Defense might slow down James Harden-Russell Westbrook showdown

HOUSTON -- Thursday's third meeting between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder features two of the NBA’s most dynamic players in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And while watching them score and distribute will be a joy, stopping each of them becomes a task borne from teamwork and individual play.

“He’s such a great player that you just schematically, with great effort by everyone, you try and force him into tough twos,” Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik said of Westbrook. “Staying within our philosophy with everybody, we want to force players to take tough, contested shots inside the arch, outside the paint. Westbrook is the ultimate challenge.”

In their last meeting, Dec. 9 at Oklahoma City, the Rockets won a gritty, down-to-the wire game 102-99. When the night was over, Patrick Beverley forced Westbrook to air-ball a potential game-winning jumper in the closing seconds.

Westbrook finished with a triple-double: 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But here’s the deal: When covered by Beverley, Westbrook was 2-for-12 with two turnovers and just 10 points.

Beverley, who has missed the past two games with a sprained right wrist, is expected to play Thursday night.

“It’s his tenacity, coupled with the fact, as a team more often than not, we’re in a good position off the ball to show Westbrook bodies,” Bzdelik said. “[Westbrook] has to see a wall of bodies. He has to. With that being said, the guys off the ball have to have their body [facing] so Westbrook can see them in front of him. But your mind has to be on the player you're defending because you can’t let [Victor] Oladipo have an all-star night, and they have players who are all very capable of doing that.”

In the two games against the Rockets, Westbrook is shooting 37.8 percent from the floor and is 2-for-11 from 3-point range. His scoring average is a strong 28.5 points, but he’s taken 45 shots in both games to get there.

“No one man is able to guard him,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. “So it has to be a team effort. That’s basically it.”

Houston doesn’t plan to double-team Westbrook much; the Rockets doubled him no more than five times in the second meeting.

Bzdelik said the early portion of Wednesday’s practice focused on building a wall for Westbrook to see. Few double-teams, but making sure if he beats one defender, another will be waiting for him.

Harden has had his own problems against the Thunder. He’s shooting a dismal 25.6 percent from the field, which includes a 3-for-16 from 3-point range. Harden is averaging just 17 points per game against the Thunder this season, more than 11 points under his season average of 28.4.

Oklahoma City places forward Andre Roberson -- who has a 2-inch height advantage -- on Harden. In the Dec. 9 game, Harden was 3-of-14 with six turnovers and 14 points when guarded by Roberson. The Thunder will double-team Harden to get the ball out of his hands, forcing him to make hurried passes.

“When they double-team me, just get off the ball and put trust in my teammates to make the play for me,” Harden said. “It’s just having confidence of knocking down shots and making the right play. It doesn’t have to be the home run play all the time.”

On the surface, Rockets-Thunder appears to be a high-scoring affair led by superstars. A deeper look shows that defense often takes over and somebody else steps up.