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Preview: Rockets vs. 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:

Oklahoma City Thunder (55-19) at Houston Rockets (49-25)

Point Differential:

Oklahoma City: +6.8 (NBA rank: 3rd)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: 6th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 107.8 (7th)

Houston: 108.1 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 100.3 (5th)

Houston: 102.5 (11th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Oklahoma City: 98.05 (9th)

Houston: 98.46 (5th)

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: 53.2% (3rd)

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

Oklahoma City: 16.0 (27th)

Houston: 16.6 (T-29th)

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

Oklahoma City: 52.5% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 26.6% (15th); defensive rebound rate: 75.7% (T-7th)

Houston: 52.1% (3rd); offensive rebound rate: 27.6% (5th); defensive rebound rate: 73.8% (20th)

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: .300 (9th)

Houston: .387 (1st)

Before delving into the primary part of today’s preview, let’s take a moment to reflect on an event entirely unrelated – though still exceedingly relevant – to tonight’s game between the Rockets and Thunder. Nearly one month ago, Houston found itself trailing the Portland Trailblazers by 13 points with 7:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. That deficit stood at 3 with 12.2 seconds left when Wes Matthews missed the second of two free throws. You know what happened next: James Harden drained a ridiculous corner 3 with Matthews in his grill, and the Rockets went on to win the game in overtime, securing the playoff tiebreaker over Portland in the process. That shot was obviously huge at the time, but it’s looking increasingly monstrous now as the season draws to a close and the Rockets and Blazers inch ever closer to what appears to be an inevitable first round meeting. When all is said and done, that coldblooded 3 may very well determine which team has home-court in that potential series.

Why bring that up now? Well, a Houston win tonight would go a long way toward ensuring Harden’s heroics hold up in the final ledger. With all due respect to the rest of the teams remaining on the Rockets’ schedule, the Thunder pose perhaps the toughest test Houston will face the rest of the way (who knows how San Antonio will approach things when it pays a visit to Toyota Center for the Rockets’ penultimate game of the regular season). It’s no secret that Oklahoma City has had Houston’s number this season, as their unique blend of skill, length, athleticism and an ability to switch everything on defense has wreaked havoc with the Rockets’ scheme, allowing the Thunder to win all three contests by an average of 17 points per game. And even though OKC will likely play tonight’s contest without three of its starters (Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins are definitely out, and Thabo Sefolosha figures to join them on the sidelines due to a lingering calf injury), that simply serves to even the scales a bit since Houston definitely won’t have Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard appears doubtful to go given that he did not take part in this morning’s shootaround.

Take care of business tonight and the Rockets will have 50 wins in their pocket while needing to finish 5-2 over their final seven games to hit the 55-win mark – the absolute best Portland can attain at this point (the Blazers, by the way, finish the regular season with five of their final six games at home so it’s not outlandish to think they could run the table). Lose, however, and Houston’s hold over home-court advantage in the first round obviously becomes all the more tenuous.

The Rockets are 5-6 since their remarkable rally past Portland, as injuries, illness and a very challenging road schedule have conspired to unsettle the two-month roll the club had enjoyed up to that point. Still, they remain in the driver’s seat, and a victory this evening would help ensure they stay there - and that Harden’s last-second shot holds up as one of the signature and significant plays of the season.

Know Thy Enemy

- By now, Rockets fans surely know what to expect when Oklahoma City comes to town. Kevin Durant is obviously an otherworldly wizard who has mastered basketball’s black arts, and even without Westbrook the Thunder still play a dynamic, up-tempo style that makes them a titanic challenge.

The silver lining: Per Elias, Houston has played 20 games this season in which its opponent had played the previous day (as OKC did while bringing an end to San Antonio’s 19-game winning streak last night). The Rockets are 17-3 in those contests, including a sparkling 12-1 mark at home.

- The Rockets love nothing more than making opponents settle for midrange jump shots – a strategy that always sets up an interesting game-within-the-game when the Thunder are involved. OKC hits midrange shots at a rate of nearly 43 percent; a figure that is higher than that owned by any other team in the league. It’s not difficult to discern why: Durant takes about eight such shots per contest, nearly three of which come from beyond the arc. Amazingly, he connects at a 44 percent clip on those attempts regardless of whether they occur from inside or outside the 3-point line.

