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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game preview

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Houston’s games in Oklahoma City were framed as “James Harden returns to face the team that traded him.”

That’s not the story tonight.

Russell Westbrook was the face of Oklahoma City. Not just the face of the Thunder, but the face of the city itself. Russ’s 11 seasons in OKC included several deep postseason runs, a NBA MVP trophy, and competitive basketball every night. The fans embraced him and called him things like “The One Who Stayed” as if he were Harry Potter. It was difficult to see Hakeem Olajuwon go play in Toronto at the end of his career (though I still maintain those pictures are photoshopped), and I’m sure that this season has been tough for Thunder fans as they watch their hero play for a team they never really liked.

Don’t feel too bad for Thunder fans though. They have a promising future future and a bright present. Along with the veritable bounty of picks (and pick swaps) they received for Russ and Paul George, they were able to add two above-average replacements in Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari to fill those roles. They also got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a young piece with potential. In fact, SGA has been on a tear lately, averaging 24p/6r/2a/2s on 53% shooting during his last ten games.

Of course, the real engine that drives OKC is CP3, whose steady presence has been missed at times in Houston this year. Indeed, Paul has turned into a clutch stud with 105 points in the clutch (defined as games under 5 minutes with the score within 5 points), which is the best in the league. Much like Bane and the darkness, OKC has started developing confidence in crunch time with repeated exposure. The Thunder are 6-1 in their last seven games, with six of those games coming down to the wire. OKC is 4-0 in overtime games this season. They have found gold in their three-guard lineup of Paul, SGA, and Dennis Schroder. Every statistic to describe these lineups ends with “and that’s the best mark in the entire league.” So uh, yeah watch out for that mini death lineup (papercut lineup? I’ll workshop it).

What’s remarkable is that the Thunder started 11-14 and are now 21-16 and in seventh place in the Western Conference. They have a five-game cushion over the gaggle of teams fighting for the eighth playoff spot. If that 11-14 record seems familiar, it’s because the Rockets also started 11-14 last season before finishing 53-29. If CP3 pulls that trick off twice, he really would be Houdini. They currently sit just two games behind the much-publicized Dallas Mavericks.

I expect a rowdy crowd tonight that is excited to see Westbrook play, but also cognizant of the fact that their team needs this win. I also expect Russ to be incredibly amped and for him to try to take 40 shots. The game will either be a blowout in Oklahoma City’s favor, or will come down the wire and be decided by one shaky call that results in Paul, Harden, Russ, and Mike D’Antoni all yelling at the officials.

It’s a nationally televised game on TNT. Thankfully, the game can also be seen on local television if you get AT&T Southwest. And trust me, Craig Ackerman and Matt Bullard will be much better than whatever cronies Turner sends to the game.

Tip-off is at 8:30pm CT on TNT and AT&T Southwest