8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Oklahoma City -9.5, Over/Under: 222.5
A potential Western Conference First Round Preview is on hand tonight in Oklahoma City, as the Thunder host the Houston Rockets in a matchup featuring a pair of teams trying to find some form of consistency down the stretch. With roughly a dozen contests left on the schedule for both sides, neither J.B. Bickerstaff or Billy Donovan seems all that interested in running their respective stars into the ground while in search of higher postseason seeding, which has two of this matchup’s marquee attractions, the Rockets’ James Harden (Foot) and the Thunder’s Kevin Durant (Elbow), expected to miss tonight’s tilt with various ailments. Both are officially listed as Questionable as of this moment, but news from their respective camps has indicated that unless something changes drastically, two of the league’s most explosive offensive weapons will be relegated to a suit and tie. In regards to the former, Harden’s injury really couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Rockets (35-35, 3rd in Southwest Division), who have split their last six outings, all the while managing a modest 9-7 record since the All-Star Break. With the young Jazz (34-36) just a game behind them in standings for that Eighth and Final Playoff Spot, Bickerstaff’s charges are very much in danger of missing out on the postseason altogether, this just ten months after advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals. Of course, the Eighth Seed is an unenviable place to be, as securing that place almost certainly means a matchup with the record-setting Golden State Warriors in the First Round, which one would have to expect, any team on the fringes would prefer to avoid like the plague. With that said, Houston owns an identical record with the Dallas Mavericks, who by virtue of a tiebreaker sit in front of them in the standings, which in turn translates to a meeting with the San Antonio Spurs in the Round of Sixteen. So as you can see, there is no simple way out for the Rockets who have really nobody to blame but themselves for their predicament. Finishing 56-26 last season, this team has resembled a complete shell of themselves in 2015-2016, exhibiting significant regression on the defensive end of the court, despite the fact that the roster has remained largely intact. After allowing 100.5 points per game (17th Overall) on 44.3% shooting from the field (12th Overall), including a league-best 32.2% shooting from beyond the arc (1st Overall), Harden and Co. have slumped towards the league’s cellar, yielding 107.0 points (28th Overall) on 46.3% shooting (24th Overall), including 36.5% from downtown (23rd Overall). Furthermore, their Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (which is weighted for the three-pointer) stood at a stellar 48.6% (7th Overall), yet has plummeted this season to 52.0%, the sixth-worst figure in the NBA. And to pile on to that, they’ve been outrebounded by 1.7 boards per game, rank next-to-last in Offensive Rebounds Allowed (11.7), while permitting the most assists in the league (24.7). No wonder Kevin McHale was fired after just eleven games. So what the hell has happened to the Rockets, you ask? Well, as we stated earlier, they’ve fielded largely the same roster that they rode to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, but many of those players have struggled at times, particularly one Dwight Howard. It’s borderline asinine to proclaim that all of this team’s woes should be laid at the feet of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but anyone who has watched he and his team play this season can tell that something is missing. At 14.5 points per game on just 8.8 field goal attempts, Howard hasn’t been this less-involved offensively since his rookie year in Orlando back in 2004-2005, and while his rebounds (12.5) and blocks (1.5) are up from a year ago, the lack of touches offensively has apparently led to the 6-11, big man to becoming less of a force on the defensive end. Rumors of a bitter feud between he and Harden haven’t helped matters at all, as Management actively sought out trade partners in the hopes of offloading him at the Deadline. With many questioning his desire to play in this system, along with the fact that he at times appears to be laboring from the back injury that cost him forty-one games last season, and you have a player that has clearly isn’t what the force that he once was. Case in point; one would expect him to be motivated to play in his hometown of Atlanta this past Sunday against the Hawks, but he was all but invisible offensively, totaling just eight points on a dismal 2-of-7 shooting (28.6%), while recording more turnovers (4) than field goals in over thirty-five minutes of action. Now, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention his seventeen rebounds and four steals, but the fact that he has been rendered a nonfactor on the offensive end is downright perplexing. In the 109-97 loss, Bickerstaff’s outfit was outscored 27-14 in the final stanza, shooting a miserable 39.3% from the field on the night. If Harden is indeed inactive for tonight’s clash, then perhaps Howard could use this opportunity to make everyone remember the player that he used to