Oklahoma City doesn’t like Patrick Beverley. The players of the Thunder don’t have any say in this grudge, and it’s only going to be reignited when the Rockets visit Oklahoma to take on the Thunder for the first time this season. The knee injury that Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook suffered in the playoffs last season has attacked once again, removing him from active duty until further notice. With the specter of that fateful collision between two point guards looming large, Houston has to come into one of the loudest home courts in the league and try to steal one in the Chesapeake Energy Arena
Westbrook is unquestionably the second best player on the Thunder, a team tied for first place in the brutal Western Conference. His absence a huge factor in the Rockets’ resistance to a clearly superior Thunder team during the playoffs, and the same will be true in this meeting. This time, however, Houston is missing their own starting point guard in Patrick Beverley, who’s out with a broken hand. That grudge will have to wait, but the larger grudge will take center stage. The Thunder will come at a battered, weary Rockets team, and there will be no mercy. If Houston wants a win, they’ll need to summon every bit of resolve they have left.
The bad news is that Kevin Durant is the second best player in the league and he’s on a tear right now. The Thunder are lining up opponents and Durant is knocking them down, even without Westbrook as the backup star. Reggie Jackson has come up huge as the backup point guard, and is in the sixth man of the year conversation. The Thunder’s defense has climbed up to second best in the league,their offense is clicking, and behind all the hubbub over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Thunder have calmly matched their conference-best record. This is a team on the warpath, and one that needs to make it back to the finals.
The Rockets, on the other hand, are a new contender in the making, have been struggling to stay healthy at al, and are on the tail end of a brutal ten day schedule. The Thunder game marks the seventh game in ten days for Houston, and the fourth in five nights. The Rockets will be on the second night of a back to back, in a bad three point shooting slump and on the road against an elite, rested team that has it out for them specifically. All together, that’s not a recipe for success.
The Rockets grabbed a tough win over the New Orleans Pelicans, and somehow that’s a more important win due to tiebreaker implications. However, taking out the team with the target on their backs would be a huge outing for Houston, and it’s likely the Rockets will leave it all on the court to finish off a truly brutal couple weeks. The problem is that after so many games, there may be little to put on the court. Nobody can seem to hit three pointers, the bench is coming up short after losing players to injury, and the offense tends to get flustered against elite defenses.
In other news, Dwight Howard is an amazing basketball player, the best center in the league once again, and may be enough by himself to win the game if he goes off. Predicting this level of prowess, professionalism and dedication would have seemed delusional a mere few months ago, but Howard has seemingly recovered from his injury and his distaste with his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers. Look for the Rockets to punish the Thunder early and often inside, as Dwight is bigger and stronger than any player on their roster. Kendrick Perkins may have had a reputation as a Dwight stopper during his Boston Celtics years, but he’s unlikely to be able to match up with Dwight now, if he was ever able to.
The three point line will be swarmed, and the Rockets can’t seem to hit them even when they’re open. Serge Ibaka lurks inside, waiting to swat any offending layups into the stratosphere. The Thunder’s capable bench is just sharpening their knives, ready to tear into Houston’s depleted reserves. This is as challenging as the regular season gets. A win here would be a major feather in a young, growing team’s cap. The Rockets seem to lose to trap games all the time. This time, the tables are turned. Today, the Rockets have to spring the trap.