Thunder roll into Houston

It’s the second of a back-to-back on Wednesday night for both Oklahoma City and Houston as the Thunder hold the NBA’s best record after destroying Utah last night while the Rockets finished a season-high six-game road trip with a loss in Memphis. This game begins a six-game homestand for Houston while it’s just a quick one-game roadie for OKC, which is then back home for five.

In my opinion, Houston is the Atlanta of the Western Conference. The Rockets are good but not championship contenders. And they never seem bad enough to land that superstar at the top of the draft – they thought they had in Yao Ming but we all know how that turned out. Houston, which has a payroll in the bottom third of the league, seems to be mentioned in nearly every blockbuster trade. They were heavy after Carmelo Anthony a year ago and were supposed to get Pau Gasol in that aborted Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade this offseason. It’s just that Houston doesn’t have young talent or an emerging star to give up. Kevin Martin and Luis Scola are good players but not building blocks.

Still, look for the Rockets to be active before next month’s trade deadline, probably more as a three-team trade facilitator. The Thunder are championship contenders as they are, although they would no doubt like to get a backup point guard with Eric Maynor lost for the year.

How the Teams Enter

OKC ended a five-game trip of its own Friday with a 101-87 win at Utah (rather odd to play the same team in a “home-and-home” four days later). The Thunder improved to 12-5 on the road (10-7 ATS) and 5-1 after a loss this year. It also locked in Coach Scott Brooks to lead the Western Conference all-stars for the Feb. 26 game in Orlando (coaches from team with best records in each conference as of Feb. 15).

Houston went into Memphis off a 106-97 loss at Golden State that ended the Rockets’ three- game winning streak. That was the most points the Rockets had allowed since late January. The Rockets’ 41.3 percent shooting was their worst in eight games since the Jan. 25 loss to the

Bucks ended their seven-game winning streak. It seems like Houston has problems with teams that prefer half-court play.

Betting Story Lines

There was some good news in Houston’s loss Sunday. For one, Scola had a season-high 13 rebounds after having not had double-digit boards in a game since Jan. 14. And after four games in which Martin averaged four points, making just 15.6 percent of his shots, he made 7- of-16 shots, going 9-of-10 from the line against the Warriors, scoring 28 points. But keep an eye on his status for Wednesday as Martin battled through back spasms through much of the game, which left him grimacing in pain afterward. The back-to-back could really hit him hard.

OKC is pretty healthy but is hoping to have defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha back soon. Sefolosha has missed nine straight starts (including Tuesday) with a foot injury and last played in the first half of a Jan. 27 game at Golden State. Conditioning has become a concern because Sefolosha has only been able to shoot free throws and set shots. Daequan Cook has been starting at shooting guard. Cook is a much better shooter but nowhere near the defender.

The Thunder and Rockets have played twice this season, both OKC wins. The teams played a home-and-home back-to-back on Jan. 6 and 7. The first night in Oklahoma City, the Thunder won, 109-94 (it wasn’t that close), behind 26 points from Kevin Durant in just 28 minutes. Martin was held to just 13 for Houston. The next night at Houston’s Toyota Center, the Thunder won, 98-95. Durant led the way again with 27, including a key late jumper and free throws. That was the game in which Maynor was hurt. Both games went ‘under’ the total (201.5 and 206.5), with each covering at home. Houston was +5.5 in its home game (it has lost just three times at home this year) and +8.5 on road.

Betting Odds and Key Trends

OKC opened as 3.5-point favorite with the total at 202.5. Rockets are 16-13 ATS overall and 9- 4 at home. Thunder are 16-12 ATS overall and 10-7 on road. ‘Over/under’ records: OKC 14-14, HOU 10-19.

The Thunder are 4-1 ATS in second of a back-to-back. Rockets are 6-1 ATS in past seven in

those situations. The over is 4-1 in OKC’s past five road games. The under is 4-0 in Houston’s second of a back-to-back. The home team has covered seven of the past eight meetings. The under is 6-2 in past eight in Houston.

Betting Prediction

OKC should have the fresher legs, and it’s the younger team regardless. Because of the lockout-shortened and compacted season, Tuesday night was the only time this season, excluding the all-star break and the season opener, that the Thunder will have had three days off between games. Meanwhile, this will be Houston’s third game in four nights and the Rockets actually have to travel farther to get home than OKC will to get to Houston after its game Tuesday. So I love the Thunder here. And the under.

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