Thursday's star-studded clash between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder could be an early preview of the Western Conference Finals.
Or a first-round matchup.
That's what happens in the wild West, where championship contenders seem to rise and fall by the day.
Both teams have the talent to embark on a title run. But each has been plagued by the injury bug and the inconsistent fits it so often carries along.
Still, the stat sheet says these are two of the league's best.
|OKC Thunder||Houston Rockets|
|Field-Goal Percentage Allowed||42.0||43.4|
On most nights, they are. On others, though, that path to the podium seems miles away.
A mid-January meeting won't cure these teams' split personality disorders. But it could offer some insight into a Western Conference race that's sure to be crowded through the final turn.
Time: Thursday, Jan. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET
Location: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook out (knee)
Omer Asik out (knee), Patrick Beverley out (hand)
How Oklahoma City Wins
Someone, anyone, must help perennial MVP candidate Kevin Durant.
KD might not be nice, but his stat sheet sure is. The three-time scoring champion is once again pacing the league's top point producers (29.8) with an offensive hand heavy enough to make even four-time MVP LeBron James envious.
But the King knows volume isn't everything. Not when efficiency has been the Association's word of the day for years.
Luckily, Durant passes his efficiency test with flying colors. Not only is he close to renewing his 50/40/90 membership (.490/.387/.884 shooting slash), he's also managed to slide ahead of his old training partner atop the player efficiency rankings (29.76 PER, via ESPN.com).
But one-man bands don't have a long shelf life in the NBA. Not even ones that sound this sweet.
Durant knows this, as he explained to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:
The first few games without Russell, we did a great job moving the ball. I think now I'm just flat out shooting too much. I have to find a way to get my teammates easier shots. I've been thinking these last few games in order for us to get it going I have to do it all offensively. But, nah, we have to do it together.
The Thunder have to find more reliable offensive options with Russell Westbrook still sidelined by his third knee surgery in the past 12 months.
Since his injury removed Westbrook from the equation, this attack hasn't carried nearly the same potency. OKC's pace has slowed (96.69 possessions per 48 minutes, down from 99.38), its offensive efficiency has declined (103.9 points per 100 possessions, down from 106.7) and its winning percentage has plummeted (5-5).
The Thunder need a strong performance from Serge Ibaka (13.9 points, 51.0 percent shooting) and more from their young guns (Reggie Jackson, 12.8 points, and Jeremy Lamb, 9.9).
Houston's defense is sound, but there are cracks on the perimeter, particularly with stopper Patrick Beverley on the shelf.
OKC exposed all of them the last time these teams met, a decisive 117-86 Thunder win on Dec. 29. Durant was naturally spectacular (33 points, five assists), but so too were Jackson (16 points, 7-of-12 shooting) and Lamb (career-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting).
A similar all-hands-on-deck approach will be needed to pull off this victory.
The Rockets will do what they can to contain Durant. It's on the four-time All-Star to punish Houston for giving him too much attention, and his teammates to deliver when KD calls their numbers.
How Houston Wins
The Rockets have to force the issue offensively at every opportunity.
Under normal circumstances, inviting the Thunder to a track meet is like penning your own death certificate. But without Westbrook at the wheel, OKC's motor doesn't have the same top speed.
The Thunder have failed to crack 90 points in two of their last three games. They cleared that figure in all but two of their first 35 games this season, hitting triple digits in 26 of those contests.
Houston's offense can come in waves, as long as it allows itself to.
But Houston has a tendency to stunt its own offensive flow. The Rockets can ill afford to entertain the momentum-killing, ball-watching isolation sets that plague their production.
The Rockets cannot continually give the ball to Harden and hope he can work his magic. They cannot force-feed Howard on the low block when pedestrian post moves and top-shelf athleticism make him such a dominant force on pick-and-roll plays:
Took 5 Dwight post-ups in first 6:00 tonight to get one basket. One PNR with Harden, he gets an And-One. This isn't complicated.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 5, 2013
Despite being self-proclaimed addicts of advanced stats, the Rockets are refusing to acknowledge what the numbers say.
Howard is the sixth-best roll-man scorer in the league (1.27 points per possession) and just 77th on post-up plays (0.76 points per possession), via SynergySports (subscription required). So what has Houston done with this data? Dialed up 378 post-up plays and just 56 pick-and-roll chances for Superman.
Some numbers do indeed lie, but these figures are pretty straightforward.
Houston needs to run OKC ragged. Not only does it boost Howard's effectiveness, it also allows the Rockets to make the most of the distributors running rampant through this roster.
Harden is one of the NBA's premier scorers, but his skill set goes well beyond his individual point production. He's a willing and able setup man (5.2 assists), as are Parsons (3.6) and Jeremy Lin (4.3).
But it's a talent the Rockets either don't know they possess or don't care to exploit. It sits like an unopened gift forgotten under the Christmas tree.
Houston checks in at a head-scratching 26th in assist percentage (53.8). It managed a whopping eight dimes during that nauseating loss inside Chesapeake Energy Arena earlier this season.
Even without Westbrook, the Thunder still have an incredibly stingy defense. But if Houston's offense surges like it can, OKC won't have the weapons to keep up.
It's never easy predicting whether these teams will bring their Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde games to the hardwood.
But the numbers seem to rest in Houston's favor.
Who do you like in this Western Conference clash?
The Rockets don't have a clean bill of health, but they do have their two transcendent talents available. That's a claim the Thunder cannot make.
Granted, OKC did quite all right without Westbrook in that first meeting. But the Thunder have largely fallen below that offensive output in their eight games since.
The stars will all show well in front of a national audience. That's where Houston should wind up winning the numbers game.
Too much Harden, too much Howard and a lift from the Houston faithful will be enough for the Rockets to even up this regular-season series.
Rockets 108, Thunder 101