The Pick: Thunder 103-94
Both teams can be elite, so how are you supposed to know which version of each team will show up?
First of all, it is easy to predict which Thunder team will be on display as they are one of the very best home teams in the league this season, if not in the history of the league. They’ve won 13 of 14 games thanks in large part to Kevin Durant pouring in 29 points a night on 51 percent shooting.
The underrated Serge Ibaka, a player who will be counted on as much now as ever with the Russell Westbrook injury, is producing a very nice 13.6 points per game on 55 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocked shots at home. The Rockets have Dwight Howard, but lack a second interior defender to cover the versatile big man.
This is a star-driven league, but don’t ignore the potential impact of Jeremy Lamb. The second-year pro is much more confident at home, averaging 9.9 points per game with an adjusted field goal percentage of 58 percent in addition to a team-high 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. He could have a field day against the “defense is optional” backcourt of Houston.
The Thunder will not only have the home court advantage, but they will also have a significant edge when it comes to each team’s respective schedule. This game will be Oklahoma City’s third game of the week while Houston will be lacing them up for the fifth time in six days. The extended rest should help hide the void left by Westbrook, allowing the Thunder to perform at the level we are accustomed to seeing.
Would you believe me if I told you that the Thunder’s defense is the fifth-stingiest against 3-pointers in terms of percentage? Or if I told you that they rank second in total field goal percentage against?
That’s right, I’m picking the Thunder to win and cover in this one because of their defense. The Rockets are going to want to get up and down, a style I believe the Thunder can keep up with both offensively and defensively. Houston is good on the glass at 45.4 per game, good for a +3.8 differential, but the Thunder are better at 47.3 per game, good for a +5.2 differential.
I’m not saying the Westbrook injury won’t hurt OKC, but they have experience without their playmaking point guard and have enough offensive firepower to continue scoring at a high rate.
Fun Fact: James Harden is shooting 30.9 percent from deep this month while Kevin Durant has only had two games in December in which he made fewer than 33.3 percent of his 3-pointers.