The All Star festivities are over and the players from 28 of the teams have headed back on the road to wherever the schedule may take them. When the dust cloud lifts, the Thunder and the Rockets will have assembled to take to the court for a game that, one would hope, should show a few more signs of defensive discipline than the dunk-fests that preceded it. The All-Star Break is an oasis of rest amidst the desert of recovery time that is the regular season grind. The question is, will the players return sharp from the lay-off or rusty from the partying?
The Thunder reached the All-Star Break on their worst losing streak of the season. This sounds like a promising sign until you hear the length of that streak – 2 games. A team that has not lost back-to-back games all year will certainly not be expecting to lose a third on the bounce. They will come into this game with a clean bill of health and with Durant and Westbrook keen to build on the feel-good vibes surrounding the weekend.
The Rockets dropped their final game before the break to the Clippers – tough opponents at the best of times but even more daunting a prospect without the services of Harden. The Bearded One didn’t seem overly affected by his ankle over the weekend, so he should be ready to play. It remains to be seen whether Toney Douglas will have recovered from the hip pointer he suffered against Portland, but with Patrick Beverley there to step in there isn’t much lost in the Rockets’ rotation.
Oklahoma City’s starting unit have logged the most minutes together of any 5-man lineup in the league (838 minutes total). All Stars Durant and Westbrook are surrounded by defensive specialist Sefalosha, shot blocker Ibaka and post defender Perkins. First off the bench is old friend Kevin Martin, who has been thriving with the reduced responsibilities of his role in OKC. With the defensive attention drawn elsewhere, he has been able to post a career high 43.6% mark from behind the arc – he’s pretty much the best fit next to Durant and Westbrook you could ask for. They can also roll out Nick Collison, who is an excellent glue guy (or perhaps ‘utility big’ is a better term when referring to a power forward with his skill-set), and Reggie Jackson seems to have won the battle of the backup PGs over Eric Maynor. When they’re in ‘Let’s be serious’ mode as they were against Miami on Thursday, they can shrink the rotation down to just those eight (with Durant playing the full 48 minutes). Most of the time though, they will distribute a few minutes further down the bench to keep some of the load off their superstars’ shoulders – they will spell Durant with DeAndre Liggins and/or Perry Jones, and expand their big man rotation by giving Hasheem Thabeet or Daniel Orton some backup center minutes.
Houston’s rotation has been serving them well so it’s unlikely to see any significant changes tonight unless it’s a blowout. With Smith currently down in the D-League, Cole Aldrich will backup Asik against his former team. Motiejunas had his best game of the year before the break, so McHale may see fit to try him out for a few minutes in the second quarter if he sees an opportunity. We may see Parsons playing PF a bit to counter times when the Thunder go small as Durant would be able to torch Patterson or Morris with his quickness. I wouldn’t expect the Rockets to initiate the smallball though – you don’t want to give Scott Brooks an excuse to play Durant more than he has to, after all!
In the past two meetings, the Thunder have mostly been able to keep Harden quiet. This was particularly noticeable in the teams’ first meeting, when a combination of some overly-aggressive driving and a defence that knew his tendencies better than anyone else in the league led to a 3-16 shooting performance during an ignominious return to his former stomping ground. The key to preventing his driving game from picking up steam is to have good timing on any attempts to poke the ball away and a rim protector who can pounce whenever the shot attempt is too predictable. OKC are capable of the the former thanks to the defensive nous of Sefalosha and the long arms of Durant and Westbrook, and Ibaka handily supplies the latter. As the season has gone on Harden has got better at varying his lines of attack enough to create the space for his moves to the basket to work, but this game will be his biggest test in a while.
One exploitable facet of the Thunder defense is to take advantage of Russell Westbrook off the ball. His tends to overplay his man quite strongly in an attempt to deny them the ball, and can often be caught ball-watching if the PG makes a quick cut to the rim while his back is turned. Off ball play is something Lin is still working at, but running a few plays to free him of Westbrook’s attention and get him moving towards the rim before the catch may pay dividends.
