Two of the hottest point guards in the NBA's Western Conference go one-on-one tonight when Jeremy Lin, left, and the Houston Rockets, take on Russell Westbrook, far right, and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Houston, Texas. (Photo : Reuters)
Despite another heartbreaking loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, the Houston Rockets (16-13) are still on a roll, their backcourt tandem of James Harden and Jeremy Lin still firing on all cylinders as the team has rattled off seven win out of 10 games in a testing and tough two-week schedule thus far.
Tonight, however, they face their toughest test to date as they prepare to host last year's Western Conference Champion and NBA Finalist Oklahoma City Thunder (22-6) at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
Led by Kevin Durant, the No.2 ranked scorer in the NBA at 28.5 points per game and the phenomenal Russell Westbrook, who is among the league leaders in assists and steals, Oklahoma City is on an 8-2 win-loss roll in the last 10 games and are 7-4 on the road.
And on a side note, this will be the first time that Harden, who won NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors with the Thunder last season en route to the NBA Finals, will be playing host to his ex-team in Houston.
Former Rocket Kevin Martin will also be making his return to Houston. Martin was traded along with several other players for Harden prior to the start of the season.
The last time these two teams faced each other on Nov. 28, Durant's 37 points and Westbrook's eight assists helped the Thunder dominate the Rockets 120-98 in Oklahoma City.
Latinos Post breaks down the key matchups for tonight's game:
Power Forward: Marcus Morris, Rockets vs. Serge Ibaka, Thunder
And the tests just keep on coming for Morris. One night after getting torched by Tim Duncan for 30 points, Morris, filling in for injured power forward Patrick Patterson, must contend with Ibaka, one of OKC's most well-rounded and dangerous players.
The last time the 23-year-old Ibaka, who leads the league in blocks with a staggering 3.07 swats per game, played the Rockets, he scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a stunning six shots. If Morris doesn't come through on defense tonight, a big night for Ibaka could detonate Houston's chances of winning this game.
Center: Omer Asik, Rockets vs. Kendrick Perkins, Thunder
Asik, who had a mediocre offensive night against San Antonio on Friday, still collected 10 rebounds and has been averaging double-doubles of 12.8 points and 14.4 rebounds in the last five games in the paint.
In a team whose defense is third-worst in the league, Asik is a rock. But this rock can also pack a punch on offense, the Thunder found out, when Asik scored 17 points against OKC in their November game won by the Thunder.
Perkins, the nine-year veteran, isn't much for points, but at 6'10" and 270 pounds, he is as physical as any center in the NBA, and is one of the most respected low-post defenders in the NBA. These two will battle for boards, but expect Perkins to try and gum up the middle to prevent those slashing drives that Harden and Lin make their bread-and-butter from. But he'd better not take his eyes off Asik, or the seven-foot Turkish star could become a force on offense.
Small Forward: Chandler Parsons, Rockets, vs. Kevin Durant, Thunder
Parsons, who scored 24 points against the Spurs Friday, has been getting back to form in the last three of five games he's played, where he's averaging 15.0 points and 5.4 rebounds on 51.6 percent shooting. And an effective Parsons is only good news for the Rockets.
However, Durant has once again established himself as arguably the most feared scorer in the league, producing an emphatic 32.7 points and 7.7 rebounds over the last 10 games. When the Thunder smoked the Rockets on Nov. 28, Durant led the charge with 37 points on 59.1 percent shooting.
To ask Parsons to match Durant point for point would be unfair. To ask him to stop Durant, probably impossible. To ask him to try to at least stall Durant a little while the Rockets get their blitzkrieg-like offense going might be a little more realistic.
Shooting guard: James Harden, Rockets vs. Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder
At 6'9" and 235 pounds of athleticism, Sefolosha has made his reputation as a defensive stopper in Oklahoma City, blocking 1.6 shots and swiping 1.0 steals in the last five games.
Your assignment, Mr. Sefolosha? Stop your former teammate James Harden.
Yeah, that James Harden. The fourth best scorer in the NBA at 26.1 points per game, who has been on five in the last five games, where he is averaging 30.6 points per game and coming off a 33-point night in a bitter loss to San Antonio that will no doubt leave him motivated and hungry for a win tonight.
Last time around, Harden only scored 17 points against Oklahoma City; another reason for Harden to come in looking to erupt on his home court.
Point guard: Jeremy Lin, Rockets vs. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Once again, another marquee matchup will be found at the point as two of the hottest point guards in the West right now--and two potential NBA All-Stars--go head-to-head.
Lin is coming off another impressive showing in San Antonio on Friday, where he shot 9-for-16 and finished up with 21 points and eight assists, though it wasn't enough to stave off the Spurs. In the last five games, Lin has been showing why he could be worthy of an NBA All-Star birth, scoring 16.4 points with 7.4 assists and 1.8 steals.
And on the roll he has been, he is on pace to make up for that six-point effort he had against the Thunder in November, although he did have eight assists in that game.
Meanwhile, Westbrook has been hot for the Thunder all month long, averaging 21.8 points and 8.8 assists along with 2.3 steals for OKC during 11 games in December. Against the Rockets last time, while Westbrook was contained to only 14 points, he did dish out nine assists.
Neither of these two are particularly known for their defense, and both are explosive scorers and playmakers, so expect these two to go at it the whole night in what should be a fun match-up for all the fans.
Since being traded from Houston to Oklahoma City, former Rocket Kevin Martin has been huge for OKC, notching 15.8 points off the bench for the Thunder this season. With solid backup point guard Reggie Jackson and agile defender Nick Collison waiting in the wings, Oklahoma City will have plenty of backup.
With Carlos Delfino questionable for tonight with an illness, Toney Douglas and Greg Smith will have to step it up tonight for the Rockets. They've shown that they can be reliable in the past, but they will really need to bring a solid effort if they want to match the support that the Thunder will get from their bench.
Live score is available via TV Companion, here.