Collision Course?

HOUSTON - The numbers don’t lie. The results the Rockets have recorded during their two meetings with the Oklahoma City Thunder this season have been, shall we say, less than ideal. Houston has been outscored in those two contests by an average of 26 points – a number that looms frightfully close to the cumulative shooting percentage (27 percent) Rockets’ star James Harden has posted against his former team.

It’s well worth pointing out, however, that the Rockets have hardly faced the Thunder under anything even remotely resembling ideal circumstances this season. The first meeting, a 120-98 Thunder win in Oklahoma City, was the second night of a back-to-back for Houston – a daunting enough circumstance whenever facing one of the league’s truly elite teams. But that’s not all. That game also took place the same day the Rockets arrived in OKC in late afternoon after having flown in from Minneapolis where the team attended Sasha McHale’s memorial service earlier that morning. Add in the fact Chandler Parsons sat out that night with an injured shoulder and, quite frankly, it practically represents a minor miracle that the Rockets started the fourth quarter of that game within 12 points of Oklahoma City.

The next meeting between the two clubs carried with it far less of an emotional burden, but the physical test Houston’s players faced that night may have been just as extreme. That game again marked the second night of a back-to-back for the Rockets, but making matters worse was the fact it was Houston’s fourth game in five nights as well. The fatigue manifested itself early and often. The Rockets found themselves behind by 18 points at halftime and never threatened the rest of the way.

Take nothing away from the Thunder. They are a true title contender with the best point differential in the NBA. Their talent, length and athleticism are off the charts. They have an MVP candidate in Kevin Durant who’s enjoying a historically great season as he makes a run at joining the 50-40-90 club, another top-10 player in Russell Westbrook, a defensive player of the year candidate in Serge Ibaka and a sixth man of the year candidate in former Rocket Kevin Martin. They make the vast majority of their opponents look silly. But the Rockets believe they’ve yet to give Oklahoma City their best shot. Wednesday night they aim to prove it.

“I think we’ve advanced,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale following his team’s practice on Tuesday. “I think the team is a little bit more comfortable with what we’re doing and a little bit more comfortable inside their own skin as a group. You’ve got to get real comfortable with how you play before you get really good at it and we’re still in the process of everybody getting comfortable with our pace and what we’re doing. We have a lot of young guys who are getting comfortable inside the league. So yeah, I anticipate us playing better.”

The Rockets’ main focus on the offensive end Wednesday night: getting better, timelier ball movement to counter the Thunder’s aggressive trapping defense. Oklahoma City will do everything in its power to get the ball out of the hands of Houston’s primary ball-handlers and though that strategy is not unique to Oklahoma City, their length, speed and quickness make it far more effective for them than it is for most of the other teams who attempt to employ similar strategies. Those tactics have given the Rockets problems in the past, and they know the last thing they can do is feed the Thunder’s prolific offense by allowing OKC to feast on a bevy of easy, fast break points.

“They’re an attacking defense,” said Jeremy Lin. “They get out on the pick-and-rolls and show hard and heavy. We need to move the ball. We need to make sure we don’t get sucked into making too many dribbles on the pick-and-roll. We need to get it out quick and play 4-on-3 on the backside.”

Easier said than done, of course. It’s one thing to know what must occur to handle a team like the Thunder; quite another to actually execute it when the go-go-gadget arms of Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are involved. But the Rockets possess plenty of firepower themselves, not to mention a massive amount of motivation given the very real possibility these two teams could be on a collision course for a matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

“This could be a glimpse of the future,” Lin said. “Sure, we got them on the back end of two back-to-backs but what they do still doesn’t change so we’re going to have to learn from those first two games. They’ve done a great job of taking us out of what we want to do so tomorrow we’re going to try to impose our will on the game.”