Neither the Oklahoma City Thunder, nor the Houston Rockets have much positive momentum entering their first game after the NBA All-Star break, which will help provide a level playing field for what could be one of the highest scoring contests of the 2012-13 season.
After reuniting with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during All-Star weekend, Rockets shooting guard James Harden will play a vital role in handing his former teammates a third straight loss.
Houston is just 7-14 when Harden scores less than 25 points, so if the Rockets are going to upset the Thunder, and maintain their hold on the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, they will need a top notch performance from the 6'5", 220-pounder.
Harden is far from the only key to victory for the Rockets tonight, though. Houston's big men will need to dominate the glass and limit the number of opportunities Oklahoma City has to pile up points.
Omer Asik and Patrick Patterson average 16.2 rebounds between them and have to make sure Serge Ibaka and the rest of the Thunder are held well below their usual 10.2 offensive boards.
In the previous two meetings between Houston and Oklahoma City this season, the Thunder were able to snag more than 12 offensive rebounds. It is no coincidence that the Rockets lost both of those games by more than 20 points.
Defensively, there is not a whole lot the Rockets will be able to do to slow down Westbrook and Durant. The dynamic duo combine for 51.8 points per game and will be chomping at the bit to score in bunches against a Houston team that is ranked No. 29 in the NBA in points allowed.
Instead, the Rockets need to make sure Ibaka and Nick Collison have to work for everything in the paint.
Houston allowed Ibaka to make 11-of-13 field goal attempts and score 23 points in its 120-98 loss to the Thunder on Nov. 28.
Collison had a similar performance in the Dec. 29 rematch at the Toyota Center in Houston, which is where tonight's game will be played. The former Kansas Jayhawk recorded a double-double with 12 points on six-of-10 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds.
Who wins this Western Conference clash tonight?
The Rockets cannot afford to give Oklahoma City's big men any easy opportunities tonight in order to pull off the upset.
Jumping out to an early lead will also be important for the Rockets. The Thunder are just 16-10 on the road this season, while Houston boasts an 18-8 mark at home.
Getting the crowd involved in the first quarter with a fast start from Harden, Asik and Patterson will be critical to making Oklahoma City uncomfortable and getting them out of sync long enough to allow the Rockets to play with a lead.
If Houston is able to execute the aforementioned keys, the Rockets will be able to start the second half of the season on a high note.
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