Stretching the floor is key to attempt to hamstring the OKC’s frontcourt. Ibaka is mobile but would much prefer to hang around the painted area waiting to block shots, and Perkins is a disaster if you can force him out to the perimeter. The onus will therefore be on Patterson and Morris to drag their defender out of their comfort zone. They’ve been able to do this well in the past – in the first meeting between these two teams, Patterson put up one of his better games – 27 points on 11 of 18 shooting (2-3 from downtown), and in the second Morris was the one to shine as he racked up 24 points (4-6 from the outside). It would be good to see more of the off-the-dribble game that Patterson flashes every once in a while. The next step down the path he’s traveling is to be able to cause damage penetrating from the perimeter against a slower defender – adding that nuance to his game on a consistent basis will round out his skillset nicely.
This is the end of the floor that is going to be the most critical if the Rockets are going to pull off an upset. In the past two meetings, the Rockets have failed to breach the 100 points barrier on both occasions. Some of that is because the Thunder have made it difficult for Harden to get going, but it is the ability of their defense to cause Harden problems without disrupting the rest of their scheme that is the real killer. Against most teams the penetration of Lin and Harden is enough to throw the defence into disarray, but both Westbrook and Sefalosha are excellent on-ball defenders, which helps limit the drives, and once the ball-handler gets to the paint he is confronted with the imposing figure of Serge ‘Shot-Blocka’ Ibaka. It’s a difficult combination to figure out, but the Rockets will have to do it if their to stand a chance of winning the game.
While their offense has been starting to show signs of diversifying this year, the staple of the Thunder’s game is to put the ball in the hands of their two best players in positions where they can wreck havoc. The scary thing is, for Durant that basically means anywhere in the half court these days. He can bully you in the post, he can beat you off the dribble, he can pull up pretty much anywhere in the midrange for a shot that’s above average percentage-wise. Parsons is going to draw that assignment, and it’s a nightmarish one. This year some league watchers have been critical of some of Parsons’ defensive decision-making, particularly with regards to gambling for steals and over-helping. One would hope that tonight he will have been told to have eyes only for Durant, because that’s one player who needs attention all of the time.
The key with Westbrook always used to be to try and bait him into being a jump-shooter. With the right encouragement, he could often be induced to fall in love with the pull up at the elbow to his team’s detriment. This year, however, he has been making better decisions and the offense has been running sweeter because of it. Having a player like Kevin Martin who thrives off-ball has likely helped him somewhat in that regard, but reports suggest that alone cannot explain the significant jump in assist rate Westbrook has been able to produce this season.
The complementary pieces can kill you when you’re up against the Thunder as well – you can’t afford to concentrate too hard on the big two because there’ll be Martin lurking on the perimeter dropping in the three pointers that Matt Bullard likes to refer to as ‘lay-ups’, and Serge Ibaka consistently seems to kill the Rockets with his elbow jumper. The general consensus about him may be that his offensive arsenal is still a work in progress, but you wouldn’t have known it if you only watched his performances against the Rockets. Sefalosha is up at 40% on three pointers this season too, so you can’t leave him alone either.
It’s inevitable that the Thunder will put up plenty of points – they average 110 points per 100 possessions (#2 in the league, a hair behind Miami), and the Rockets defense hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence this year. The key will be to limit the damage sufficiently that a good offensive showing will allow them to hang. A lot of the pressure will therefore be on Asik and Patterson to be in the right places at the right times to plug the leaks that will inevitably appear in the perimeter defense when such talented offensive players are on the other team.
This is a pretty tough start for the Rockets in their first post-All Star Game test, and on the evidence of previous showings they are unlikely to come away with a win. It will require sharp and snappy ball movement, plenty of shots falling and at least a semblance of defensive cohesion if they are to pull out would would be a morale-boosting victory against a potential playoff opponent.