at OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Tip-off: Monday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Russell Westbrook will be looking to put on a show when the Thunder host the Rockets on Christmas.
After meeting in the playoffs this past spring, Oklahoma City and Houston both underwent big changes this offseason. OKC added SFs Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in two trades that seemed like steals, while Houston sent a big package of role players to the Clippers for Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul. Each team was bringing in guys who were used to dominating the ball to join some of the league's biggest ball-dominators in Westbrook and Harden, respectively, and it was unclear which players and teams would adjust best. And while it's still early, we have an emphatic answer in Houston: Paul has joined Harden to form one of the best NBA offenses in recent memory. In OKC, however, the jelling of the lineup has been slower. The three stars haven't figured out how to move the ball effectively, and haven't even been particularly effective in the iso situations in which they've historically excelled. As a result, the star-studded Thunder are hovering around .500. Of course, they're talented enough to kick it up a notch at any time, but it's unclear whether it will ever happen. The Rockets and Thunder meet up on Christmas night in Oklahoma City, and Westbrook and co. will look to show on a national stage that they can coexist. Either that, or they'll each be gunning for their own shot while under the spotlight
Houston suffered a surprising loss on Wednesday night, falling 122-116 at home to a generally lousy Lakers team. Harden dropped 51 on 15-of-27 shooting, but Paul left the game in the second half with a sore leg, which didn't help things. Harden has been so good thus far this season so as to render any MVP debates irrelevant, leading the league in scoring and nearly leading in assists, too. Paul has proven to be a worthy sidekick, shooting better from outside than many realized he’s capable and becoming the best passer in the NBA's best passing offense. He missed a substantial amount of games at the beginning of the year, though, and the Rockets were fine without him. They were without a couple other key players against the Lakers, too. There's PF Luc Mbah a Moute, a defensive stopper who is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. But C Clint Capela, who has turned into a monster around the basket this season, also missed the game somewhat unexpectedly with a calf injury. Entering the weekend, both he and Paul were expected to play on Christmas. The Rockets only played eight players against Los Angeles as a result, and PF Tarik Black only got four minutes. SG Eric Gordon scored 21 points and SF Trevor Ariza added 18, but PF Ryan Anderson managed only two points and posted a game-worst plus/minus of -22. That trio, along with SF P.J. Tucker, always has the green light from deep. If watching a bushel of three-point attempts is on your wishlist this year, Houston is your team to watch on Christmas Day.
Oklahoma City also had an unexpected result on Wednesday. It wasn't that surprising that they beat the Jazz, but nothing about their recent performance had suggested a 107-79 blowout was in the cards. Westbrook was incredibly efficient in a way that he rarely is, scoring 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and tossing 10 rebounds and seven assists into his stat line for good measure. George and Anthony each had 18 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and C Stephen Adams pitched in 11 points and nine boards. This is precisely the way the Thunder offense should work, but so rarely does. Recent Westbrook shooting performances include 3-of-17 against Indiana and 10-of-33 against Philadelphia, although OKC managed to win those games. He's somehow still embarrassing himself by chasing rebounds and assists, a habit he should cut out if he's serious about winning. Carmelo is mostly trash, shooting just a hair over 40% on the floor on over 13 shots per game. He is exactly the ball-stopper that many feared he would be when he was brought to town. George's ineffectualness is a little more perplexing. In theory, he can be a good offensive player off the ball, but that only works when the rest of the offense focuses on ball movement. For the Thunder, it doesn't. There are already talks of OKC trading him before what now seems like an inevitable departure in the offseason, which can't be good for this team's already fragile chemistry. Offseason acquisition PF Patrick Patterson has been a bust, and PG Raymond Felton shouldn't be playing this many minutes for an NBA team in 2017. SG Andre Roberson still can't shoot.