January 11, 2012

Two-plus weeks into the 2011-12 regular season, the New Orleans Hornets and Oklahoma City Thunder meet for the first time. Its the first of three encounters between the Western Conference counterparts this season, but the only matchup that will take place in New Orleans. In exactly two weeks, the Hornets will travel to the Sooner State for a Jan. 25 game. On Feb. 20, during the height of Mardi Gras season, the Hornets will again visit the Thunder the first leg of an arduous back-to-back-to-back set (meaning three games in three days) for New Orleans. Fortunately for the Hornets, thats the only time all season that theyll play games on more than two days in a row.

Both squads qualified for the 2011 West playoffs, with OKC advancing all the way to the conference finals, while NOLA was ousted in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the spring postseason, however, the two clubs have taken vastly different approaches. The Thunder, who were picked by many analysts to reach the NBA Finals, returned virtually the exact same cast of characters from last season, headlined by premier scorer Kevin Durant and athletic point guard Russell Westbrook.

New Orleans took the opposite tack, turning over three-fifths of its roster. Through the first week of January, of the Hornets 15 players, nine were new faces. The only returnees for the Hornets from the 2010-11 squad that finished 46-36 are Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry, Jason Smith and Emeka Okafor.

Intriguing matchup: Bench vs. Bench
While Durant and Westbrook tend to receive the bulk of the accolades for their high-scoring exploits, one less-discussed factor behind their success over the past two seasons has been an underrated second unit. Smooth-shooting southpaw James Harden is always a threat to get 20 points, while blue-collar guys Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed handle the dirty work in the paint. The Hornets backups will try to focus on slowing down Hardens point production, while also holding their own around the basket. Over the first two weeks of 2011-12, Hornets backup power forward Jason Smith has excelled, while center Chris Kaman delivers consistent scoring and rebounding.


In three-plus seasons since moving to Oklahoma City, the Thunder have made a steady climb to the top of the NBA and Western Conference. After going just 23-59 in 2008-09, the Thunder bumped their win totals to 50 and 55 in the following full seasons, respectively. Oklahoma City reached the Western Conference finals in 2011, an achievement that prompted many NBA analysts to expect even bigger things this season. For example, when released its 2011-12 season predictions on Dec. 23, among 30 basketball experts who were polled, 27 of them picked the Thunder to win the Western Conference (there were two votes for the Lakers, one for the Mavericks). The rise to prominence has coincided with the emergence of Kevin Durant as a bona fide superstar. Durant, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft after Portland selected Greg Oden, is the NBAs reigning two-time scoring champion. He averaged 27.7 points per game last season, which was actually down a few ticks from his 30.1 figure of 2009-10. OKC began the current regular season with five consecutive victories before losing to defending NBA champion Dallas. During the season-opening five-game win streak, the Thunder posted narrow victories over Minnesota, Memphis and Dallas, all by a margin of four points or fewer.

Whats new
Many NBA pundits predicted Oklahoma City would excel in 2011-12 partly because of the Thunders lineup continuity. Among the leagues title contenders, perhaps no team made fewer offseason changes than Oklahoma City, which returned its entire starting five of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Among its key bench contributors, James Harden, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed were also all members of the 10-11 club (point guard Eric Maynor recently suffered a season-ending knee injury). OKC added rookies Reggie Jackson and Ryan Reid via the draft, while signing Lazar Hayward in free agency, but none of these three players are part of the every-game rotation.

Thunder star
NBA analysts often say that Durant is such a gifted scorer, it sometimes appears as though he might be able to average 20 points a game in his sleep. The 6-foot-9 small forward is blessed with the length to get his shot off against virtually any defender and has improved his range since coming into the league, after one standout season at the University of Texas. The fifth-year pro is also adept at slicing into the lane for close-range looks, a skill that enables him to spend plenty of time at the foul line.

Thunder on the rise
Harden has received well-deserved praise from around the NBA for the way hes handled the Thunders decision to make him a reserve. The former lottery pick is more than good enough to start, but Hardens instant offense has served the Thunder best with him coming off the bench. Hes never complained about what some players would deem to be a lesser role. The talented left-hander has improved in each of his three NBA seasons and seems poised for a breakout year. Through the first two weeks of the regular season, Harden was virtually tied with Westbrook as OKCs second-leading scorer.

On the sideline
Scott Brooks took over the Thunder early in the 2008-09 season amid unenviable circumstances, after the team started 1-12 and fired prior head coach P.J. Carlesimo. In the three years since then, Brooks has proven to be one of the leagues premier leaders, highlighted by his winning Coach of the Year honors in 2009-10. Despite being listed during his playing days at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, Brooks carved out a 10-year NBA career as a backup point guard, highlighted by his contributions to the 1994 Houston Rockets championship team.

Did you know?
Despite their status as one of the NBAs most feared teams, the Thunder are still very young. Only five players on the entire roster have been in the league for more than five seasons (Mohammed, Collison, Perkins, Sefolosha, Royal Ivey).

Players the Thunder want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Thunder need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 5)
Averaged 8.7 trips to the foul line per game last season.
Deceptively quick with crafty old school dribble moves.
Athletic, sometimes-reckless penetrator who attacks rim.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 5)
Won NBAs three-point contest at 2009 All-Star weekend.
Second behind Durant in treys for OKC last season (113).
Made career-best seven trifectas at Utah in April 2010.

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