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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game preview

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight marks Houston’s last regular season home game of the 2017-18 season. They will not return to the friendly confines of the Toyota Center until April 14 or 15 when they host Game 1 of their first round series against the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

One of their possible opponents in that first round series is the same team they faced in the first round last season, whom Houston will be playing tonight.

The Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 45-34 and could easily finish with the same record as they did last season (47-35) despite the addition of two All-Star talents in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Meanwhile, last season’s much-maligned Victor Oladipo has blossomed in Indiana while Enes Kanter is averaging the same number of points and grabbing four extra rebounds per game while shooting a higher percentage this season than last for the New York Knicks.

It’s easy as a Rockets fan to put all of this on Russell Westbrook. He’s the engine of that team and the center of everything they do. He’ll never take a backseat to another superstar and while he is an incredible talent and sports a motor that never runs out of gas, he’s also prone to shooting his teams out of games while playing absolutely zero defense. Yes, he plays less defense than James Harden. If an OKC fan wants to send me videos from three years ago, fine. But they know it’s true.

I think Russ is amazing. I was a huge fan of his until last season. The nature of the MVP race made me dislike Russ’s style even though I admired his tenacity. The triple doubles were cool for sure. He didn’t deserve the MVP last season, but he had an MVP-caliber season. Ironically, Westbrook is 41 rebounds and 22 assists away from averaging a triple double for the second straight season and yet it seems meaningless. Last season, his team won 47 games and he averaged a triple double. That was enough for the MVP. This season, his team could win 47 games and he could average a triple double and not finish in the top 5 for MVP voting. So what changed?

Expectations changed. A lot. Last season, Russ was the underdog who took a team that Kevin Durant scorned and made them a fun watch. His revenge tour didn’t result in a ton of wins, but the fact that there were 47 was unexpected. The media also latched onto the narrative that Russ had no help. Really, that was funny to me: OKC fans wanted their cake (“Russ has no help”) and to eat it too (“Sam Presti is the best GM in the NBA”). Well, guess what? He’s got help now. OKC is still on pace for 47 wins though. And so Russ has been relegated to afterthought. Averaging a triple double will be a hollow accomplishment, and it probably detracts from last season for him.

In today’s NBA, in order to win a championship you need your best player to be able to shoot threes well or to create threes from passes. Westbrook had a career year shooting the three last season at 34%. This season he’s below 30%. Most of his assists are dump-offs in the paint or just general easy passes that turn into points. Those have value, but they aren’t enough. I’ll end this (unintended) hit piece with this: I don’t think you can win a championship if Russell Westbrook is your best player. And I don’t think he will ever take a backseat to another superstar.

That being said, I think OKC needs this win SO much more than Houston does so I think they’ll take it.

Tip-off is at 7:30pm CT on ABC

Other games potentially featuring Houston’s first round opponent (all times CT):

  • Denver at LA Clippers (12pm)
  • New Orleans at Golden State (7:30pm)
  • Portland at San Antonio (8pm)