The excitement of NBA All-Star Weekend has subsided, but there’s nearly half a season of basketball left to be played.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (39-14) and Houston Rockets (29-26) are set to square off on Wednesday night for a matchup that should prove to be one of the most exciting of the evening. Oklahoma City entered All-Star Weekend on a two-game skid, while Houston dropped three of its last five contests. Both teams should be rested and ready to start the unofficial second half on a better note.
James Harden is no stranger to the Thunder, but with two games already in the books between these two teams (and an All-Star break reunion between the teams’ biggest stars), don’t expect this game to be anything more than two squads battling for improved position in the Western Conference playoff race.
Houston currently possesses the No. 8 spot in the standings, but the Trail Blazers and Lakers are just three and 3.5 games behind, respectively. With Oklahoma City leading the season series 2-0, the Rockets will need to prove they can top the elite squads in the West in order to secure a playoff spot by season’s end.
Kevin Durant put on a show in the All-Star Game on Sunday (30 points), and he’ll look to lead the Thunder on a second-half surge to overtake San Antonio atop the Western Conference standings. They currently trail the Spurs by 2.5 games with two head-to-head matchups left on the schedule between the two clubs.
The road to the playoffs starts on Wednesday for Houston and Oklahoma City, so we’ll give you a preview of the matchup and what to watch for.
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (39-14), Houston Rockets (29-26)
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
When: Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m. ET
Television: CSN Houston, FSOK
Betting Line: Not available as of Feb. 18 at 4 p.m. ET
Injuries: James Harden, ankle, day-to-day (as of Feb. 18, via ESPN)
Key Storyline: Can Rockets Prove They Can Hang with Best of the West?
The Rockets have a ton of talent, but they haven’t been able to parlay that talent into big wins over Western Conference foes. Houston has lost all seven of its contests against the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers this season.
Scoring isn’t a problem for the Rockets, who lead the NBA in points per game (106.1). It’s defense that has slowed Houston, especially in the paint. With a 103.3 points-against average, the Rockets are No. 29 in scoring defense this year, and they haven’t held an opponent under 103 points in six games.
Harden is leading the charge at the offensive end of the floor (26.1 PPG), but he may struggle at the defensive end against Oklahoma City’s talented perimeter scorers. The Rockets would be wise to employ a lot of looks with both Harden and Jeremy Lin on the floor together, who will be more suited for slowing down Russell Westbrook in the half court.
Houston is a young team, but it has the makings of a legitimate playoff threat. The first step to proving it is taking some crucial second-half wins away from the premier squads in the West.
Key Matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Patrick Patterson
Both Houston and Oklahoma City play guard-heavy brands of basketball with exceptional contributions from almost all of their perimeter plays. A lot will be going on around the arc, but the key matchup to watch will be in the paint between two of the league’s most exciting young big men.
Patterson is averaging 11.6 points per game this season, and while he’ll be matched up against one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA, Patterson will have an opportunity to put up some points.
Ibaka can be extremely disruptive under the hoop, but he isn’t a terrific defender otherwise, especially against athletic big men who shoot well from midrange. Patterson has a good midrange jumper, and he’ll look to take advantage of whatever space he can get to keep Ibaka from meeting his insane blocks-per-game average (2.9).
While Patterson will have the edge from an offensive standpoint, Ibaka clearly has an advantage in the rebounding department. He’s a terrific rebounder (7.9 per game) who uses his athleticism to his advantage—something on which Patterson needs to focus in his development at both ends of the floor.
Most of the scoring in this contest will be done on the perimeter, but the outcome could be decided by rebounding well in the paint.
Advantage: Serge Ibaka
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
Parsons is having a terrific sophomore season, but he’ll have a difficult matchup against Durant on Wednesday. In his only action against the Thunder this year, Parsons shot 5-of-13 from the floor for 10 points in 34 minutes of action.
The 6’9” forward doesn’t have the height disadvantage of some players matched up on Durant, and he has to use his length to keep the Oklahoma City superstar bottled up behind the arc. Durant shot 8-of-18 against the Rockets on Dec. 29, but he went 4-of-9 from three-point range en route to a 26-point performance.
Both teams employ guards that can score and play solid defense. Jeremy Lin was held to just 13 total points in the teams’ two meetings, while Russell Westbrook posted 28 points in their second meeting but just 14 on Dec. 29. With both players displaying the potential to shut one another down, it will be up to Parsons and Harden to set the pace for the Rockets offensively.
Parsons has averaged 16.57 points in his last seven games. He may have to score even more than that to give the Rockets the edge, but that won’t be an easy task against a lengthy defender in Durant.
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Patrick Patterson
C: Omer Asik
Oklahoma City Thunder
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Prediction: Oklahoma City 118, Houston 108
The Rockets are a quality team, but they’re missing one more frontcourt piece to take them over the top. Oklahoma City will once again get the best of them in a game that should be closer than the final score indicates.
While the Thunder rank in the middle of the league in points allowed (97.3 per game), don’t expect them to stave off the Rockets’ offensive attack. This will be a high-scoring affair, and the team that plays the best perimeter defense will likely come out on top.
Both Durant and Westbrook are poised to slingshot out of the All-Star break with some extra rest and the excitement of the weekend in the rear-view. Both should score at least 20 points and pace the Thunder offensively.
If scoring is the mark of a good basketball game, this should prove to be one of the best of the week. The No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in the league rarely fail to disappoint. Expect the final score total to eclipse 225 points in a shootout that will come down to big fourth-quarter performances from some of the game’s best scorers.