For the second time this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder will take on the Houston Rockets. Saturday's game is at the Toyota Center, where Houston has gone 11-5 on the season. Oklahoma City has also performed well on the road, going 7-4.
It's going to be an emotional game for both teams. James Harden spent three years with the Thunder before being traded to the Rockets right before the season started, and he and his friends/former teammates will surely have a happy reunion before tip-off.
Once the game starts, however, all bets are off.
The Rockets have been on a tear lately, winning five of their last six. In the blink of an eye, the team has gone from underachieving pretender to contender. The No. 6 seed is not necessarily an elite position, but definitely carries some weight given the competitive nature of the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City has continued to perform well without Harden. They rank second in both the Western Conference and NBA, and playing like anything other than champions will be considered a failure.
Defeating this deep and talented Thunder team would inject a great deal of momentum into the Rockets' lineup and organization, and definitely cement Houston's status as contenders.
Time: Saturday, December 29, 8 p.m. ET
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (22-6) vs. Houston Rockets (16-13)
Betting Line: Oklahoma City (-4.5), Houston (+4.5)
Injuries: Patrick Patterson (foot, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can James Harden Defeat His Old Team?
The Thunder faced the Rockets on November 28, and it was a one-sided affair. Kevin Durant led the way with 37 points as Oklahoma City shot an incredible 54 percent from the field.
In his first game against his old team, Harden's performance was less than admirable. He scored 17 points, but shot just 3-of-16 from the field. On his home court, he'll look to turn in a much better performance.
The fact that teammate Jeremy Lin seems to have broken out of his funk will definitely help Harden in his quest for a great game. Lin has averaged 16.6 points and 7.4 assists over his past five games, and has shot 55 percent from the field. His field-goal percentage for the season has thus risen to a respectable 43.
The two will need to be working in tandem tonight, playing unselfishly and communicating from start to finish. Harden is a fine playmaker in his own right, but will be looking for Lin to set him up both in the paint and from long range.
Similarly, the Thunder have plenty of knowledge on how Harden works and will seek to shut him down from the get-go. Though his former teammates still have love for him, Harden's old team is out to prove that they can still win without him, and defeating Houston at home while also forcing him to a bad game would drive that point home.
Houston is hungrier this time around, which will make a victory tougher for Oklahoma City. The Rockets will have a revised plan going in and should it be executed well, Harden shall have his revenge.
Key Matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Jeremy Lin
Harden will be looking for Jeremy Lin to get him the ball, but that's going to be easier said than done tonight. Lin is going to be guarded by the ever-pesky Russell Westbrook, a tough opponent for any point guard in the league.
The first time their teams faced off, both men battled to a near-stalemate. Lin had just six points on 3-of-7 shooting, but dished out eight assists and also had four steals.
Westbrook ended the game with the upper hand, having scored 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting to go with nine assists and three steals. The only major mark against Westbrook was that he turned the ball over five times, compared to Lin's three turnovers.
Just the same, Westbrook is the elite point man in this matchup. He is averaging 21.2 points, 8.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game, but Lin may have a chance at winning this battle tonight.
Westbrook has posted good numbers over his past five games, specifically 23.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.6 steals per contest. Unfortunately, his field-goal percentage has been a below-average 34. As a result, his percentage for the season is just under 40.
Defense is not Lin's strongest suit, but he must clamp down on Westbrook throughout the game so as to take the dynamic point guard out of the game. If the former UCLA Bruin's shooting woes continue, Oklahoma City loses a key piece of its offense and its chances of winning drastically decrease.
Similarly, Lin must fight past Westbrook's defense. He must not feel compelled to shoot the ball, and just needs to remember that he has talented go-to guys in Harden and Chandler Parsons, not to mention center Omer Asik.
By not letting Westbrook intimidate him and by getting everybody involved, Lin can give himself a distinct advantage in being a superior distributor for the night. Of course, with Westbrook defending him, that will be no easy task, so determination will be key.
X-Factor: Kevin Martin
At the center of this battle, besides Harden, will be the man he was traded for: Kevin Martin. A pure shooter and scorer, Martin averaged 24.8 points and shot 41 percent from the field in two-and-a-half seasons with the Rockets before being sent to Oklahoma City right before the start of the season.
Just how Harden replaced him as Houston's starting shooting guard, Martin replaced him as Oklahoma City's sixth man. As Harden has flourished in his new role, the same can be said for Martin and his.
Martin has averaged 15.8 points in 30 minutes per game off the bench for the Thunder, but his percentages are absolutely eye-popping. He has shot a highly respectable 47 percent from the field and an incredible 46 percent from three-point range.
The man is on the team to score points, and must do that tonight just as he did in the Thunder's first game against Houston. That night, Martin scored 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting, nailing three of Oklahoma City's nine three-pointers.
He needs to duplicate that performance at the Toyota Center tonight, or even turn in a better one. He must not hesitate to shoot from long range, or even drive the lane if the opportunity presents itself.
Most important of all is that Martin needs to realize that he does not have to outdo Harden under any circumstances. He is there to score points, and nothing more. Playmaking shouldn't even be on his mind.
So long as Martin sticks to the script and keeps on playing as great a game as he has all season, the young Rockets will have a tough time slowing down their former teammate. In which case, he'll continue sitting pretty in Oklahoma City while Houston is left wondering how to slow down their conference opponent.
As great as it would be to watch Houston defeat Oklahoma City at the Toyota Center, it's not going to happen. However, to the Rockets' credit, they will be in the game from start to finish.
Houston and Oklahoma City are the two top scoring teams in the league, so this game is destined to be a high-scoring contest. The only difference between both squads is simple: Oklahoma City plays better defense, ranking 13th in points allowed compared to 28th-ranked Houston.
Who will win?
As a result, the Thunder will grind out another close victory and leave Harden winless against them. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka will carry the team in the frontcourt, and Russell Westbrook may have one or two of his legendary dunks. Off the bench, Kevin Martin will have another fine scoring performance, reaching double figures once again.
One notable difference in this game will be Harden's performance. After shooting terribly against Oklahoma City in November, he will turn in a fine performance tonight thanks to him creating some shots for himself while also taking some pretty passes from Lin.
Unfortunately for Houston, it won't be enough by the final buzzer. The Oklahoma City Thunder will further establish that they are the new top dog in the Western Conference, and that nobody should forget it. Ever.
Oklahoma City Thunder 114, Houston Rockets 109
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 27, 2012