After a less-than-spectacular slate of games last Thursday, TNT rebounds in a big way with a quality double-header on the calendar this week. The opening game of the night features the highly entertaining and devastatingly efficient Thunder, against the three-point-bombing Knicks in an East/West match-up.
Let’s take a look at what to expect on the court.
Oklahoma City Offense vs. New York Defense
Entering Thursday night, the Thunder have the league’s best statistical offense, scoring 110.7 points per 100 possessions on the season, and generally pounding opponents into submission on that end of the court. They are, of course, led by the two-headed monster of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but they lead the league in true shooting percentage thanks to fantastic free-throw shooting, efficient scoring (i.e. Kevin Martin), and overall balance.
On the Knicks side, they’ve actually struggled a bit defensively this season. After finishing 2011-2012 with a top-5 defense, New York’s levels have fallen to 15th this year (103.0 points per 100) as a result of some porous perimeter efforts. Tyson Chandler still commands respect in the paint and Carmelo Anthony is actually (gasp) trying for the most part on the defensive end, but between Ray Felton, Jason Kidd, Amar’e Stoudemire, and the like, things aren’t pretty at times.
The biggest issue facing NY on Thursday night is attempting to slow down Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant is unquestionably the better, more efficient player between the two OKC stars, but NY does have a variety of bodies (Anthony, Shumpert) that they can throw at him. For Westbrook, however, they are faced with the possibility of the cement-footed Kidd, the absent-minded Felton, or the picture of JR Smith in a defensive stance awaiting Westbrook. Good luck with that. In addition to the match-up problems, Westbrook is playing out of his mind since the All-Star break, averaging 31.6 points (52% shooting), 6.1 rebounds, and 6.1 assists. He’ll be tough to limit on that end, and it’ll take an above-average effort to keep him reasonably in check.
New York Offense vs. Oklahoma City Defense
For as much talk as the New York shooting “slump” has garnered, they are still the #3 offense in the NBA in terms of efficiency, scoring 1.08 points per possession on the year. It is true that New York’s three-point barrage of early in the season (they averaged twelve made threes a game in November) had to crash to Earth (and it has), but New York is still in the top-half of the league in 3-point percentage while taking a ton of them. In addition to that, they have two of the best scoring forwards in the entire league in Anthony and Stoudemire, coupled with one of the most explosive (and inconsistent) wing men in the league in JR Smith.
Oklahoma City’s defense has been quietly impressive this year, as they currently land in 6th place in terms of efficiency (0.997 PPP allowed). Durant and Westbrook have taken strides on that end (especially Durant), Ibaka remains one of the scarier shot-blockers in the NBA, and they have two wing stoppers in Sefolosha and Ronnie Brewer. Of course, they are not without faults on the defensive end, as Kevin Martin is a bit of a disaster (understatement), but for the most part, they do an underrated job on that end of the court.
There are two distinct focuses in this match-up for me, and they could potentially decide the outcome. First, Ray Felton seems to be a lightning rod for the Knicks, and they will need his offense against OKC. In New York’s wins (that Felton participated in) this year, Felton has shot 43% from the field and generated 6.5 assists per game. In the losses? 37.8% from the field and only 4.8 assists per contest.
Secondly, the Thunder have the significant challenge of slowing the New York three-point barrage, and they are likely up to the challenge. OKC is 11th in the league in 3-pt% allowed this season, and they’ve done so despite allowing the 7th-most three-point attempts on the year. The Knicks’ offense goes as the three-pointers go, and that’s always a focus.
Match-up to Watch – Kevin Durant vs. Carmelo Anthony
This match-up may not take place (Carmelo is considered “questionable” with an ailing knee), but any discussion of a Thunder/Knicks battle winds up with a discussion of the small forwards. These are two of the best scorers in the entire Association, and because of their similarities in both prominence and skills, it becomes a must-see face-off.
Both players are pure scorers, but the separation between them comes in overall efficiency. Durant has an otherworldly 64.5% true shooting percentage, compared to a more ordinary 55.9% for Carmelo, and Durant is probably the only player in the league who can go nose-to-nose with Carmelo and win the “pure scorer” category.
If New York is to have any chance of holding serve at home against a superior opponent, they will need an above-average night from Carmelo Anthony, and thus, a win in this position battle. Look for both guys to score in the 30-point range, and the player who can get more jump shots to fall probably takes the edge.
Because the game is in New York, the Knicks should be considered at least “frisky” in this game. They are 21-9 in the Garden this season, and I’m positive that the atmosphere will be electric with the popular Thunder in town. With that said, there is no question that OKC is the better team, and with a less-than-100% Carmelo Anthony (if he even plays), that tilts the scales further toward the Thunder.
I’d expect a game played in the 100′s and some impressive runs from New York, but in the end, I would be surprised to see OKC drop this game, even on the road.