By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
November 16, 2012

The New Orleans Hornets’ difficult early-season schedule continues Friday evening, with the first of four matchups this season against the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. In their previous six games so far, the Hornets have faced just one opponent that finished below .500 in 2011-12 (Charlotte Bobcats). That stiff-competition theme will not abate much over the next few weeks, either, as 14 of New Orleans’ first 19 opponents were playoff teams last season.

In a scheduling oddity, Friday’s visit to the Crescent City is the first of two trips by the Thunder to Louisiana over a brief 15-day span. Oklahoma City will be back here on Saturday, Dec. 1. The other two Hornets-Thunder meetings this season will take place in the Sooner State, on Dec. 12 and Feb. 27. The revamped Hornets hope to produce better results against the Thunder this time, after dropping all three matchups in 2011-12, by margins of 10, 10 and eight points.

New Orleans’ ability to remain competitive early in 2012-13 despite formidable opposition has been based partly on its significantly improved depth. The bench helped spark victories over Utah, Chicago and Charlotte, with varied contributions from the likes of Ryan Anderson (average of 16.0 points), Jason Smith (16 points in 15 minutes at Chicago), Brian Roberts (16 points, 8 assists vs. Charlotte) and Roger Mason (8 points in 21 minutes at Chicago, including two three-pointers). Meanwhile, starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu and center Robin Lopez have been among the NBA’s most improved players. After missing two games due to the concussion he sustained vs. Utah, No. 1 pick Anthony Davis posted his first career 20-10 game on Nov. 9 vs. Charlotte, compiling 23 points and 11 rebounds.

Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Anthony Davis vs. Serge Ibaka
Players on both teams may find themselves looking over their shoulders when they dare to enter the paint Friday. Ibaka and Davis rank first and fourth, respectively, in the league in blocked shots. Ibaka is averaging 3.67, while Davis swatted 2.75 per outing in his initial four appearances. Davis rejected a season-best five shots during New Orleans’ 107-99 victory vs. Charlotte.

Oklahoma City rode one of the league’s most stable rosters all the way to the NBA Finals in 2012, knocking off top-seeded San Antonio to capture the Western Conference championship. The Thunder grabbed a 1-0 series lead over Miami in the NBA Finals, but the Heat rolled to four consecutive victories to clinch the trophy. With a young and talented core group that had been together for several years, Oklahoma City seemed destined to be one of the top clubs in the West for the foreseeable future. While the Thunder’s future still seems very bright, they faced some rare adversity in October when they could not reach an agreement on a contract extension with shooting guard James Harden. As a result, Harden – the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year winner in 2011-12 – was traded to Houston on Oct. 27. With a slightly remade bench, the Thunder are still off to a solid start, winning six of their first nine games. The only losses during that stretch came against San Antonio (on a game-winning buzzer-beater by Tony Parker), Atlanta and Memphis.

What’s new
The Thunder made several minor tweaks to the roster in the summer, but the Harden trade to Houston was by far the biggest change. Many NBA analysts projected that Oklahoma City would quickly dip in the standings due to Harden’s departure, but the Thunder made an excellent “save” by acquiring Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb from the Rockets in the trade. Martin has been superb early in 2012-13, averaging 16.0 points while shooting 46.9 percent from the field. Through OKC’s first nine contests, he was a scorching 50 percent (19-for-38) from three-point range. He’s not as versatile of an offensive weapon as Harden, but he may be a better spot-up shooter, making him an ideal fit in the team’s attack. Meanwhile, Houston first-round pick Lamb has only made brief cameos thus far. Much earlier in the offseason, the Thunder added second-unit role players such as Hasheem Thabeet and first-round pick Perry Jones.

Thunder star
Kevin Durant is the NBA’s three-time defending scoring champion, averaging 30.1, 27.7 and 28.0 points over the past three seasons. Early in 2012-13, his average had dipped to 24.2, but that appeared to be partly due to Martin’s hot start. Durant’s shooting percentages remain outstanding (49.4 from the field), and he is averaging a career-best 10.3 rebounds. He had over 20 points and 10 rebounds in each of OKC’s first three games.
On the rise
Fourth-year power forward Serge Ibaka continues to improve, displaying a rare combination of size (6-foot-10, 235 pounds) and skill (he began 2012-13 at 25-for-28 on free throws). The athletic Ibaka also went on a shot-blocking binge this week, rejecting a total of 13 shots in back-to-back victories over Cleveland and Detroit.

Russell Westbrook’s aggressive mindset makes him one of the most feared offensive point guards in the NBA. The UCLA product can take over games with his penetration and streaky outside shot, but has also made strides in playmaking (8.1 assists per game early in 2012-13). He’s an outstanding rebounder for a backcourt player, often using his size, timing and leaping ability to grab boards in traffic.

On the sideline
Former NBA point guard Scott Brooks has gone 50-32, 55-27 and 47-19 in the three previous seasons as Oklahoma City’s head coach, staking a claim as one of the league’s best sideline bosses. Brooks was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2009-10 and was the Western Conference All-Star team’s coach in 2012.

Did you know?
Like the Hornets, the Thunder added two former University of Kentucky players to their roster this summer. However, unlike NOLA’s Anthony Davis and Darius Miller, OKC’s Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins have not received much playing time.

Players the Thunder want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Thunder need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Nov. 13)
Averages about eight trips to foul line per game in career.
Former team leading scorer for both Sacramento and Houston.
Never afraid to penetrate through or over defense in the paint.
Career three-point percentage (through Nov. 13)
Extremely unusual form, but one of NBA’s premier range shooters.
Improved dramatically since shooting 28.8 as a rookie in 2007-08.
Back after missing most of 2011-12 to season-ending knee injury.