By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 10, 2010

Two of the fastest-starting teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference hold their second head-to-head meeting of the 2010-11 season, this time in New Orleans. The Hornets and Thunder have already played one hard-fought game this season, with Oklahoma City prevailing at home by a final of 95-89 on Nov. 29. New Orleans held a narrow two-point edge entering the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma City won the final period 27-19.

There are two more Hornets-Thunder meetings scheduled over the remainder of the regular season, both in the weeks prior to the All-Star break. Oklahoma City returns to NOLA on Jan. 24; the series wraps up on Feb. 2 in the Sooner State.

Oklahoma City was a trendy pick entering this season as the biggest threat in the Western Conference to the two-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. After a so-so 5-4 mark through the first few weeks, the Thunder put together a five-game winning streak and was 14-8 entering a Wednesday trip to Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Hornets opened the schedule with a franchise-record 8-0 start. After beating Detroit on Wednesday, New Orleans was 14-7 and in a virtual deadlock with Oklahoma City in the West standings, also at six games over .500 with a record of 15-8.

OKC is headlined by small forward Kevin Durant, the NBAs leading scorer in 2009-10, as well as point guard Russell Westbrook, but the Thunder also boast a fine complement of lesser-known role players. The Thunders young cast of underrated contributors includes the likes of power forward Jeff Green and reserves Serge Ibaka and James Harden.


Small foward, Trevor Ariza vs. Kevin Durant
Perhaps the most valuable contribution Ariza has made in his Hornets debut season is the ability to defend elite scorers. There are a few point producers in the NBA more effective than Durant, the leagues reigning scoring champion. Through Monday, Durant (27.4 ppg) was again ranked No. 1 in average points per game, a full point ahead of second-place Kobe Bryant (26.4 ppg). The former University of Texas standout averaged 28.7 points per game vs. New Orleans last season and had 26 points in this seasons Nov. 29 matchup, but shot just 7-for-22 from the field. If Durant approaches the 30-point mark but again is required to launch a significant numbers of shots to do so, it will be a plus for Ariza and the Hornets defense.

A closer look at the Oklahoma City Thunder:

Russell Westbrook

Nenad Krstic

At times overshadowed by the exploits of All-Star teammate Kevin Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook has emerged as a bona fide star in his own right early in 2010-11. In just his third NBA season, the 6-foot-3 UCLA product has made a significant statistical leap in numerous categories, including bumping his scoring average from 16.1 a year ago to 23.7. As one of the most athletic players at his position in the NBA, Westbrook often plays much bigger than his listed height of 6-3, regularly producing highlight-reel dunks. The California native is also an outstanding rebounder for a point guard, grabbing over five boards a game. Hes durable, too, having played in all 82 games of his first two pro seasons.

Starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha has been regarded as one of the leagues best defenders throughout his five-year NBA career, culminating in him earning a spot on the NBAs second-team All-Defensive list in 2009-10. The 6-foot-7, 215-pounder has one of the more unique backgrounds of any player in the league, as the first native of Switzerland to ever play in the NBA. He sports a tattoo on one of his arms that acknowledges his unusual path to professional basketball. The tattoo reads The Game Chose Me.

Unlike the vast majority of players selected in the lottery portion of the NBA draft, James Harden has been a reserve during his one-plus seasons in the league, instead of a star. The third overall pick in 2009 from Arizona State, Harden eagerly accepted the role of sixth man for the Thunder, giving them scoring punch off the bench.

Like Harden, backup point guard Eric Maynor was a 2009 first-round pick, but Maynor was chosen by the Utah Jazz, prior to a trade to Oklahoma City. The steady 6-foot-3 second-year pro first became a recognized name among basketball fans as a college standout for Virginia Commonwealth, which upset Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Maynor beat the Blue Devils by draining a game-winning 15-footer with 1.5 seconds remaining.

Former Hornets starting two-guard Morris Peterson was dealt to the Thunder this summer as part of a draft-day trade. Peterson has been used sparingly by OKC, appearing in just three of the teams first 22 regular season games.

Reserves Daequan Cook and Royal Ivey have made sporadic cameos so far, with their biggest strengths being three-point shooting and one-on-one defense, respectively.

Small forward Kevin Durant is the face of the Thunder franchise and has rapidly become one of the biggest names among the new generation of NBA stars. After Oklahoma City finished just 23-59 during Durants second season, he was the driving force to a turnaround in 2009-10 that resulted in a 27-game improvement at 50-32. In the first round of the 2010 playoffs, Durant and the Thunder gave the eventual world champion Lakers all they could handle, eventually falling in six games. Later in the spring, it was announced that the lithe 6-foot-9, 230-pound Durant had finished in second place in league MVP voting, behind only LeBron James.

Do-it-all power forward Jeff Green was selected three spots after No. 2 pick Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft, a year that proved especially fruitful for the Oklahoma City franchise (which was based in Seattle at the time). The Georgetown product is a challenging player to defend due to his combination of size (6-foot-9, 235 pounds), rebounding skill (6.5 boards per game), perimeter shooting prowess and ability to run the floor.

Nick Collison has carved out a solid seven-year NBA career, spent primarily as a hard-nosed, blue-collar reserve. The 6-foot-10, 255-pounder was a household basketball name in college with the Kansas Jayhawks. Collison and fellow future NBA player Kirk Hinrich spearheaded Kansas to the 2003 NCAA Final Four in New Orleans, where the Jayhawks were edged in the championship game by Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse.

Serbian big man Nenad Krstic has been a somewhat overlooked but critical piece to Oklahoma Citys impressive turnaround over the past two seasons. The 7-footer is a very skilled player, an accurate shooter from the mid-range area of the floor.

Like Hornets backup center D.J. Mbenga, second-year pro Serge Ibaka is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Early in his NBA career, Ibaka has already made significant strides as he continues to polish his game. The 21-year-old is an outstanding athlete who also relies on his impressive wingspan as one of the NBAs premier shot-blockers. Although Ibaka has often been used as a reserve, he actually averages more minutes per game than Krstic, the starter.

Cole Aldrich was technically a Hornets first-round draft pick in June, but was part of the four-player trade that brought Quincy Pondexter to New Orleans. Its been difficult early for the Kansas product to crack the rotation, playing in five of the Thunders initial 24 games.

Players the Thunder want shooting free throws in a close game
Name Career FT percentage (through Dec. 9)
Kevin Durant 88.6
Went 12-for-13 from line in Nov. 29 victory over NOLA.
Russell Westbrook 81.2
Size and speed make it difficult to keep him out of lane.
James Harden 80.9
Left-hander is deceptively athletic on drives to basket.
If the Thunder need a three-pointer, three of their best options are
Name Career 3-PT% (through Dec. 9)
James Harden 38.2
Biggest threat on OKC club ranked 29th of 30 teams in treys.
Kevin Durant 35.2
Accuracy dipped greatly early in 2010-11, at 26.6 percent.
Eric Maynor 34.0
Up to 42.9 percent on treys in second NBA season.

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