Thunder Back From Break with Back-To-Back

By Randy Renner

It's been almost a week since the Thunder last played a game. They'll pay for that quirk in the schedule over the next two weeks when they play nine games in those 14 days, seven of them on the road.

The gauntlet begins tonight in Houston against the Rockets and the Thunder will play again tomorrow night at home against Golden State.

The Rockets are dealing with a back-to-back of their own. They lost in Orlando last night so the Thunder might be able to catch them with tired legs. Of course OKC could have the same problem Friday night against the Warriors.

You might remember the last time the Thunder and Rockets played. It was ugly with a capital "U." The Thunder lost 69-65 and neither team had much success hitting shots. OKC hit 29.4 percent of theirs and Houston was even worse at 28.8 percent. Both are still season-lows.

The Thunder were without both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that night, the Rockets had no such excuse.

The down time from playing games has been put to good use by the Thunder. Head coach Scott Brooks has used the time almost like a mini-training camp to try to work out problems the team has been having on both ends of the floor.

"(It) felt like a little training camp," Durant told reporters this week. "It's all about transferring what we've always known and what we're improving on, whether it's timing, communication or execution, we have to transfer it over."

Oklahoma City has been held under 100 points in three straight games for the fourth time this season, something that didn't happen once over the previous two seasons. The win over the Jazz was preceded by losses in Sacramento and Golden State, and the Thunder have shot 36.3 percent overall and 26.6 from 3-point range during that three-game stretch.

Durant hasn't been a consistent part of the problem when healthy. He had 32 points against Utah, is shooting 52.2 percent and is averaging 29.6 points in five games back from the latest interruption to his season. The team has gone 10-4 with Durant, who has averaged 34.8 points over a 3-1 stretch against Houston.

Westbrook, who has missed four of the last five against the Rockets, had 25 on 9-of-17 shooting against the Jazz after a five-game span in which he hit just 27.3 percent of his shots.

The duo is also getting used to playing with Dion Waiters, who is two games into his Thunder career after being acquired from Cleveland. The shooting guard had 15 points and shot 7-for-14 after going 1-of-9 in his debut January 7th at Sacramento.

"I'm able to play," Waiters said. "I don't got to look over my shoulder, anything like that, if I make a mistake. Coaches tell me to play, be aggressive. Be me. Once you get told that, the game's easy."

He might not say so if he's matched up against former Thunder buddy James Harden. The league's top scorer had 26 in the loss to the Magic and is shooting 62.8 percent in his last three games. Andre Roberson, still the starter at shooting guard, will likely draw first crack at Harden but Waiters will get plenty of chances too.

Harden's performances against his former team have been up and down, though mostly down since the start of last season. He's averaged 22.0 points on 36.5 percent shooting over a 2-3 stretch against the Thunder after going 5-of-17 for a game-high 19 in that ugly game back in mid-November.

Rockets center Dwight Howard has been even worse against Oklahoma City with 9.2 points per game on 31.8 percent shooting in his last six meetings. In most of those Howard was guarded by Kendrick Perkins who has had great success against Howard his entire career.

Tonight's game is a TNT exclusive with tipoff coming a bit after 7 o'clock. Tomorrow night's game with the Warriors is also on national TV, ESPN will be in town, but you can also tune in to Fox Sports Oklahoma if you want because ESPN does not have exclusive rights to that game.

The Thunder can get back to .500 with a win tonight and these next couple of games should be a good gauge on how much the Thunder have improved thanks to all their practice sessions.

Whether they've improved or not, these next two weeks with nine games jammed into 14 days, may show us all we need to see about just how far the Thunder are capable of advancing in the playoffs...or even making them for that matter.