability to consistently shoot from the outside removes any threat the offense may use to space the floor. And notice how I said threat. Even when a team like the Warriors is cold from outside, the threat of their shots falling keeps the defense honest. Against the Clippers, the Thunder hit an OKC franchise high sixteen 3’s. But when it came to crunch-time, Los Angeles still slacked off of Domantas Sabonis and Andre Roberson and packed the paint. This, then has a domino effect on the performances of Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo. The duo, which was supposed to be the 2nd and 3rd best players on the team, have been extremely inconsistent to start the season. Adams has basically seen nothing but a human wall around him every time he receives the ball. And Oladipo, who’s game is very similar to Westbrook’s, is also struggling with the lack of spacing. While they are similar, Westbrook is on a whole ‘nother plane, and can, as Thunder TV play by play announcer Brian Davis would say, “make chicken salad out of chicken something else”. And this is just the offense.
Defensively, the Thunder started the season off great, hovering in the top 5 of defensive efficiency. The team was playing a lot like the 2014-15 team when they were missing both Westbrook and Kevin Durant to begin the season. They muddied up the games, kept the score low, and hoped that they had a chance at the end of games. If you look at the first 7 games of the season, this was basically the Thunder’s recipe for success. In the subsequent losing streak, though, the Thunder guards have failed in keeping the opponent out of the paint. And that is solely on Westbrook and Oladipo. In the Orlando game, Donovan had to take Westbrook off of Elfrid Payton and put Roberson on him. This essentially stopped Orlando’s offensive flow and the Thunder were able to get back in the game. In the Toronto game, there was no one, outside of Roberson, that could stop DeMar DeRozan.
At it’s core, though, the issue with this team is it’s roster. This was a team that was designed to be put around WestbrookAND
Durant. Without Durant, the offense suffers because their is only one attention grabber on the floor with four other players who are, in essence, offensive role players. Oladipo has the ability to be a 16-20 point scorer in the league, but lacks the consistency to do so in a night-in, night-out basis. The bench is full of one-way players that struggle in either maintaining leads or cutting into deficits when they are on the floor. Injured Thunder guard Cameron Payne may help out when he gets back, but even he has shown a tendency to struggle on the defensive end of the floor. Outside of Westbrook, inconsistency is becoming a disease on this team, and that disease, is beginning to manifest itself.
Season Series Preview
This is the first of four meetings this year between the Thunder and Rockets. These two teams split their season series last year, with each team winning on its home court. Each game was a close contest, with each game being decided by an average of 6.25 points.
The Rockets are currently 6-4 and playing like your typical Mike D’Antoni-coached team. High octane offense and bend, don’t break defense. In James Harden, D’Antoni has the zenith player for his offense: someone that can create and score with the best of them. Steve Nash could playmake, but he could never score at Harden’s caliber. Kobe Bryant could score, but he could never create like Harden. In his first 10 games under D’Antoni, Harden has done something no other player in the league has done: score 300+ points and have 125+ assists in that span. Harden is accounting for 60.9% of the Rockets points, which if it continues, would be the highest percentage of a team’s points by any one player. Because of his efficiency, he is likely the best player in the league at the moment.
The team around Harden is the reason they can be prolific. The offseason acquisitions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson were done for one reason: to be floor spacers for Harden. Both are shooting over 41% from three and this has allowed Harden to further excel at his role. Up front, Clint Capela is doing his job adequately as a rim protector and rebounder. In this his third season, Capela is averaging 9.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. Off the bench, Sam Dekker and Nene Hilario give the Rockets two pieces that allow them to further continue their attack.
- Cameron Payne (foot)
3 Big Things1. Perimeter Defense
In their first 7 games, perimeter defense was tantamount in the Thunder’s ascension into a top-5 defensive ranking. But as Billy Donovan stated in an interview with the Oklahoman’s Brett Dawson, “I get more concerned that the number of attempts that are going up are extremely high. Because if the percentages play themselves out over 82 games, that’s not gonna be good.” As is usually the case in the beginning of the season, lack of conditioning can lead to tired legs. Tired legs can then lead to low 3-point percentages. After a couple games, though, most players have played themselves into game shape and start to bring their averages up.
Every player on the Rockets that averages two or more 3-point shot attempts per game, is shooting over 38% from that range. The offense is designed to be penetration and kick-0ut on steroids. The Thunder will have to remain disciplined on defense in order to keep up with the Rockets’ offense. That means Westbrook and Oladipo staying in front of Harden and Gordon. That also means Adams playing a solid game on the interior. Because if the Thunder help too much, they will get burnt.2. Bench
The bench has to be more consistent. I like that they are playing Alex Abrines more minutes, but he has to start hitting some of his shots. As mentioned at the beginning of the preview, the threat of shooting is never going to be there unless a couple of those shots go in consistently. This may be a game where Kanter gets played off the floor. If he’s ever on the court with Harden, then Harden will likely target him for the pick and roll. Jerami Grant and, unfortunately, Kyle Singler will likely see a good amount of minutes on the floor tonight.3. Westbrook vs. Harden
I don’t know how much these two will defend each other, but you are basically looking at the two best players in the game right now. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant may be more efficient from a shot making perspective, but Westbrook and Harden are bringing so much more to the table right now. It should be a great match-up to watch.