By Randy Renner
For a team that’s won nine of its last 10 games and 24 of the last 29 the Oklahoma City Thunder are creating a lot of uneasiness among their fans and many in the media are dismissing them as a serious contender to even to win the Western Conference much less an NBA Championship.
Those concerns can be summed up in one word…defense.
The Thunder weren’t playing much of it at the start of the season, then seemed to have turned a corner for a couple dozen games but now they’re back to being defenseless even against some of the worst offensives in the NBA.
In their last six games the Thunder have held just one opponent (Charlotte) under 100 points. In their last three games they’ve given up at least 116 points and in their last two games they’ve given up 122 and 123 points. That’s the first time since the 2008-09 season (OKC’s first in the NBA) the Thunder have allowed consecutive opponents to score at least 120 points.
And it’s not like any of those opponents were great offensive teams, in fact the Timberwolves (123 points vs. OKC) and the Nets (116 points vs. OKC ) are two of the lowest scoring teams in the league, neither averaging 100 points a game.
It doesn’t help that the Thunder are having to play without their best perimeter defender. Guard Andre Roberson is out for another couple of weeks at least with a sprained knee. Roberson’s defensive rating of 97.5 is second best on the team behind Steven Adams’ 95.7. Adams, whose post defense has greatly improved since his rookie season missed the first two games of the road trip with a sprained elbow.
But Adams seemed about as helpless as anyone those last two games. Roberson’s absence causes a domino effect of problems. Defense is much more of a “team” effort than offense typically is. Defense has been described as five guys on a string moving together. One mistake by one of those guys can lead to a catastrophic failure, like Brook Lopez strolling through the lane untouched for a slam or Zach LaVine draining a wide open three.
So with Roberson out Billy Donovan has turned to either Kyle Singler or Dion Waiters. They haven’t played as much with the starting group so they’ve been a tick late in coverage at times, which forces someone to come over early to help which leaves someone on the opposition open for longer than he should be and boom, it all blows up.
The Houston Rockets will try to take full advantage of that tonight. The Rockets take more threes than any team in the league, with former Thunder Sixth Man James Harden accounting for many of those, and they have what at times can be an overpowering presence in the paint in center Dwight Howard.
The Rockets, and especially Harden, have played well against the Thunder winning six straight games. Harden is averaging 33.4 points during the Rockets' winning streak in the series, with four of the victories coming by five points or less. He scored 37 as Houston, now 25-23, won 110-105 at home in this season's first matchup back on November 2nd.
As strange as it sounds the seven-year veteran now has spent more time with Houston than he did in Oklahoma City and visits to The Peake, which used to generate a lot of emotion, don’t very much now days.
"It's been four years, so the emotions aren't really there for me anymore," Harden said. "Now it's just about doing whatever it takes to get a win. They're playing well right now. It's just another game for us."
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who took over earlier this season after Kevin McHale was fired, hopes they come out more prepared for this one than the last game they played. San Antonio crushed the Rockets 130-99 on Wednesday to snap Houston's three-game winning streak. The Spurs, who haven’t totally forgotten how to play defense, held the Rockets to just 38.4 percent shooting.
Asking the Thunder to come up with a similar defensive performance is probably asking too much so once again it looks like OKC’s dynamic duo of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will need their typical superhuman efforts to keep the scoreboard spinning on the Thunder side.
They combined for 74 points in Tuesday’s win at New York and 51 in Wednesday’s win at Minnesota where Enes Kanter also cranked up the points scoring 23. The Thunder will more than likely need numbers like that tonight too.
Things won’t be any easier with rookie point guard Cameron Payne sidelined with a concussion. He’s solid and at times spectacular since becoming the regular backup to Westbrook. D.J. Augustin will return to that role tonight.
Tipoff is set for 7:10 and you can see the game locally on Fox Sports Oklahoma and around the nation on NBA-TV.
You can also follow our live Gameday Updates on the Twitter feed page here on the website and check back after the game for a complete video wrapup, including comments from Coach Donovan and Thunder players.