News and Notes: January 6, 2012

Friday January 6, 2012 2:04 PM

News And Notes

Shorthanded Rockets hoping to shock Thunder in OKC

Jason Friedman

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Rockets always knew the first few weeks of the 2011-12 NBA season would pose an immense challenge; one that, for them, would likely be far more about surviving rather than thriving. Houston’s opening schedule is littered with back-to-backs and nine of the club’s first twelve games are against teams that made the playoffs a season ago. To be sure, no one is shedding any tears for Houston – all 30 teams will face similarly daunting stretches at one point or another – but in this shortened season, the last thing anyone wants to do is dig themselves a deep hole early.

To that end, the Rockets are putting in extra hours in an effort to tread water, packing in an as many practice sessions as possible in order to familiarize and assimilate new players with a brand new coaching staff. The club was back it Friday morning in Oklahoma City to prepare for their home-and-home showdown with the Thunder; an already formidable challenge that could see the degree of difficulty raised even higher due to a couple of key injuries recently sustained by a pair of Rockets players.

Here’s what we know as of this afternoon: Courtney Lee will miss his second game in a row because of the calf injury that befell him during Tuesday night’s contest against the Lakers. Kyle Lowry, meanwhile, is being listed as a game time decision due to a bone bruise he sustained on his right foot during Thursday’s practice session when he got the worst of a collision with Jeff Adrien.

“He stepped on my foot and just twisted it really bad,” said Lowry, following this morning’s shootaround. “It’s a little sore today and a little bit swollen.”

If Lowry is unable to go, that would move Goran Dragic into the starting lineup for tonight’s game, giving him the responsibility of matching up with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s early season struggles have been well-documented – his numbers are down across the board compared to the stats he posted during his All-Star season a year ago – but he remains a dangerous and dynamic player capable of breaking out at any time.

The key to defending Westbrook comes down to keeping him out of the lane and away from the rim; something far easier said than done, of course. If, however, the Rockets are able to do that, Dragic and company will frequently be fine with letting him fire away from the outside, happily inviting the Thunder point guard to launch as many perimeter jump shots as he pleases.

“He breaks the plays a lot of times,” says Dragic, “so you just have to stay in front of him and try to contain him and not let him get into the lane for some easy baskets. If he’s going to take a lot of shots then a lot of other guys are not going to get their own shots so they’re not going to feel the ball and that’s something positive for us.”

The primary player the Rockets want to keep the ball away from: Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, of course. The league’s reigning scoring champ is experiencing none of the early season issues that his point guard has struggled with so far; in fact, while his scoring average is a bit down from a season ago, his shooting percentages from both inside and outside the arc are way up, as is his assist rate. Listed at 6-9 but probably closer to 6-10 or 6-11, Durant’s Go-Go-Gadget length and unlimited shooting range make him a nightmare cover for even the most dogged of defenders. The best strategy, then: physical, off-the-ball defense in an effort to ensure that when he does eventually receive the rock, he does so while standing a good 25 to 30 feet away from the basket.

“With him, you try to be as physical as you can,” says Chase Budinger, who will draw the initial defensive assignment against Durant tonight. “Make him shoot a lot of dribble jumpers instead of coming off screens and shooting those in rhythm – that’s what he’s really good at. If you can get him coming off of ball screens or creating one-on-one outside the 3-point line, that’s your best case scenario.”

Those are just two of the challenges awaiting the Rockets the next two nights; a list that doesn’t even take into account the problems OKC can create with players like James Harden and Serge Ibaka. There’s a reason, after all, that the Thunder came into the season as favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. With that said, however, Oklahoma City has not been playing anything close to its best basketball so far. The Thunder enter Friday’s game having lost two in a row and are ranked in the league’s bottom third in defensive efficiency, turnover rate and defensive rebounding rate – pretty shocking numbers to see from one of the league’s most loaded rosters.

For the Rockets, then, the game plan for tonight reads similarly to their strategy for dealing with the first few weeks of the season: hang tough, hang around, and avoid digging too deep of a hole early so that they can then give themselves a chance to make a late charge and emerge on top.

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