‘Tis the season to be jolly’, and the NBA will deliver its own gift, especially for the #NBAintheUK fans on Christmas Day, when the Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Houston Rockets at the friendly tip-off time of 8pm.
Houston hasn’t enjoyed the best of starts to the season relative to the expectations of a team that went to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last year. The reasons as to why are endless, between not bringing back key players from last year, winning just one of their first six games, the Carmelo Anthony saga, Chris Paul fighting with half of the Lakers roster, and the team’s sudden loss of the ability to shoot threes. It’s a shadow of the team that secured the best regular season record in 2017-2018.
But they have recently managed to build up a bit of steam. A lot of that is behind the form of reigning league MVP James Harden, The Beard currently leads the league in points per game and the month of December has definitely been his best so far. Harden has helped himself to two triple-doubles, including one against the Lakers, finishing with 50 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists while shooting 53.8%.
He will be hoping to cap off with a win in front of the home crowd at Toyota Center, while finally clawing themselves back into the playoff mix as the Rockets look to put an awful start firmly behind them.
Oklahoma City Thunder has experienced a similar start, losing four of its first six games. Since then, the team has racked up multiple win streaks and is surging out of shadows into a high seed in the Western Conference.
The biggest win for the Thunder was having All-Star Paul George re-signing with the team this past off-season and committing long-term to play alongside the ever dominant Russell Westbrook. Thanks to his return, the team has the best defensive rating in the league with 101.7 despite still missing, arguably, their best defensive player in Andre Roberson. A key part of this is the team has two of the top players in steals per game in Westbrook (2.5) and George (2.2). Center Steven Adams is becoming the team’s third star and currently sits third in the league in offensive rebounds per game, which has contributed to the team finding themselves second in the league in second-chance points averaging 15.4 per game.
George is having his best season in a while, averaging a career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
This will be the second straight year the teams have met on Christmas Day, and the match-up last year was one to remember, as Oklahoma City took the win after a closely fought contest. Westbrook led the Thunder with 31 points, 6 rebounds and 11 assists, George 24 points of his own. It was Harden who kept the Rockets in the game with his 29 points, 8 rebounds and 14 assists. Eric Gordon and Clint Capela added 20 and 19, respectively, but it was big-time plays from Westbrook in the clutch which saw that one done.
Both starting line-ups are top 10 in points per game, and also are two of the top 10 most efficient in the league. But it gets interesting when it comes to the benches, as neither team has been very productive. Oklahoma City holds the advantage as Houston’s bench has only managed a total of 799 points overall, which is by far the worst in the entire NBA. One key area the Rockets and Harden stand out in is the free throw line, Harden gets to the line more than any other player and averages 10.9 attempts per game while OKC is top ten in personal fouls per game.
It promises to be another OKC/Houston Christmas cracker, with both teams hoping to carry the momentum forward into the new year and extended their current run of form.