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Preview: Rockets at Thunder

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (44-19) at Oklahoma City Thunder (46-17)

Point Differential:

Oklahoma City: +6.6 (NBA rank: 2nd)

Houston: +5.0 (NBA rank: 6th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 107.9 (6th)

Houston: 108.1 (5th)

Defensive Rating( points allowed per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 100.4 (4th)

Houston: 102.1 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Oklahoma City: 98.04 (9th)

Houston: 98.24 (8th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Oklahoma City: 52.2% (6th)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 16.7 (27th)

Houston: 16.7 (T-29th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Oklahoma City: 52.9% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 27.4% (T-10th); defensive rebound rate: 75.9% (T-3rd)

Houston: 52.1% (T-4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.7% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (T-22nd)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Oklahoma City: .296 (11th)

Houston: .391 (1st)

When the Rockets began their seven-game gauntlet that kicked off with a home date against the Heat last Tuesday, odds are most fans would have happily and immediately accepted a deal if someone had been able to guarantee that Houston would finish that torturous stretch with a 4-3 mark. Four consecutive wins later (and five overall) – it’s time to get greedy.

The Rockets are rolling as they ride into tonight’s showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing a potent and powerful blend of basketball that has them atop most of those hypothetical power rankings that manage to somehow send so many people atwitter while being utterly devoid of big picture meaning. What does possess all matter of import and significance, however, is the fact that Houston’s hot streak has put it in position to dream even bigger down the stretch. The Rockets came into the season with an eye toward securing home court in the first round of the postseason. Now, however, they can aim much higher than that. To wit: with a win tonight, Houston would move just a single, solitary game back of OKC in the loss column. Funny what a 23-6 stretch will do for a team’s place in the overall playoff picture.

Of course, first things first. Namely, there’s the small matter of attempting to topple the Thunder in the first place – on their home court, no less. OKC has had Houston’s number in their two previous meetings this season, serving up a pair of embarrassing losses in the process. Some pretty serious caveats exist when assessing the damage from those two defeats, however. For starters, the Rockets are healthier than they've been all season while the Thunder have welcomed Russell Westbrook back (this will be his first time seeing Houston since he was injured in Game 2 of OKC’s first round matchup with the Rockets last year) only to see Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha go down with injuries of their own. Something else that should not be overlooked: the first time Houston paid a visit to OKC, the Rockets were playing their fourth game in five nights; back in January, Houston’s matchup with the Thunder was its third game in four nights. Schedule matters, and this will be the first time these two have played each other on a relatively even playing field from that standpoint.

Know Thy Enemy

- The Thunder are one of five teams in the NBA who can boast both a top-10 offense and defense (the Rockets are members of that group as well, by the way). Durant’s superhuman presence alone practically seals the deal on the former front while Oklahoma City’s D is powered by its enviable length, athleticism and versatility which allows them to contest shots and switch matchups in ways other clubs can only dream of doing.

OKC is top-3 in the league in terms of opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area and top-5 in pace-adjusted paint points conceded. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Serge Ibaka looms large in that area, as opponents are hitting just 44.8 percent of their shots near the rim when he’s in the vicinity. That’s not an empty number, either, by the way; Ibaka faces more than nine such field goal attempts per game.

And thanks to their superior rebounding, the Thunder give up the fewest pace-adjusted second chance points per game.

Now all of that having been said, OKC’s D has hit a really rough stretch since returning from the All-Star break. The Thunder have posted a defensive rating of 108.3 during that time – an efficiency mark that would rank them dead last in the league. Little wonder, then, that Oklahoma City has managed to win just three games in that span. And in those five losses, the Thunder’s defensive numbers get even more gruesome: OKC’s defensive rating is an unfathomable 114.9 in those defeats.

Now part of that defensive drop-off can be attributed to the injuries sustained by Perkins and Sefolosha, and the fact the Thunder have played offensively flammable teams such as Miami, the Clippers and Phoenix during that stretch. But when the Cavs and Lakers are also dropping 114 points apiece on you, yeah, that might raise a few red flags.

In particular, Oklahoma City has experienced severe struggles in defending the perimeter. OKC opponents are hitting nearly 42 percent of their 3-point attempts since the All-Star break and making more than 10 triples per game against the Thunder. Sound ball movement can send OKC’s defenders’ scrambling and get them out of position, and opponents have been exploiting this vulnerability for weeks now. It’s rather telling that as good as the Thunder’s defense is (Synergy ranks Oklahoma City second on a points per possession basis in transition and fifth in the half-court), they rank just 18th in the league against spot-up scoring opportunities, per Synergy.

Of course, the Rockets have picked at that wound before. You’ll no doubt recall that the last time these two teams met, Houston hit nine triples in the second quarter and 12 overall in the opening half. For some reason, however, I don’t remember what happened after that. Must have been a pretty uneventful and forgettable second half.

- Who’s ready for a plethora of pull-up jumpers tonight? Between them, Westbrook and Durant average nearly 17 pull-up Js per game. Both players are obviously plenty capable of draining them in bunches, but given their respective hit rates on those shots (38.6% for Russ and 43.4% for KD) and the enormous damage they can do elsewhere, Houston will likely allow the Thunder’s All-Star duo to let it fly if that is the sort of shot attempt they fancy.

- The Thunder are one of the rare clubs that actually hit above-the-break 3s with more frequency than they do their triples from the corner. OKC has knocked down just 32.1 percent of their corner treys this season, placing them 29th in the league in that category. Keep an eye on the newly acquired Caron Butler, however, as he’s historically been a big threat from that precious piece of real estate.

- The Thunder can beat you in many different ways, but their options have been somewhat limited of late due to the injury hits they’ve taken to their starting lineup. That said, when OKC goes small with Ibaka at the five and KD at the four-spot, look out, especially if they pair that frontcourt partnership with Westbrook and Reggie Jackson along on the perimeter. That four-man lineup has absolutely blitzed opponents this year, delivering an insane net rating of +22.9 during the 214 minutes they’ve shared the floor this season. 

In the spotlight

For obvious reasons, plenty of attention is going to be paid to the Westbrook-Beverley matchup, to say nothing of the fact that tonight’s game features two of the game’s premier scorers wing scorers in Durant and the scorching-hot James Harden.

But while those will be great storylines, what transpires in the paint may prove to be most meaningful of all. In two games versus the Thudner this season, Dwight Howard has averaged just 10 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest while shooting less than 35 percent from the field. Kendrick Perkins, on the other hand, was a +40 combined in those two games. But with Perkins sidelined due to injury, rookie Steven Adams draws the initial assignment against Dwight. The New Zealander plays with great energy and is a threat on the offensive glass, but foul trouble figures to be an issue for him early and often, and there’s every reason to believe Howard could be in for a very big night as the Rockets attempt to keep their remarkable roll going on the road.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) is out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.