Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
This is the game we've been waiting to see.
The Houston Rockets hit the road to take on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in what will be James Harden's first trip back to his former digs. It also marks Kevin Martin's first game against his former team as well.
Many were up in arms—including Durant and Russell Westbrook—when the Thunder opted to trade Harden to the Rockets after he wouldn't sign a less-than-max extension with his then-incumbent team.
Since that trade, Harden was become a legitimate superstar and is leading the offensive charge for the rebuilding Rockets. Oklahoma City continues to win basketball games in his absence, but Harden left a visible hole that the Thunder have yet to fill or dominate in spite of.
Emotions will undoubtedly run rampant in Oklahoma City for this one, and this game is bound to be a wild contest as result, making it a must-see bout on all levels.
Times: Wednesday, November 28th, 8 p.m. ET
Records: Houston Rockets (7-7) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-4)
Betting Line: Thunder (-9)
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Rockets: Cole Aldrich (ankle, questionable); Carlos Delfino (groin, out).
Key Storyline: How will James Harden fair in his first trip back to Oklahoma City?
It was an emotional time for everyone in the NBA sphere when Harden was shipped out to Houston.
His beard had become synonymous with the Thunder, and his prolific bench stylings had become the type of luxury only they were afforded.
But that all changed when Oklahoma City asked Harden to sacrifice salary in addition to his role on the team. And as a result, he'll be suiting up in the visitor's locker room.
Win or lose, boom or bust, the Thunder are not going to readily admit they don't need Harden. However, the combo guard is going to want to give them a glance at what they are missing regardless.
As a former fan favorite, Harden is bound to receive a warm welcome from the crowd he once called his own. But will he be able to play at a high level in front of them and his former teammates, or will his emotions get the best of him and subsequently toil with mediocrity?
The answer to that question will ultimately determine just how close of a game this emotional roller coaster is.
Key Matchup: James Harden, SG, Rockets vs. Thabo Sefolosha, SG, Thunder
For three years, Harden watched as Sefolosha suffocated opposing guards. Now, he'll be on the receiving end of Sefolosha's defensive tactics.
Oklahoma City's starting shooting guard remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. He's great at reading defenses from on or off the ball and is great at anticipating first steps.
More importantly, though, Sefolosha knows Harden's offensive tendencies. He knows where Harden prefers to shoot the ball and the means he uses to get there.
If Sefolosha can force Harden into uncomfortable spots on the offensive end, it's going to be a long night for the Rockets.
However, if containing Harden was so easy, he wouldn't be fifth in the league in scoring at 25.1 points per game.
With an unconditional green light and increased number of touches, Harden has torched opposing defenses all season long. His field-goal percentage has finally crept above 44 percent, and he'll be hoisting up shots with an added chip on his shoulder against his former club.
Sefolosha will undoubtedly see extended minutes as the Thunder try to combat Harden's volume offense, but should Houston's bearded wonder prove too elusive for him, Oklahoma City doesn't have anyone else with the ability to stop him.
Which means this matchup is going to make a world of difference.
Jeremy Lin, PG, Rockets
If there was ever a game Houston needed Lin step up for, it's this one.
Lin has been struggling all season long to get to the rim, and facing the likes of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, that isn't likely to change.
That said, Westbrook will undoubtedly be asked to provide plenty of help defense as Sefolosha attempts to contain Harden. Doing so will free up Lin on the outside, and he needs to ensure he's hitting his deep balls as a result.
Lin is hitting on just 25.6 percent of threes thus far, so the Thunder aren't likely to even think twice about leaving him open. If he can prove such methodology futile, though, it will make the going a lot easier for the Rockets, as well as open things up for Harden.
Kevin Durant, SF, Thunder
Durant can score better than anyone in the NBA, including Harden, and Oklahoma City will need him to live up to that potential here.
The star forward is posting 25.9 points per game on the season and boasts a skill set that Houston's personnel simply doesn't have the talent to stop.
With Harden likely jacking up shots like there's no tomorrow, the Thunder need a big night out of their best player.
Because as talented as Harden is, if he's forced to go point-for-point with Durant, the Rockets are going to lose.
Chandler Parsons, SF, Rockets
Ladies and gentleman, Chandler Parsons has arrived.
The second-year forward has dropped 18 or more points in six of the last eight contests, and the Rockets are going to need a similar output from him tonight.
Someone outside of Harden has to combat the scoring Durant and Westbrook will inevitably provide, and Parsons has been playing like he's ready to fit such a bill.
Should he continue his hot shooting from the outside, Houston will have a puncher's chance at snaking a victory here.
Should he fail to show up, however, the Rockets—despite whatever efforts Harden puts forth—are going to be in for a long night.
Kevin Martin, SG, Thunder
The Rockets do not have a potent bench.
Houston's supporting cast is scoring just 27.9 points per game, the 25th-lowest total in the NBA.
By comparison, Oklahoma City's bench is putting up 31.5 points per contest. While it's only a slight edge, the Thunder boast a scorer in Martin that the Rockets' bench doesn't.
Martin is averaging 15.7 points on 45.6 percent shooting from the floor. He's also connecting on 49.3 percent of his three-pointers as well. If he continues to provide the point-totaling spark off the pine that Harden once did, Houston will be hard-pressed to keep this one close.
This, of course, comes down to Martin keeping his emotions in check and taking what the Rockets' defense gives him.
Prediction: Thunder 108, Rockets 103
Never underestimate the gravity of emotional "homecomings."
This game has the potential to be an extremely close one. On paper, the Thunder have the superior roster, but with the exception of their blowout victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, they usually struggle to put away halfway decent teams.
Furthermore, while Oklahoma City is scoring the second-most points per game in the league, Houston is dropping the third-most. Yes, the Thunder boast a better defensive attack, but neither club is known for defense, which implies this will be a high scoring affair.
Toss in the emotional return of one James Harden and there's really no telling how wild this contest will ultimately be.
Which team will emerge victorious from Harden's return to Oklahoma City?
That said, while there will be no shortage of passion displayed by either team, Oklahoma City boasts the type of depth Houston does not.
Harden and Parsons should have no trouble scoring, but players like Lin, Omer Asik and the entire Rockets bench are going to have their work cut out for them on both ends of the floor.
Look for Martin and Serge Ibaka to be aggressive as the Thunder attempt to put this one away early. Definitely expect the Harden-led Rockets to put up a valiant fight, but also expect it to not be enough.
Oklahoma City irrefutably longs for the days Harden donned a Thunder uniform, but even that won't keep the team from asserting its superiority.
Which means the Thunder will emerge victorious in what spectators can only assume will be an epic battle of wills.
All stats in this article are accurate as of November 28th, 2012.
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