The NBA is in the fourth and final quarter of it’s regular season and the Western Conference playoff push is starting to heat up. Tuesday night features a key game between two of the conference’s top teams as the Houston Rockets travel to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder.
The Thunder (46-17), who have led the Western Conference for most of the year, have lost two straight games and find themselves in second place in the conference, .5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets (44-19), on the other hand, are the hottest team in the NBA. They have won five consecutive games and also hold a 23-8 record since January 1, the best in the league. While one team is looking to get back on track, the other is trying to move up in the conference standings.
The past two losses for the Thunder, to the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers, were both road games where they lost by six and four points, respectively and allowed for one opposing player to score over 40 points in each game (Gerald Green had 41 for the Suns and Jodie Meeks had 42 for the Lakers). In those two games, Thunder opponents have averaged 121 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting from the field and 48 percent from three-point range. The offense hasn’t been the problem, as the Thunder have scored 116 points per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the field. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also playing well during the two game losing streak. Durant is averaging 30.5 points and Westbrook is averaging 29 points. Despite this, the Thunder are 3-5 since Westbrook returned to the lineup after knee surgery.
The hot Rockets squeaked out a close victory against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday in overtime, 118-113. James Harden has been on fire of late, as he scored 41 points Sunday night and is averaging 28.2 points on 51.6 percent shooting, 7.4 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals in March (five games). As a team in March, the Rockets are 5-0 and scoring 111 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting. Dwight Howard has also been playing efficient basketball this month, scoring 18 points on 60.4 percent shooting.
These two teams have met twice this year and the Thunder have come out on top both times by an average margin of victory of 21.5 points. This will be the first time Westbrook plays in this matchup this season, but the Thunder didn’t miss a beat without him. They have averaged 110.5 points on 51.8 percent shooting from the field against the Rockets, while holding the boys from Houston to just 38 percent shooting from the field. Durant has scored 34.5 points per game in these match ups while James Harden has been held in check by his former team, averaging just 12 points per game on just 32 percent shooting.
The Pick: The Thunder seem to have the upper hand on the Rockets this season, but this is a different Houston team that is playing their best basketball of the season. Three of their five March wins have come against some of the league’s top teams (Miami, Indiana and Portland) while the Thunder just lost to the lowly Lakers. Even though it is a road game, the Rockets are on a mission and I think they finally grab a win from the Thunder in a close one, 103-100.
When: 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma