Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma City Thunder: Suddenly, the Rockets a scary matchup

by Berry Tramel Modified: March 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm •  Published: March 11, 2014
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There will be no Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder tonight. But there's also no Thabo Sefolosha, which will open things up for Houston's James Harden. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
There will be no Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder tonight. But there's also no Thabo Sefolosha, which will open things up for Houston's James Harden. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

The Rockets have been a good matchup for the Thunder in the past and even moreso this season.

Let’s see. Houston doesn’t have a defensive matchup for Kevin Durant, the Thunder has a defensive matchup for Dwight Howard and the Thunder has a defensive matchup for James Harden.

But Howard’s nemesis is Kendrick Perkins and Harden’s nemesis is Thabo Sefolosha.

Uh-0h. Perk and Thabo both are sidelined until April, and the Thunder defense has disintegrated in their absence. OKC gave up 128 points  to the Suns, 114 to the Lakers and 107 to the offensively-challenged Grizzlies. With Thabo, but without Perkins, the Thunder gave up 125 to the Clippers and 114 to the Cavaliers.

The value of the Thunder’s defensive specialists has never been more clear. Seems as good a time as any to update the records of the Thunder, playing without each of its established five players.

Starting with February 2011, when Perkins came over in the trade with Boston, the Thunder is 1-1 without Kevin Durant, 2-1 without Serge Ibaka and 25-13 without Russell Westbrook. But the Thunder is 23-10 without Sefolosha and 6-9 without Perkins.

That’s right. The Thunder has a losing record when Gran Torino can’t play.

So tonight, what exactly does the Thunder do?

In two Thunder-Rocket games this season, Howard has made nine of 26 shots for 20 points total, with 17 rebounds. That’s 10 points and 8.5 rebounds a game for a player who is averaging 18.9 points and 12.4 rebounds a game, while shooting 58.9 percent. The Thunder won 117-86 and 104-92. Thank you, Kendrick Perkins.

So what does the Thunder do tonight? Steven Adams will start out on Howard, but how long will that last? Will Adams get in foul trouble quickly? Will Scotty Brooks order more double teams on Howard, who gets single-covered against the Thunder, which keeps defenders on Houston’s sharpshooters, of which there is usually four on the floor, along with Howard. Does Hasheem Thabeet get more time? Probably?

Ibaka will have to take his turn on Howard, because the Rockets go small — four perimeter-based players spreading the floor — and you don’t want Ibaka running around chasing Chandler Parsons all night long. But we saw Ibaka have trouble in post defense with Pau Gasol on Sunday. We’ll see the same with Ibaka on Howard.

But the cold, hard truth is that Dwight Howard is the least of the Thunder’s concern tonight. The Thunder has allowed journeymen Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks to produce career highs in back-to-back games. The Suns’ Green dented the Thunder for 41 points. The Lakers’ Meeks went for 42.

If the Thunder defends Harden the way it defended the last two games, Harden will score 75 tonight.

And he’s due against OKC. Harden’s frustration with his former team are clear. Sefolosha defends Harden with a ferocity. In two games this season, Harden is 8-of-25 shooting, with 24 points total.

Last season, in Harden’s first two games against the Thunder, he combined to shoot 9-of-33, for 42 points. Harden had a monster game in his third game against OKC, 46 points on 14-of-19 shooting, In the playoffs, Harden averaged 26.3 points a game in the six-game series. But those points came at a price — he made just 45 of 115 shots, 39.1 percent.

Without Thabo making his life miserable, though, Harden could be free to shoot open 3-pointers and drive the paint without fear.

Who knows if Scotty Brooks will stick with his super-sized lineup. If so, it’s Westbrook or 6-foot-11 Perry Jones on Harden. The latter would be a mismatch. The former would be a fascinating study of alpha males. Probably better to start Andre Roberson and take your chances on the rookie, who is not without energy.

No matter what, the struggling runs into the Rockets tonight without the two prime defensive reasons that Houston fears the Thunder. Good luck, OKC.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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