8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Rockets -6.5, Over/Under: 219.5
With the Playoffs on the horizon, there is still much to be settled in terms of Seeding, particularly in the Western Conference, where a pair of teams that met in last year’s First Round renew acquaintances, as the League-Leading Houston Rockets host the Oklahoma city Thunder from Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. The West has been crazy for the better part of two decades now, but this season has been crazier than most, for it certainly looks as though things will go down to the final day of the Regular Season before the Postseason Pecking Order is to be decided. While the top of the Conference appears to be set in stone, Seeds Four through Eight are separated by just two games, while the teams checking in at Nine and Ten remain just a single game out of the conversation as well. And that is where we find the Thunder (45-34, 5th in Western Conference), who at the time of this publication occupy a share of the Fifth Seed, tied with the struggling San Antonio Spurs for that distinction, though an ill-timed slump could drop Billy Donovan and his charges outside of the Playoff Picture altogether. With just three contests left on the Schedule, it’s safe to say that this season has been a manic one for Oklahoma City, who have been on a proverbial roller-coaster throughout the term, with plenty of ups and downs to make even the most stoic person nauseous. Then again, this is what many predicted once they acquired the likes of Paul George (21.6 PTS, 42.9% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 34 AST, 2.1 STL, 0.5 BLK, 18.4 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (16.2 PTS, 40.3% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.7 PER) in a whirlwind Offseason that shook up the foundation of their roster, pairing two prolific, ball-dominant scorers with arguably the most prolific, ball-dominant player in the league, reigning MVP Russell Westbrook (25.6 PTS, 45.2% FG, 29.7% 3FG, 9.9 REB, 10.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 25.0 PER). It was clear after his historic, Triple-Double-laden Campaign that Westbrook needed some real help, with the Thunder wheeling and dealing to acquire the two want-away All-Stars, though anyone that has watched this team compete throughout the season could tell you that even after Seventy-Nine Games this experiment remains incomplete with nary a sign of bearing any real fruit. Sure, they’ve looked great at times, particularly during a 14-5 stretch to close out 2017 and an 8-Game Winning Streak that followed shortly thereafter, but they’ve also struggled to meet expectations, what with their 14-15 start, and a current 2-5 run heading into tonight. Chemistry is huge in Basketball, and it seems to be Donovan’s White Whale thus far, for far too often this team reverts back to the norm; though he was initially fine with shouldering a lighter burden, Westbrook is back to his old ways, 0.1 Rebounds away from averaging a Triple Double (Again!!!), while George has recently publically lamented the mechanism of his Shot, while Anthony has continued to fade into Basketball Obscurity in this era defined by shooting and efficiency. This was all on display in Oklahoma City’s recent 111-107 defeat to bitter rival Golden State, who once again bested them largely on the strength of that aforementioned term: chemistry. Whereas the Warriors continue to be a team greater than the sum of their parts, the Thunder have been the opposite; Westbrook channeled last year’s incarnation, scoring Forty-Four Points on 15-of-26 Shooting (57.7%), including 3-of-7 from Downtown (42.9%), along with Sixteen Rebounds, Six Assists, a Pair of Steals, and Six Turnovers, while George and Anthony struggled mightily to score their Thirty-Two combined Points, shooting a woeful 9-of-35 from the Field (25.7%), including 3-of-18 from Three (16.7%). On the whole, the hosts shot a miserable 37.6% Overall, including 9-of-38 from beyond the Arc (23.7%), while committing more Turnovers (16) than Assists (13). If it hasn’t become clear yet that this team has little offer than the big names occupying it’s Rotation, it should soon, for the Playoffs have a quite a habit of dispensing of such teams rather quickly.
Meanwhile, the dream season continues for the Rockets (64-15, 1st in Western Conference), who at this point have clinched the No. One Overall Seed in the Western Conference, and Home Court throughout the Playoffs. While Oklahoma City’s Grand Experiment has been a chaotic mess, the one in Houston is producing lucrative results, parlaying into the first 60-Win Season in Franchise History. Needless to say, Mike D’Antoni’s charges have been the clear-cut, best team in the league since the turning of the New Year, having lost just six times in 2018, and just TWICE since January 26th. After yet another lengthy Win streak was snapped over the weekend, this team was determined not to get complacent and back their way into the Postseason, following a comfortable 120-104 victory over the Washington Wizards, with a hard-fought 96-94 Triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday Night. Even without All-Star Point Guard Damian Lillard, the visiting Blazers proved to be a tough pill to swallow, as the Hosts needed a game-winning layup courtesy of Chris Paul (18.5 PTS, 45.5% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 24.3 PER) with just 0.8 Seconds left on the Clock to put away Portland for the second time in the last Two Weeks. Leading 66-44 at Halftime and by as many as Eighteen Points late in the Third Quarter, Houston allowed the Visiting Side to work their way back into the Contest via a 19-2 run, though it certainly felt like a case in which the Home Side never truly were threatened no matter how close the score got. On the night, the Rockets shot 46.6% from the Field, including 13-of-37 from beyond the Arc (35.1%), despite committing more Turnovers (17) than Assists (16). However, the Blazers were just as careless with the basketball without their Floor General, committing Eighteen Turnovers of their own, which Paul and Co. were able to turn into Twenty Points. Speaking of Paul, he and MVP Candidate James Harden (30.7 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 8.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 30.2 PER) were once again a force to be reckoned with, combining for Fifty-One Points on 18-of-32 Shooting (56.3%), including 6-of-14 from Downtown (42.9%), along with Ten Rebounds, Twelve Assists, and a Steal, as well as Ten Turnovers. While some may have questioned just how these two would coexist, all those concerns have been put to rest as Paul and Harden have complemented each other beautifully, with the latter enjoying the most efficient campaign of his career thus far. After finishing as the Runner-Up for the MVP in each of the past two terms, the Bearded One should be deemed as the front-runner for this year’s award, even though much of the credit must go to Paul, and by extension D’Antoni for the tonal shift in Houston. Long derided as an exclusively offensive coach, D’Antoni has implemented a different approach this season, urging his charges to slow things down a bit, allowing them to focus more on the defensive end of the court, with the transition being made for more easily thanks to the presence of tough-minded veterans such as the 9-Time All-Star, along with Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker. A year after operating at the league’s Third-Fastest Pace (100.0 Possessions per 48 Minutes), the Rockets now clock in at Thirteenth (97.6), allowing a solid 104.1 Points (8th Overall) on 46.4% Shooting from the Field (17th Overall), while ranking Third in both Defensive Rebounding Percentage (80.1%) and Opponent’s Free-Throws/Field Goal Attempt (17.1%), which are both telltale signs of better discipline (I.E. better coaching) on the defensive end. That discipline will be put to the test tonight against the Thunder, who while dysfunctional at times, still possess a number of players that can torch any opposing side, particularly in the form of the aforementioned Westbrook. Though they’ve split their two meetings this season, Houston got the best of their most recent duel, a 122-112 victory in Oklahoma City back on March 6th. On that day, D’Antoni’s outfit counted seven of their number in double-figures, led by Paul’s Twenty-Five and Harden’s Twenty-Three, while Westbrook, George, and Anthony combined for all but Forty of their side’s total in an affair in which both teams shot the ball north of 49.0% from the Field.