Thunder-Rockets Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated December 29, 2012
While the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have much trouble getting past former teammate James Harden and the Houston Rockets last month, a repeat performance could be tougher. The Thunder try to avoid losing three straight on the road for the first time in two seasons Saturday night against a Rockets team that's piled up home wins lately. After failing to work out an extension with Harden, Oklahoma City (22-6) surprisingly sent the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to Houston (16-13) as part of a six-player deal just days before the season started. The Thunder got the best of the Rockets in the teams' first meeting since the trade, winning 120-98 on Nov. 28 behind 37 points from Kevin Durant and 23 from Serge Ibaka. Harden, meanwhile, finished with 17 on 3-of-16 shooting, though his head may have been elsewhere after Houston stopped in Minnesota earlier that day to attend the funeral of coach Kevin McHale's daughter. "It's crazy," Durant said afterward. "Seeing (Harden) before the game ... in a different uniform is a little different. We've moved on past it, man. We're happy to see him, glad he's doing well out there in Houston but we wanted this win bad." That victory was one of 12 straight put together by the Thunder, who've looked a bit shaky since. After suffering back-to-back six-point losses at Minnesota and Miami, Oklahoma City needed overtime to beat Dallas 111-105 at home Thursday. Durant led the way with 40 points, the second time he's scored at least that many in his last four games. Not including three straight losses in Miami during last season's NBA finals, the Thunder haven't dropped three in a row on the road since February 2011. The Thunder, winners of seven of 10 in this series, pulled out consecutive road victories over the Rockets before coming up short 96-95 in their last visit Feb. 15. The franchise has dropped 12 of 14 in Houston dating to 2005, when it was still located in Seattle. Houston hasn't had much trouble protecting its own court of late. The Rockets have won 10 of 12 at home, including four straight by an average of 16.2 points. They entered Friday riding a season-best five-game overall winning streak but couldn't keep it going at San Antonio, falling 122-116 despite 33 points from Harden. Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin scored a combined 45, but the three top scorers each committed five of the team's season-high 24 turnovers. The Rockets also struggled to stop the Spurs, who shot 57.1 percent overall and scored 41 points in the first quarter. "I think it was the start of the game," McHale said. "We had to fight back. I was proud of the guys and how they battled back." While Houston leads the league with 105.7 points per game, it's giving up 103.1 to rank 29th. In addition to trying to contain Durant, the Rockets could have their hands full with Ibaka, who had 19 points and a season high-tying 17 rebounds Thursday against the Mavericks. He's averaging a career-high 8.5 boards - 12.3 over his last six games. "He's been on a rebounding tear," coach Scott Brooks said. "When he plays like that - aggressive on the glass - it seems to open up the other parts of his game and also the rest of the (other) guys' games." Kevin Martin, acquired in the Harden deal, is averaging 15.8 points and will surely be looking to come out strong in his first return to Houston. The Thunder are 14-1 when he scores at least 16, and he had 17 against the Rockets last month.
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