Gather Round for Christmas with the Thunder – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at HOU

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter | mailbag@okcthunder.com


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HOUSTON – Put out the milk and cookies, start the fire and huddle around, for the Thunder will once again be playing above your mantle this Christmas.

For the 9th-straight season, the Thunder has been tabbed to play on Christmas Day, a remarkable feat for any team, but particularly in Oklahoma City. The NBA’s special day is often the marker of a time to honor the league’s top contenders, with the Thunder helping keep a healthy helping of professional basketball running from late morning to late evening.

In the second game of a five-game slate on Tuesday, the Thunder travels to take on the Houston Rockets in a re-match of last season’s battle at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder faithful in attendance helped their team come away with a tightly contested victory, giving Oklahoma City a 6-2 record on Christmas.

The constant for the Thunder during its past Christmas clashes has been Russell Westbrook, who has played in all 8 up to this point. Head Coach Billy Donovan will need Westbrook at his best in this matchup with the Rockets, who boast a backcourt of James Harden, Eric Gordon and the newly acquired Austin Rivers. Westbrook has recorded 9 triple-doubles this season, including 6 during this month of December, and is starting to get back into form offensively.

Westbrook’s attacking, downhill style hasn’t always been there this year, but on Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was relentless in getting to the rim. Slashing layups, drop-offs to big men and foul calls were the result of that aggressiveness, and it’s something the Thunder needs Westbrook to continue against the Rockets.

“(Westbrook) is so driven, he’s so motivated, he wants to do well for the team- do whatever he can to help the team. He was down, like I give him credit, sometimes things don’t go well, but just his internal belief and confidence in himself to bounce back- and his resiliency to bounce back is really special,” said Donovan.  

“I think that’s what really makes him great, because everybody has ups and downs in life,” Donovan continued. “Things don’t always go your way, but his ability to bounce back and still believe is remarkable.”

The Thunder will need Westbrook at his best, and out of foul trouble, on the defensive end as well. The perennial All-Star point guard has fouled out of each of the last two contests, in part because of taking fouls late the try and win the game, but also with some unnecessary ones on the perimeter, in the back court and in transition.

With Harden as a ball-handling, three-point shooting, pick-and-roll manipulating playmaker, Westbrook and Terrance Ferguson (if healthy after leaving Sunday’s game with an illness) will need to be at the top of their game defensively to limit Houston’s overall effectiveness.

“You always want options out there, you always want your best player out there, a guy that can do a lot of different things. So, him being on the bench is never good,” said Donovan.

As for the rest of the Thunder, continuing to get a productive Paul George would be a lovely Christmas present. The small forward, who is garnering all sorts of buzz around the league, was just named the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week after putting up 43 points in back-to-back road games and 31 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals against the Timberwolves.

“PG gets a lot of credit and attention for how he’s scored it,” Donovan said. “He’s a complete player.”

“(George) has good hands and is strong,” Donovan added, referencing George’s career-best 8.2 rebounds per game. “With his talent, length and athleticism, he’ll get his fair share.”

Another crucial dynamic in this one will be the battle in the paint, where last game Steven Adams ran roughshod over the Rockets’ switch-heavy defensive style. Adams posted up against guards like Harden whenever they switched pick and rolls out top, putting pressure on Houston to either change up tactics or give up fouls and high percentage looks.

If the Thunder can confound the Rockets’ defensive game plan again, it’ll have the chance to make Houston pull the ball out of the net with regularity. In turn, that will give the Thunder time to set up its half-court defense and turn stops into fast break offense – the NBA’s version of the gift that keeps on giving.

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