PREVIEW: Thunder at Rockets- Feb. 1

Jan 27, 2023; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) looks up a the scoreboard during the fourth quarter at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Thunder at Rockets- Feb. 1

The Rockets will be without Kevin Porter Jr. (foot) and Jalen Green (calf) when they host the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night in the first of two meetings between the two teams this week. After Saturday’s win in Detroit, the Rockets will have a chance to win back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 13. Alperen Sengun will return to action after missing Saturday’s game with an illness, and Stephen Silas will coach the team after attending his father’s memorial service in Charlotte over the weekend.

Eye on the Thunder

Record: 24-26 (T-11th in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 113.0 (19th)

Defensive rating (rank): 112.1 (8th)

Despite not having second-overall pick Chet Holmgren all season, the Thunder find themselves in the thick of the play-in race in the Western Conference at the 50-game mark, and a big reason is the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is playing at an elite level, averaging 30.9 points per game on 51% shooting. He is a lock to be selected to his first All-Star Game when reserves are announced on Thursday. Josh Giddey, the sixth pick of the 2021 draft has taken a big step forward in his second NBA season, putting up 16 points and 8 rebounds each game. The Thunder play at the NBA’s third fastest pace, but they play fast while taking care of the ball, with just 13.4% of their possessions ending in a turnover, the fifth-lowest rate in the league.

Matchup to watch: Eric Gordon vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Two of the four players remaining from the Rockets-Thunder playoff series in the bubble will play a big factor in Wednesday’s game. Gilgeous-Alexander has a good chance to make an All-NBA team in his fifth NBA season. He’s fifth in the league in scoring, and he leads the league by a wide margin in drives per game, averaging 24.1, which has led to 16.8 points, which is also best in the league. He scores 1.03 points per isolation possession, which puts him in the 73rd percentile, and 1.01 points when he’s the ballhandler in pick and roll, which is the 83rd percentile. He’s shooting close to 37% from behind the 3-point line, and his 10 free throw attempts per game are fourth most.

What I’m watching for

The Rockets didn’t win in Detroit on Saturday because they were the better team, they won because they played harder than the Pistons, which is something we haven’t been able to say very often over the last couple of months. The Rockets will be shorthanded again on Wednesday, but can they make up for the absences of Porter and Green by simply outworking the Thunder? Sometimes that matters more than the talent on the floor.

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