Last season, the Rockets won the Western Conference regular season title and looked like the most dangerous threat to Golden State. This season, the Thunder has assumed the role.
Oklahoma City moved into a tie with Denver for first place in the Western Conference with a one-point win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.
The Rockets have floundered at the bottom of the playoff standings just about all season but a recent spurt of wins has Houston looking up, even without its starting point guard and $40 million per year man, Chris Paul.
The Rockets and Thunder each have a couple of days off before they square off at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, the Rockets slight home favorites with a total of 222.5
Paul’s uneasy play was the biggest reason for Houston’s struggles at the outset, even more so than Carmelo Anthony, whose short-lived tenure with the franchise garnered most of the attention.
In twenty-six games this season, Paul is averaging a career-low 15.6 points per game, the worst field goal percentage of his career (41.5%) and the worst effective field goal percentage (49.5%) since his sophomore season, when he played in Oklahoma City with the Hornets. What’s more are his turnovers. He’s averaging three per game for only the second time in his career.
Watching him, too, told me something was wrong, as much as the numbers. Paul has looked slow all season and it turns out he’s been hurt. He missed his first game with a strained hamstring on Saturday, an injury the Rockets have announced will take at least two to three weeks to get right again. We’ll see Paul again in 2019 and hopefully at his best. The Rockets certainly can’t afford to be without him, in addition to the other role players they lost between last season and this one.
OKC won for the twenty-first time on Saturday night in Utah. Paul George dropped forty points for the second game in a row for the first time in his career and took over the game on a night Russell Westbrook had just eight points on 3-for-17 from the field.
The Thunder has gone 21–6 since starting the season 0–4 when Westbrook was recovering from off-season knee surgery. It is surging and only has brighter days ahead, seemingly, when Andre Roberson returns from that devastating knee injury that ended his season early in 2018.
OKC’s defense is, by the numbers, the best in the NBA and the best the Thunder has ever had, even without Roberson. George is certainly capable of taking Harden on, one-on-one, but the Thunder could decide to throw Westbrook on him.
More importantly, and why I believe this game is going under, is Steven Adams and the effect he will have on the Rockets’ offensive rebounding. Houston dominated San Antonio on the offensive glass in its last game (Clint Capela and PJ Tucker had twenty-six offensive rebounds to the Spurs’ five) and shot bananas from three in the third quarter, when Gerald Green went a perfect 4-for-4. That won’t happen in this game.
With Adams keeping Capela in check, Houston’s offense is going to slow to a halt. I don’t see the Rockets getting out in transition nearly enough, nor getting enough offensive rebounds and kick-outs, to put this game into the 120s. Instead, I see a game that will feature two teams between 100 and 110, which means I’m going under.
Play: Under 222.5
Chris Paul • Christmas Day NBA • Houston Rockets • James Harden • Oklahoma City Thunder • Paul George • Russell Westbrook