Definitive Guide to Rockets vs. Thunder and Sunday's Top NBA Games

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2013

Definitive Guide to Rockets vs. Thunder and Sunday's Top NBA Games

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    James Harden and the Houston Rockets visit Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.
    James Harden and the Houston Rockets visit Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    The holidays have officially come and gone, but the 2013-14 NBA season is in full force with the New Year just around the corner.

    Sunday night features 10 teams facing off across the Association. Not every matchup offers the same excitement as the next, but look closely and you just might find a battle or two worth watching.

    If you can only catch one game to conclude your weekend, turn your television to NBA TV to witness the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Houston Rockets. Then again, if you're looking for the top one-on-one superstar battle, heading east is your best bet, as the point guard spot in Cleveland is good enough for any fan, casual or avid.

    Sundays may be famous for football, but basketball fans know where to focus their attention. Week 17 is crucial for the NFL, but following the Christmas Day lineup, the NBA is ready to make a push into the second quarter of the year.

    It's time for contenders to prove they're worthy, and it's time for fringe teams to prove they're relevant at this point in the season.

     

    Sunday Night's Lineup

    Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, 6 p.m. ET

    Atlanta Hawks vs. Orlando Magic, 6 p.m. ET

    Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 7 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

    Sacramento Kings vs. San Antonio Spurs, 7 p.m. ET

    Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9:30 p.m. ET

Best Matchup of the Night: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have yet to play this season, which only adds to the intrigue surrounding this marquee matchup.

    Both squads have a different look to them since the last time they faced off. The Rockets famously added Dwight Howard, the Thunder let Kevin Martin walk and both teams are officially contenders in a tough Western Conference.

    Unfortunately for OKC, it has one other difference that can't be ignored: The loss of Russell Westbrook.

    The point guard has been sidelined until after the All-Star break, per a press release from the Thunder. As a result, Oklahoma City needs its role players to step up, and Kevin Durant knows it.

    "I need Reggie Jackson. I need Serge Ibaka. I need Kendrick Perkins," Durant said, per the Associated Press (via USA Today). The superstar recognizes that the team must come together as a whole, and the matchup with Houston will be no exception.

    Entering the contest, both units are riding winning streaks. The Thunder are the No. 1 seed in the conference, while the Rockets are No. 5.

    Both teams bring in a top-five offense, so look for big numbers in the box score after the game. 

Must-See Individual Matchup: Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Despite the game of the night taking place in Oklahoma, we'll look to Ohio for the best individual showdown.

    When the Golden State Warriors visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, all eyes will be on the point guard position. Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are two of the league's top playmakers, and with both fighting for a spot in the playoffs, every game is of the utmost importance.

    Believe it or not, the two stars have only faced off once in their careers. That game took place on Nov. 7, 2012 (a Warriors win), and it featured a relatively close head-to-head battle.

    PlayerPTS FG%3PT%ASTREBSTLTOPFMIN
    Stephen Curry21.571.3336523336
    Kyrie Irving28.455.5007603336

    The small sample size doesn't give much historical perspective on this matchup, but the eye test is a different story.

    These guys are unequivocally two of the most entertaining players in the league, and barring a catastrophic performance one way or the other, they'll provide entertainment for fans watching at Quicken Loans Arena.

     

    *Statistics on this slide are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Who Has the Most on the Line?

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Most fans across the league are counting the Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs, but don't tell that to the team from Tinseltown.

    The Lakers have proven that exceeding expectations and utterly disappointing a fanbase are no longer mutually exclusive. They're playing with high spirits that the city can rally around, yet they're not making much progress toward participating in the postseason.

    Entering this contest with the Philadelphia 76ers, L.A. has lost four straight. It is 1-4 since Kobe Bryant's most recent departure, and it finds itself as the 13th seed out West—one spot below the seed Kobe scoffed at when ESPN released its rankings over the offseason.

    He tweeted "12th I see.." on Aug. 14. 

    While things are looking grim for the Lakers, their energetic style of play gives them hope that other fringe teams lack. Bryant and Steve Nash will eventually return to the lineup, and when they do, the aspiration is that they're on track to nab one of the final seeds out West.

    Simply put, losing to Philly won't help their cause. The Sixers are just 8-21 on the year—the second-worst record in a historically bad Eastern Conference—and if the Lakers want to stay relevant, they need to win every winnable game moving forward.

Injury Report

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    It wouldn't be the 2013-14 NBA season without a look at which noteworthy players are out with injuries.

     

    Atlanta Hawks

    Al Horford (Pectoral)

    Through the first trimester of the 2013-14 campaign, the Atlanta Hawks have provided the only semblance of competition out East behind the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. As Bleacher Report's Ben Leibowitz points out, that could change following the injury to Al Horford, which could keep him out the rest of the year.

     

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Andrew Bynum (Suspension)

    According to the Associated Press (via the New York Daily News), Andrew Bynum has been suspended by the Cleveland Cavaliers and has likely played his final game with the team. His absence is not injury-related (as it has been in years past), but it's significant nonetheless.

     

    Golden State Warriors

    Jermaine O'Neal (Wrist)

    Following a rejuvenated year with the Phoenix Suns, the hope from the Golden State Warriors was that Jermaine O'Neal was as good as new. As it turns out, that hasn't been the case, as the center has only played 17 games this season.

     

    Houston Rockets

    Omer Asik (Thigh)

    The Omer Asik situation in Houston has taken another twist, as the center's knee has yet to recover. This is a problem for two reasons: Asik's trade value is not increasing, and fellow center Greg Smith is also out with a knee injury. 

     

    Oklahoma City

    Russell Westbrook (Knee)

    This one hurts. The Thunder found out just how valuable Russell Westbrook is when they fell out of contention last postseason, and now they'll have to make up for his loss until he returns after All-Star Weekend.

     

    Philadelphia 76ers

    Evan Turner (Knee)

    Evan Turner is having a career year for the Philadelphia 76ers. Unfortunately for Philly, he is questionable against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Jason Richardson and Arnett Moultrie—not to mention Nerlens Noel—are out for significant time.

     

    Sacramento Kings

    Carl Landry (Hip)

    Carl Landry is out with a hip injury. He's not expected to return until mid-January.

     

    San Antonio Spurs

    *SPECULATION: The Big Three (Old)

    Nothing has been indicated by CBS Sports, but you just never know with Gregg Popovich.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, injury information used via CBS Sports.

Pop-In Potential: Sacramento Kings vs. San Antonio Spurs

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    This one could go a couple of different ways.

    If you have NBA League Pass, watch for the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. We've already covered the matchup between Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, and both players have the potential to lead their squads to a hard-fought victory.

    Then there's the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. The way L.A. is playing, don't be shocked if it pulls out a win while still making Philly look like a contender.

    Finally, amid the flurry of fierce competition, you can't forget to check in on the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs.

    Record-wise, these two teams couldn't be much further apart. Then again, Sacramento just shocked the world when it defeated the Miami Heat Friday night, and it will look to take down the Spurs in similar fashion on Sunday.

    If we're being honest, there's always the chance that Gregg Popovich sits key members of the rotation, making this one a true competition. However, even if San Antonio is in full force, there are a few key matchups to watch out for. 

    For instance, Rudy Gay will face Kawhi Leonard—the small forward in place to take over the franchise once the veterans fade away. Then there's Isaiah Thomas and Tony Parker; a battle of ultra-quick point guards who can score from multiple spots on the floor.

    And, of course, there's Tim Duncan and DeMarcus Cousins. The two big men can dominate on any given night, and they offer a showcase of the NBA's past versus the NBA's future.

    If you're a fan from one of these markets, tune in at tipoff. If you're a fan anywhere else, keep your eye on a matchup that could unexpectedly go the distance.

Fantasy Stock Watch

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    If you're anything like me, your fantasy football team has been toast for a while, and it's time to focus on fantasy basketball the rest of the season.

    With 10 different squads hitting the hardwood, it's a relatively quiet night for most owners. There are 20 teams that have the night off, but a handful of stars will be strutting their stuff.

     

    The Big Guns

    Kevin Durant

    With Russell Westbrook out, Kevin Durant is ready to explode. He admits that he needs help when it comes to wining (see second slide), but he also understands that he's the go-to option on a contender.

    Durant has yet to face the Houston Rockets this season, but what we know about this matchup bodes well for the 25-year-old. Houston gives up 101.8 points per contest, which is only good enough for 20th in the Association.

    Expect Durant to go off at home, and look for him to put together a complete game all over the box score.

     

    James Harden

    Speaking of the Houston Rockets, don't expect James Harden to take this one sitting down.

    The last time Harden saw his former team was in the 2012-13 playoffs. He averaged 26.3 points per game while recording 4.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals along the way.

    Harden is a superstar, and he knows how to impact a game in multiple areas. Look for him to step up against OKC.

     

    Dwight Howard

    Surprisingly enough, Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins have split their all-time series 14 games to 13 (in favor of Howard). The two big men are set to face off once again, and while there's no way to predict the final score, it's safe to assume Howard comes away with the individual victory.

     

    DeMarcus Cousins

    DeMarcus Cousins is a borderline elite center, and in the eyes of some, he's already reached superstar status.

    Cousins' PER is sitting at 26.56, but for fantasy owners, the more important numbers are 22.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.0 block per game. He's a threat to dominate game in and game out, but against the San Antonio Spurs, be wary of Gregg Popovich's defensive schemes.

     

    Stephen Curry/Kyrie Irving

    Neither Kyrie Irving nor Stephen Curry are known for their defensive capabilities, which is why they share a spot in this battle of NBA megastars.

    Both Curry and Irving will look to put on a show Sunday night. Both are likely to score in the 20-plus-point range, but Curry is the more likely to push a double-double. 

    On the season, Curry is averaging nearly 10 assists per game. Irving's numbers aren't quite as impressive, but you never know what to expect when the 21-year-old takes the court.

     

    The Sleeper

    Arron Afflalo

    Calling Arron Afflalo a sleeper is almost unfair, considering how good he's been this year. Then again, that's the story of the entire Orlando Magic, as they've flown under the radar despite being just 3.5 games out of the playoffs in the East.

    Afflalo has established himself as a No. 1 option and a mini stat-stuffer this season. The Magic are facing an Atlanta Hawks team in flux, which is a perfect opportunity for the guard to have a complete night.

     

    *All statistics used in this slide are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.