By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY — After starting the season with a 6-1 record, the Oklahoma City Thunder were being looked at as the surprise team in the NBA. A week later, the Thunder are in a tailspin, riding a four-game losing streak.
That is the situation that awaits the Thunder (6-5) when they play host to the Houston Rockets (6-4) on Wednesday night at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The latest loss came Monday night when Thunder traveled to Detroit on the second night of a back-to-back. Near the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, Oklahoma City allowed the Pistons to go on a 23-6 run. It was an uphill battle from that point on, and Detroit emerged with a 104-88 victory.
“Defensively we started with really good energy,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “In fairness to our guys, you can always expect on a back-to-back that you’re going to be a bit leg weary. Generally that’s going to affect your offense. Sometimes on back-to-backs you can’t put stock or onus on having a great offensive output, but you have to hang your hat on your defense.”
Oklahoma City’s defense is getting precipitately worse, but it hasn’t just been against teams such as the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Clippers.
The Thunder’s last two defeats came at the hands of the Orlando Magic and Detroit, clubs that rank in the bottom seven in the NBA in scoring. Each team managed to score over a 100 against the Thunder.
“We’re one of the top teams in the league when we play defensively,” Thunder guard Russell Westbrook told The Oklahoman. “So I’m not really worried about who’s playing and who’s not.”
Having issues with defense, however, is not a good problem to have with the Rockets in town. Houston is 10th in the league in scoring at 107.8 points per game and fifth in 3-point shooting at 37 percent.
Houston has not had a problem putting up points this season. The Rockets are coming off a 115-88 plastering of the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.
“I thought they came out with the right intensity, they came out the way they should have,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We talked about it and came out in the second half the way we should have. That way we got some good rest. I saw a lot of good things.”
The Rockets might get even stronger Wednesday with the possible return of guard Patrick Beverley, who has been out since the preseason after undergoing left knee surgery.
Beverley and the Thunder have a history that goes back to when he crashed into Westbrook’s knee during the 2013 postseason. Westbrook ended up with a torn meniscus that cost him the rest of the postseason. Thunder fans catapulted Beverley to the top of their most hated list, which he has held onto since then.
Against the 76ers, Rockets guard James Harden posted 33 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. He is now one of only three players in history to average at least 30 points and 10 assists through 10 games. Harden was also named Western Conference Player of the Week.
However, Harden seems to be more focused on making sure his team plays the right way.
“We’re getting better game by game, and defensively we’re getting better and offensively has been better, too,” Harden told ESPN.com. “We take it one game at a time. These next three games will be extremely tough; we’ll be all right as long as we continue to do the things we’ve been working on.”
Asked his assessment of the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant exit in free agency, Harden said, “It’s Russ. It’s Russ, and it’s a one-man show.”