OKC Thunder face must-win match versus Houston Rockets, Feb. 1st

OKC Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
OKC Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

Each time the OKC Thunder look to be about to head up the ladder they’ve faced a roadblock. Unfortunately, it was the team who beat them (Golden State Warriors) who vaulted into the fifth seed.

As a result of the loss OKC stays just outside the play-in bracket in 11th, a game back of both the Jazz and Pelicans but still only three games out of fourth place.

OKC Thunder face Houston Rockets in a must-win match

Although the season won’t rise or fall on the outcome of the match versus the Rockets it’s as close to a must-win as the Thunder have faced in a while.

It’s clear the Thunder are invested in trying to get into the play-in so they can offer their young roster valuable experience.

Moreover, with a player of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ilk, it’s important for the franchise to demonstrate its commitment to continual improvement and that tanking isn’t the chosen direction for the foreseeable future.

From a logistical standpoint, the fact Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. won’t be playing for Houston makes this one of those rare opportunities for the OKC Thunder to have an easier game.

That also makes this a dangerous game because it’s natural for players to lose focus expecting to beat a team without their top players. Look no further than the Warriors beating the Cavaliers without their four top players as evidence.

So avoiding the trap game is key. Although that might not seem likely, remember the last time these teams met it was the Rockets who won 118-105.

With the Rockets ranking 28th on defense Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be licking his lips at the potential for a huge game. His performance against the Warriors was nothing short of spectacular as he put up 31 points, dished seven assists, grabbed four rebounds, and blocked three shots.

Against the likes of the Rockets, the potential to have a season-best performance exists.

Without Green and KPJ keep an eye on some rising stars for the Rockets. Specifically, the player I was super amped for the Thunder to draft — Alperen Sengun. Although Green is considered the best player on the Rockets, Sengun may have a higher ceiling with a similar game to Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Jokic-lite.

He’s averaging close to a double-double of 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds (3.3 on the offensive glass) plus 3.6 assists, and a block 28 minutes per game.

Another to watch is Tari Eason who isn’t getting much shine in his rookie season but has impressed in the games I’ve caught of him as well as Jabari Smith Jr. who’ll likely be more of a focus with Green and KPJ out.

Speaking of rising stars, watch for Rylan Stiles’ update later this morning outlining the two OKC Thunder players who made the cut and will join Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Utah (presuming the coaches do the right thing and select SGA as part of the reserve team).

In terms of injuries for the Thunder, Luguentz Dort will miss this game nursing a hamstring strain while Aleksej Pokusevski remains out.

Some good news comes in the form of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has joined the OKC Blue to help get him conditioned and ready for a return to the varsity squad.

The tip is set for 8:00 p.m. (7:00 CT) in Houston at the Toyota Center.

dark. Next. A cautionary tale for the OKC Thunder and developing teams