be, for running the offense through a reinvigorated D-12 doesn’t sound like a bad idea against a Thunder side that doesn’t have the horses to defend him in the paint. However, he needs to be ENGAGED in the game, so Bickerstaff would be wise to feed the big fella the ball early and often, so as to set a tone for the rest of the game, and perhaps the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, it’s a different predicament in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder (48-22, 1st in Northwest Division) are squarely locked into the Third Seed out West, as they sit eleven games behind the Spurs, yet 4.5 games ahead of the Clippers in the standings. Having already clinched their division title, Donovan and his Staff have decided to afford some of his charges the luxury of rest down this stretch run, particularly in the case of the aforementioned Durant, who is nursing a sore elbow suffered in Saturday’s 115-11 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Of course, Durant’s health played a rather large role in the Thunder missing out on the postseason for the first time in five years in 2014-2015, as the former MVP missed all but twenty-seven contests thanks to a multitude of injuries. In fact, Oklahoma City was 27-28 without the four-time league scoring champion. So yeah, the very prospect of proceeding without KD is a fearful scenario for the Thunder faithful, which may indeed come to fruition given Durant’s impending Free Agency this summer, which is a completely different can of worms unto itself. So sticking with the here and now, there is reason to believe that this team can function in the short term without their most prominent star, and his name is Russell Westbrook. After very nearly willing his team to the postseason himself a year ago, Westbrook continues to play at an otherworldly level at times, averaging 23.8 points on 45.6% shooting from the field, along with 7.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 2.1 steals, with a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 27.8. Any notion that this guy is a sidekick or plays second fiddle to anyone is bull!@#$, for anywhere else, he’d be a bonafide MVP candidate. And that’s not to say that he’s not doing alright by himself, for the electrifying Point Guard has posted a staggering fourteen Triple-Doubles this season, including three in his last four games. During Saturday’s win over Indiana, Westbrook’s trifecta was more on the modest side compared to his other exploits, registering fourteen points on a dismal 4-of-17 shooting (23.5%), eleven rebounds, and fourteen assists, despite committing seven turnovers. One would expect him to be favored to put together yet another Triple-Double against the Rockets tonight, considering his opponent’s lack of defensive consistency, and no chance of deference in Durant’s absence. In two games against Houston this season, Westbrook has gone off, averaging 25.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 12.5 assists, while netting 51.4% of his attempts from the floor, half of his eight attempts from beyond the arc (50.0%), with a +/- of 5.2. With that said, Donovan’s charges can’t rely on him to do it alone, for with Durant sidelined, the likes of Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and Enes Kanter must contribute in a greater sense than they have been accustomed. Ibaka, who Management ultimately chose to pay over Harden three years ago, has not evolved into the player they envisioned him becoming, averaging just 12.6 points on 48.1% shooting from the field, along with 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. A good portion of his minutes have gone to Kanter, whom Oklahoma City acquired at the Trade Deadline last season. Whereas Ibaka is still one of the premier defensive presences in the paint, Kanter is far more polished on the offensive end, providing the Thunder with some long sought-after production in the post; the 23-year old has made the most of his opportunities, averaging 12.4 points on 57.2% shooting in just 20.6 minutes of play. However, he’s left a lot to be desired defensively, leaving Donovan with a pair of big men who only really contribute on ONE end of the floor. And then there’s Waiters, who was also acquired midseason in 2014-2015, in an effort to bring some scoring depth on the perimeter behind Durant and Westbrook. Needless to say, the former 4th Overall Pick has underwhelmed mightily since arriving in Oklahoma City, logging just 9.5 points on 39.5% shooting form the floor, including 35.7% from three, along with 2.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.5 turnovers in 27.8 minutes of play. Over the last three seasons, much has been made of this team’s lack of a quality supporting cast behind their two superstars ultimately keeping them from hoisting a Larry O’Brien Trophy, which was only further underscored with Durant’s limited availability a year ago. If this is indeed the last season that Durant and Westbrook are together in Oklahoma City, then the likes of those players mentioned must find a way to elevate their play to better complement their teammates, or they’re in all likelihood looking at a premature postseason exit at the hands of either Golden State or San Antonio, and perhaps the end of an era of success.