- Surprisingly, the Thunder are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to knocking down corner 3s. OKC has hit just 34.4 percent of their attempts from that precious piece of real estate this season, but take note: the Thunder rank in the league’s top-5 in terms of their ability to drain above-the-break 3-pointers. Oklahoma City has connected on nearly 38 percent of those attempts this season, and yet again, the answer to that riddle can be found by simply perusing the shot chart of the inimitable Durant. KD has attempted just 25 corner treys this season while having launched a whopping 405 from above-the-break. The extra length on that shot clearly leaves him unphased; he’s hitting 41 percent of his shots from that location.

In the non-Durant category, keep an eye on Caron Butler, who has historically been good from the corners but is having a down year in that regard. Derek Fisher, meanwhile, has hit 38 percent of his corner 3s that come from the left side of the floor, but just 17 percent of the triples he launches from the right corner.

- On the other side of the 3-point coin, the Thunder tend to concede 3-pointers in bunches. From a pace-adjusted standpoint, Oklahoma City has allowed the fourth-most attempted 3s per game this season. And since the All-Star break, those shots have been falling with increased and alarming regularity. Thunder opponents have drained 39.5 percent of their 3s in that span – the second-highest such mark in the league.

This may well prove to be the key component of tonight’s game. With the way OKC packs the paint and with the Rockets again playing shorthanded, you better believe Houston is going to receive more than its fair share of quality looks from beyond the arc tonight. It goes without saying, then, that it will be imperative that the Rockets’ perimeter shooters take advantage. Houston has hit just a shade better than 32 percent of its shots from downtown against the Thunder this season, and if you remove that magical second quarter on January 16 when the Rockets went 9-of-14 from distance, Houston’s hit rate plummets to an icy 26 percent. In other words, the Rockets are going to require some progression to the mean tonight.

- About OKC’s pack the paint tactics: The Thunder are No. 2 in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage allowed from the restricted area and top-3 in the league in opponent points allowed in the paint. Serge Ibaka’s presence plays a prodigious role in those numbers, as opponents are shooting just 43.5 percent at the rim when the 24-year-old jumping jack is in the vicinity. A common lament among the Rockets following their three defeats to the Thunder this season has been their inability to convert a higher percentage of their bunnies around the basket. Let there be no doubt, however: the looming specter of Ibaka is a big reason why those shots have gone astray.

- With Westbrook out, Reggie Jackson figures to gain the starting nod at point guard for OKC tonight. And though the third-year player is no Westbrook, he’s dished out plenty of damage against the Rockets this season. Jackson has averaged 16 points and more than four assists and two steals per game versus Houston this year. Those numbers become even more impressive when taking into consideration he’s only played about 27 minutes per contest. In fact, during his 81 total minutes against the Rockets this season, Jackson is a +31.

In the spotlight

There’s no secret to the fact that Kevin Durant is in the middle of a Jordan-esque streak (at least 25 points scored in 39 straight games) amid a positively Jordan-esque season (32.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game this year while making 51 percent of his shots from the field). And against Houston, he’s been even better, racking up 37 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 51.7 percent overall and 50 percent from 3. Yikes.

And while James Harden’s career scoring average versus the Thunder (23.3 points per game) is higher than his average against any other opponent, he’s struggled to find the range against his former team this season, averaging just 17.3 points, 6.7 assists and 6 boards per game while shooting 37 percent from the field and just 27.8 percent from 3. Since the start of February, however, Harden has consistently delivered numbers that have more in common with Durant’s than they do those other substandard figures. Suffice to say, then, that Houston is going to need more of the same kind of stellar production from its superstar tonight.

And as an added bonus, keep an eye on a potential Rockets’ X-factor tonight: Francisco Garcia enjoyed some memorable one-on-one battles with Durant during the two teams’ first round playoff matchup last season, and he came off the bench to knock down three triples and score 11 points in just 17 minutes against Oklahoma City last month. His length and fearlessness make him a likely candidate to renew acquaintances with KD this evening, and the Rockets could really use another hot night from downtown from him again as well.

Injury Update

Pat Beverley (right knee sprain) and Greg Smith (arthroscopic right knee procedure) are out. Dwight Howard (left ankle strain) is day-to-day.

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