For all of their undeniable talent and potential, the Thunder are still languishing in seventh place in the Western Conference standings with just 17 games left in the season. With a record of 37-28, they are just 1.5 games ahead of the Clippers in ninth, though they are also 1.5 games from third place.
OKC need all the wins they can get, but on Saturday suffered a disappointing 100-108 loss against the similarly placed Trail Blazers. Russell Westbrook had 30 points and six assists, but Paul George struggled with his shot, going 0-for-7 from long range.
A win certainly won’t come easily against an unstoppable Rockets team on Tuesday. Houston have now extended their winning streak to 15 games as they refuse to give up top spot in the west to the Warriors, who sit just half a game further back.
The Celtics were the Rockets' most recent victim, though a 16-7 run to end the game was required to earn the 123-120 victory. James Harden shot just 6-for-18 from the field, but still managed to rack up 26 points, ten assists, and five steals in the win.
Three keys to the game
Which Westbrook shows up? - Since the All-Star break, it has been a tale of two Russell’s for the reigning MVP. In the first three games back, he averaged just 13.7 shots per game for 13.7 points (shooting 26.8% from the field), 9.7 assists, and 6.7 turnovers. Since then, he has become much more focussed on scoring, taking 27 shots per game, averaging 34.3 points, and shooting 48.1% from the field.
Are the Rockets beatable? - As much talent as the Thunder possess, the Rockets simply appear too good for anyone of late. On their current 15 game win streak, they have scored 117 points per 100 possessions, 1.5 points better than their nearest rival. On top of that, Houston's defensive rating sits at just 103.0, the fourth best in the league in this time.
OKC’s form against the best - Despite boasting a record of just 37-28, the Thunder have shown an ability to step up against the best teams in the league. Against the Warriors, the Thunder and the Raptors, the teams with the three best records in the league, OKC are 4-1. This bodes well for them come playoff time, and for this match.
Matchup to watch
Chris Paul vs Russell Westbrook - Harden won’t be expected to expend all of his energy guarding Westbrook at the defensive end, nor will Westbrook be required to do so on Harden, but OKC’s enigmatic point guard will still need to worry about nine-time All-Star Chris Paul. Paul is 32 years old and in the 13th year of his career, but he is still managing to contribute 18.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
He is not the defender he once was, but is still a savvy player at that end of the floor, and he will need to use all of his experience against Westbrook. Westbrook has regressed since his record breaking MVP 2016/17 season, but he is still putting up ridiculous numbers, contributing 25.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 10.2 assists, and 1.9 steals a game. This should be quite the matchup.
Oklahoma City Thunder predicted starting lineup
PG - Russell Westbrook | SG - Josh Huestis | SF - Paul George | PF - Carmelo Anthony | C - Steven Adams
Houston Rockets predicted starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - PJ Tucker | C - Clint Capela
When these sides met earlier in the season, Harden and Westbrook both showed their ability to stuff the stat sheet like no other players in the league. Harden shot just 7-for-18 from the field, but scored 29 points to go with eight rebounds, a huge 14 assists, two steals and a block. Westbrook was a little more efficient, going 12-for-24 for 31 points, six boards, 11 assists, and three steals. Expect both of them to put up huge numbers once again in this game.
OKC have been given a 4.5-point head start in this game, and while getting close to Houston has been nearly impossible in recent weeks, back the Thunder to cover this. They are a much better team than their record suggests, as shown by their performance against the best teams in the league, and the Rockets are one of them. OKC will play some of their best basketball in this game, and cover the 4.5 point line.
This could be a preview of a postseason series which would no doubt stretch out to six or seven games. For all of Houston’s offensive talent, they don’t match up well against the Thunder, who are one of the only teams in the league that can actually put defensive pressure on them. The absence of Roberson, who was key in Harden’s poor shooting when they last met, will no doubt hurt, but thanks largely to George and Adams, they still boast a stingy defensive lineup.
Houston will still put up a solid score, and the Thunder will need George and Westbrook to be at their best offensively to challenge in this game. As they have shown in the past though, they are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
This game will be in the balance throughout, with neither team able to break away and develop a significant lead. It may well come down to the final minute, and OKC will be able to just sneak over the line at home with a 110-107 victory.
The game will be broadcast nationally on TNT. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.