The 11-5 Brooklyn Nets take on the 14-4 Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Barclays has been a comfortable home for Brooklyn so far, but they haven’t played a team as good as Oklahoma City, the reigning Western Conference Champions led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder outscore opponents by almost ten points per game and rank 2nd in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency in the NBA. Or, to put it simply: they’re really really good. The Nets might not even have to blow a 22-point lead to lose this one at home!
Joining me to talk about tonight’s matchup from the other side is Royce Young, lead blogger at ESPN TrueHoop Affiliate Daily Thunder, repping the Oklahoma City Thunder. Daily Thunder is one of the best team blogs on the internet, bar none — if you want any Thunder news, info, or community, that’s the place to be.
Royce Young on the Oklahoma City Thunder
Devin: Seems like business as usual so far this season for Oklahoma City — they’re 14-4 and cruising. Have there been any major changes this season to the formula, or is it just a continuation of last year’s success?
Royce: It’s mostly the same. Let Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant be awesome and fill in the blanks around them. But the changes have come largely in the fact that Serge Ibaka is a much more involved offensive player and the Thunder are moving the ball better than ever. Last season, Oklahoma City was a high isolation team and ranked dead last in assist rate at 13.1. This season? The Thunder are tied for fifth at 17.7.
I think that’s largely been because of the natural adjustment in losing a high isolation player like James Harden and bringing in Kevin Martin who is a floor spacing kind of player. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that Westbrook and Durant are both creating more than ever and involving players like Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha (shooting 45 percent from 3 this season).
Devin: What sort of players does Kevin Durant struggle against, if any?
Royce: It’s guys who take a bulldog defensive approach. So a player exactly like Gerald Wallace. The two are familiar seeing as Wallace spent time in Portland. Wallace always tried to play Durant very physical and make every catch a challenge. Push Durant away from his spots, try to keep his touches as far from the basket as possible and just hope to frustrate him.
Devin: What were your expectations for this Thunder team coming into this season on the heels of the James Harden/Kevin Martin trade, and have they changed 18 games in?
Royce: Before the trade, I thought the Thunder were the obvious favorite to win the West with a very real chance to win an NBA title. After it, I downgraded that to a Western Conference finals appearance with no advancement past that. I thought Harden’s late game creating and ball-handling was going to be sorely missed at some point in a seven-game series.
But there’s no denying the Thunder have taken the trade in stride and moved past it extremely well. Martin has been integrated almost effortlessly with Westbrook and Durant making a clear effort to make sure he’s involved and accepted as a third or fourth cog in the offense.
I think it’s pretty clear that the Thunder are absolutely going to be a real contender in the Western playoff picture again. Are they built to win the West, or the title? I still think it’s too early to tell.
Devin on the Brooklyn Nets
Royce: Brook Lopez gets criticized a bit for not being a strong rebounder, but he’s also the Nets leading scorer. How does not having him against OKC impact things for the Nets?
Devin: First of all, it’s worth noting that the Nets haven’t officially listed Lopez as out, but since Avery Johnson likes to put players through a practice before a game (Lopez hasn’t practiced), your assumption is likely true. It’s a big loss. The Nets got an awful lot of flack for signing him to the maximum allowable contract, but so far he’s paid enormous dividends. They didn’t need him against Orlando, but they could’ve used him against Miami — the Heat probably would have won anyway because they’re the Heat, but the Nets were very close for 36 minutes and could’ve used his help bolstering the scoring load. Against a firepower offense like Oklahoma City, the Nets will need to lean heavily on their backcourt to get the job done without Lopez in the lineup.
Royce: Andray Blatche? That’s the question.
Devin: Yup. Andray “What-The-Hell-Is-Going-On” Blatche continues to impress off the bench in ways I never thought possible. With Blatche you always know there are ups & downs, but lately it’s been a series of ups — he’s averaged 17 points & 10 rebounds over the last three games and has avoided his malcontent reputation. He’s part of this team’s defensive-minded bench mob. Yes, Andray Blatche is the center in a defense-first lineup. What the hell is going on?
Blatche credits leaving Washington and joining a system that supports him and keeps him in check with his emotional & productive turnaround. Whatever works, right?
Royce: How good of a defender is Deron Williams? Can he check Russell Westbrook?
Devin: I think of point guard defense in a few categories: a few are actually good enough to significantly impact the game, a few are terrible enough that they get destroyed easily, and most are in the neutral middle where the offense really dictates the action. I’d put Deron Williams in that neutral category. If you saw Williams in a vacuum, you’d probably call him an excellent defender — he’s got the requisite size, speed, and competitiveness — but doesn’t always maintain the focus to be a true lockdown defender. Worth noting: he does tend to have good defensive games against great point guards, though (usually Chris Paul).