9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Rockets -2, Over/Under: 230
On the penultimate night of the Regular Season, we get a potential Playoff Preview, as the surging Houston Rockets travel to Chesapeake Energy Arena to battle the Oklahoma City Thunder. We know that you’re all tired of hearing it, but no team has been hotter since the All-Star Break than the Rockets (53-28, 3rd in Western Conference), who have won twenty out of their last twenty-four games, and as a result have vaulted up the standings in the competitive Western Conference. Tonight marks Houston’s final outing of the season, and there is still plenty to play for despite that; Mike D’Antoni’s charges are currently a half-game behind the Denver Nuggets for the Second Seed out West, and if their counterpart from the Rocky Mountains is to lose at least one of their final two contests, then a win tonight for the Rockets would put them at No. Two by virtue of owning the tiebreaker between the two teams (3-1). This is also the difference between facing tonight’s opponent, the Thunder in the First Round, or either the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers early in the Postseason. After getting off to a slow start to the campaign (11-14 in early December), and sustaining a litany of injuries to key personnel such as Chris Paul (15.5 PTS, 41.6% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 8.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 19.5 PER) and Clint Capela (16.6 PTS, 64.5% FG, 12.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.5 BLK, 23.8 PER), Houston has weathered the storm and appear to have become stronger for it, with a return to health coupled with newfound depth going a long way towards reasserting their status as the main threat to the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Of course, most teams would have a hard time replacing the likes of an All-Star Point Guard in the form of Paul, who missed Twenty-Four Games, and a defensive stalwart like Capela, who was sidelined for fifteen, but then again, not many teams have a reigning MVP to lean on. In many ways, James Harden (36.1 PTS, 44.2% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 7.6 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 30.6 PER) is having a more impressive season than he did when he claimed the award a year ago, averaging a staggering 36.1 Points per Game, which is the second-highest figure that the league has seen since Michael Jordan posted a whopping 37.1 during the 1986-1987 term. At one point, the bearded genius strung together a ridiculous 32-game stretch in which he scored at least Thirty Points, with much of that run coinciding with either Paul, Capela, or both sidelined due to injury. During that span, Harden AVERAGED 41.1 Points on 44.1% shooting from the field, including 37.1% from downtown, along with 7.6 Rebounds, 7.4 Assists, and 2.2 Steals, literally carrying the team through what could have been one of their toughest stretches, going 21-11. However, since returning to health, this team has been firing on all cylinders, averaging 115.9 Points on 45.6% shooting from the floor, including 37.4% from beyond the arc, and 22.5 Assists in comparison to 11.8 Turnovers, while allowing the opposition to score just 104.5 Points on 44.6% shooting. Furthermore, their last four outings have been the very definition of one-sided, blasting their opponents by an insane 29.2 Points, shooting a blistering 49.4% overall, and dishing out 28.0 Assists.
When we last saw the Rockets, they were in the midst of humiliating the worst team in the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, in 149-113 fashion. Try as the league may to dissuade this from happening, this is precisely what happens when an in-form juggernaut matches up with a perennial bottom-feeder that is only interested in tanking for the No. One Pick in the Draft at the juncture of the schedule, with the outcome hardly surprising. In fact, the most interesting bit of news to come out of this affair was Houston competing with themselves, as they surpassed the NBA’s single-game record for Three-Point Field Goals (26), which they set themselves on two occasions earlier in the season. In fact, they matched that mark in a 119-108 victory over the Sacramento Kings just last week. When it was all said and done, D’Antoni’s troops knocked down a whopping 27-of-57 Threes (47.4%), outscoring their hapless counterpart by Forty-Eight Points, or in other words, more points than Phoenix had managed to score in the entire First Half (47). Eight different players got into the act for the hosts, with the aforementioned Harden scoring a game-high Thirty Points and drilling 5-of-6 attempts from distance (83.3%), while Eric Gordon (16.3 PTS, 41.1% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.3 PER) rained down on the Suns from long-range, netting a career-best 8-of-13 Treys (61.5%). None of their Five Starters saw action in the Fourth Quarter, giving the reserves an opportunity to produce Fifty-Three Points of their own. It’s no surprise that this happened, given Houston’s prolific shooting under the offensive mastermind; the Rockets lead the league in both Three-Point Field Goals Made (16.1) and Attempted (45.3), and have made at least twenty of them in Eighteen Games this season, including six of their past twelve outings.
Meanwhile, with two games left to go before the Playoffs, the Thunder (47-33, 6th in Western Conference) could wind up in a myriad of places. Though they currently occupy the Sixth Seed in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City could either rise or continue to fall in the Standings, with arguably the toughest remaining schedule in the league; after facing the red-hot Rockets tonight, Billy Donovan’s charges must immediately hit the road and turn their attention the Milwaukee Bucks, who own the top record in the NBA, in the Regular Season Finale. So let’s take a moment to break down the different scenarios that this team could face, shall we? First, a win in either affair will lock them into the Sixth Seed, which would in all likelihood mean a First Round Series against the same Rockets that they face tonight, though there is a chance that if Houston continues to ascend, Denver will instead be their opponent this weekend. Let it be stated that the Thunder are 0-4 against the Nuggets this year, while 2-1 against the Rockets. Second, if they happen to win out, and the Jazz do the opposite, then both teams would finish with 49-33 record, with the tiebreaker going to Oklahoma City on the strength of sweeping Utah in four meetings. Moving up to the Fifth Seed means a far more favorable matchup with the Trail Blazers, whom they also swept the Season Series with (4-0). Third, if they manage to lose both of their final two games, then Donovan’s troops run the risk of falling to the Seventh or Eighth Seeds, depending on what happens with the Spurs and Clippers. Neither outcome would be ideal, for dropping to Seven means facing the Nuggets (or possibly the Rockets), and sliding to Eight spells almost certain doom against the Warriors, who have won the Western Conference in each of the last four seasons. Needless to say, that is quite a range of possibilities for a team that really has nobody to blame but themselves after squandering a strong start to the campaign by self-destructing since the All-Star Break. Let’s keep in mind that the Thunder were at one point 37-19 and occupying the Third Seed out West, but since the Break have been a dreadful tailspin, going 10-13 courtesy of eroding on the defensive end of the floor; before the All-Star Break, Oklahoma City had relegated opponents to 110.2 Points on 45.8% shooting from the field, including 34.6% from beyond the arc, while outrebounding them by 2.6 Boards, permitting 25.0 Assists, and forcing 16.8 Turnovers, but since that respite have relinquished 113.1 Points on 46.5% shooting, including a dismal 38.3% from downtown, while owning a slimmer Plus-1.3 margin on the glass, and allowing 24.7 Assists, and forcing 14.3 Turnovers. Outside of the exploits of All-Stars Russell Westbrook (23.0 PTS, 42.5% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 10.7 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.0 PER) and Paul George (28.1 PTS, 43.9% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 4.1 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.4 PER), this team relies upon their defensive pressure creating easier opportunities, whether it be by transition or the second-chance variety. Needless to say, if you’re like us and take considerable stock in momentum, this is NOT the way that you want to be heading into the Playoffs, where a potential third consecutive First Round exit awaits.
As hard as we’ve been on them, when we last saw the Thunder they were in the process of stopping the bleeding and swinging that precious momentum in their favor over these final few games, winning their third consecutive outing, a 132-126 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite ending the First Quarter up 38-31, the visiting Thunder entered the final stanza trailing 95-97, but thanks to an outburst from their Bench, managed to vault themselves ahead, leading by as many as twelve the rest of the way. The aforementioned Westbrook and George scored Twenty-Seven Points apiece, with the former recording yet another Triple-Double, his thirty-second of the term, adding Ten Rebounds and Fifteen Assists, but as we said before, this one was all about their teammates, who really came up huge. Depth has been an issue for this team for years now, and Donovan and his Staff must have been pleased with their performance Sunday Night; Oklahoma City’s Reserves outscored Minnesota’s decisively (44-26), with Dennis Schroder (15.4 PTS, 41.3% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.6 PER) scoring Fourteen Points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), and midseason acquisition Markieff Morris (6.3 PTS, 37.5% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 9.1 PER) adding Fourteen Points on 6-of-12 shooting (50.0%). Schroder in particular was integral in the victory, scoring all but four of his point total during the visiting side’s 12-0 run in the Fourth Quarter, which turned out to be a 37-point explosion for the Thunder. For a team that has struggled offensively since the All-Star Break, this performance was indeed a welcome sight, as they shot a stellar 52.2% from the field, including 14-of-34 from beyond the arc (41.2%), handed out Twenty-Seven Assists in comparison to committing just Thirteen Turnovers, and calmly knocked down 22-of-26 Free-Throws (84.6%). With that said, it was damn important that they did so, for their uninspiring play on the defensive end continued, permitting the Timberwolves to shoot 54.1% from the floor, including 10-of-23 from downtown (43.5%), 24-of-29 from the Charity Stripe (82.8%), and log Twenty-Nine Assists opposed to Thirteen Turnovers. Simply put, these guys MUST rediscover their pre-All-Star form on defense if they have any hope of advancing deeper into the Playoffs this year…