Forget about James Harden.
Who from the Thunder is going to guard Jordan Hamilton?
The way Oklahoma City is playing, what would make anyone believe Hamilton won’t become the next player to bust out a career night when Houston invades Chesapeake Energy Arena on Tuesday?
With the Thunder missing two starters, and its defense currently in shambles, the run-and-gun Rockets are coming to town at the absolute worst possible time.
A team that the Thunder has toyed with this season could now take advantage of its shortcomings and pick apart OKC better than any team has since the break. And that’s saying a lot, because there’s a long list of teams that have done just that. But there could be no team better equipped than the Rockets.
With starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha sidelined with a calf injury, it’s anyone’s guess which Thunder player will take the challenge of slowing Harden, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week. Kendrick Perkins’ groin injury, meanwhile, leaves rookie Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet to contend with Dwight Howard down low.
Both matchups could get ugly — unless the Thunder learned anything from its embarrassing two-game trip through Phoenix and Los Angeles last week.
“Yeah, hopefully we’ll be up for the game,” said Nick Collison. “It’s a team that’s playing really well, a team who we had a playoff series against last year. I’m confident we’re going to come out and have more energy.”
Before this late-season swoon, the Thunder’s third meeting with the Rockets was shaping up to be all about Russell Westbrook squaring off once again against Patrick Beverley, the man who crashed into Westbrook’s knee last spring, knocking him out of the postseason and sabotaging OKC’s playoff run. That intrigue now rates as a distant second to how the Thunder, against the hottest team in basketball, will shake this three-week funk.
Houston has won 15 of 17 games since Jan. 28. The Rockets are averaging 112.5 points since the break. They lead the league in 3-pointers attempted per game (25.9) and free throw attempts per game (31.1).
None of that bodes well for a Thunder team that is 3-5 since the break and showing it can easily be sucked into playing and succumbing to its opponents’ style.
OKC has allowed a staggering 110.2 points per game and 47.4 percent shooting over the past eight games, while yielding an average of 10.6 made 3-pointers in that same span.
It’s the exact type of deficient defense the Rockets roster exploits.
Then there’s the matter of the Rockets remembering what the Thunder did to them in the first two meetings. In the first contest on Dec. 29, the Thunder won, without Westbrook, by 31 points. In the second game on Jan. 16, the Rockets scored just 19 second-half points after posting 73 in the first half. It was the largest disparity of points scored between halves in NBA history. Houston lost at home that night by 12.
“We’ll see (Tuesday) night,” Collison said. “We have another tough test, another team that’s going to play up-tempo with a lot of guys who are going to drive and kick, similar to the Lakers. We’ll see if we can play better.”
In case you’re wondering, Hamilton’s career-high is 19 points.