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Game 70 Preview: Rockets at Thunder

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I have a confession to make: I love the Oklahoma City Thunder. And yes, I loved them way before Bill Simmons decided he liked them.

I loved their draft a couple years ago when they got Kevin Durant. I loved that they (essentially) traded Ray Allen for Jeff Green in the same draft. I love their recent draft history. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are dynamite. Imagine if the trade with Tyson Chandler had gone through (the Thunder said no after his physical). Could you imagine a starting lineup of Westbrook, Durant, Harden, Green, and Chandler? Scary good. They are incredibly young. There's more I love about them.

I love their fans. They sell out almost (if not every) game in OKC. Now, I do feel awful about the fans they left in Seattle. Sonics fans were dedicated, but the Rockets always played poorly up there, so it's not all bad for us.

I love Scott Brooks as their coach. I remember watching him in a Rocket uniform. He was known as "Scotty" Brooks back then. The boy had a great three-point shot. And, like myself, he was white. It always gave me hope that I could make in the NBA. Silly, I know, but true. Now, he's the best young coach in the league (sorry Vinny). He's taken a rebuilding team that most thought was still a few years away from making a difference and turned them into a team that could be the fourth seed in the playoffs.

Now, I admit that I purchased the entire Rockets-Knicks Finals on DVD. It's a great buy, and the nostalgia factor is through the roof. One of the things I remember most from those games was Brooks's actions during timeouts. He would pop off the bench, grab Hakeem, pull him to the side, and actually coach him. At first, I thought it was crazy. What was this third string point guard going to teach one of the best centers of all time about basketball? Nothing, right? Wrong. Two days after I watched the first game in the series, Brooks got the job in OKC. So what? He was probably just an interim coach. You know, someone you give the job to temporarily while the owner and GM go out and find an actual real coach.

Then the Thunder started winning. Even last year, it was apparent that they turned a corner when Brooks got there. After taking over as interim head coach in late November, the Thunder improved in a number of statistical categories, including field-goal percentage (5.1%), assists (4.2) and points per game (9.6). Sam Presti has also shown why he might be the second-best GM in the league.

So maybe we have Brooks to thank for Hakeem's poise and those championships. Oh, and Houston hasn't lost to the Thunder since April 4, 2006, when the team was still based in Seattle. Anyways, on the matchups.

Star-divide

Matchups:

PG: Aaron Brooks vs. Russell Westbrook:  

Westbrook is a great combo guard out of UCLA. He's averaging 16/5/8, which is pretty ridiculous for a second year point guard. He's tall, athletic, and only 21. He needs to improve his three point shot and his turnovers (averages 23% and 3, respectively), but those will get better with experience. Also, playing with one of the best players in the game doesn't hurt.

Aaron played poorly against the Bulls, but he did play hard. Bigger guards always cause problems for him, since he has to work harder on both ends of the court, which inevitably wears him out. Case in point: the last time these teams met, Aaron was 2-15 for five points. I hope we get the good Aaron tonight, but all-in-all taking everything into account, these guys are pretty even, so that's how I'll call it.

Advantage: Even

SG: Kevin Martin vs. Thabo Sefolosha:

Thabo is an excellent defender. He will definitely be guarding Kevin tonight, and with his size will probably play him well. Kevin might be quicker, but Thabo should keep up with him okay. The Thunder really don't ask him to do much other than play defense. He's Sam Presti's version of Bruce Bowen. He's also 25 years old.

Tom posted a great piece about K-Mart as the T-Mobile player of the Week. I'm going to post it here verbatim. It's that good. I've been trying to explain why I say that Kevin "disappears" on occasion, and Tom really hit the nail on the head here.

He does his damage while you are leaning forward to look for the remote, or looking down to reach for your popcorn, or simply zoning out while watching the game. In other words, you don't notice Kevin's production nearly as much as you notice that of other elite scorers. He doesn't demand the ball like a Carmelo Anthony or a Kobe Bryant might. He takes what comes, and moves around the perimeter or down the baseline, hoping someone might find him for a pass. But he doesn't handicap the offense in the same way that Tracy McGrady did. He might not even touch the ball once on many possessions. That's just the way he plays, and if there is any beneficiary of his unselfishness and patience, it is Aaron Brooks.

Advantage: Rockets

SF: Trevor Ariza vs. Kevin Durant: 

Kevin Durant: 29.7 ppg, 7.5rpg, 2.8 apg, all-around badass. 21 years old.

Trevor Ariza: a good defender, but not Kevin Durant


Advantage: Thunder

PF: Luis Scola vs. Jeff Green:

I like Jeff Green. 15/6/2 is pretty good, but not better than Scola. The fact that he's 23 is great if you're a Thunder fan. This is how you rebuild. You get serious talent through the draft and trade, and then get a good coach to install a system that favors those players. The Thunder are young and athletic, and they're constantly attacking the basket.

Advantage: Rockets

C: Chuck Hayes vs. Nenad Krstic:

Krstic is the old fart of the Thunder's starting lineup. He's 26. Man, what a geezer. He's averaging 8/5 and just under 50% shooting, if you're interested. I'm going to call this matchup even due to the lack of depth behind Chuck, though he could swing this in the Rockets favor.

Advantage: Even

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Bench:

Thunder: Forward Etan Thomas, Forward Nick Collison, Center Serge Ibaka, Guard Eric Maynor, Center Byron Mullens, Guard Mustafa Shakur. Harden has been injured, so I don't think he'll play.

Rockets: No Battier, Hill, or Jeffries. I'm still not sure about Andersen. The Rockets don't have many bodies. Mike Harris might get some serious minutes.

Advantage: Thunder, because Rockets are beat up

Injuries:

Thunder: Harden (hamstring)

Rockets: Battier (knee), Jeffries (Achilles), Hill, Andersen?

Prediction: Fans get rowdy at the Ford Center. Thunder win big (15ish) and get the Rockets curse off their back.

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