By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
January 24, 2011

Two teams jockeying for playoff position in the Western Conference meet for a third time this season, with New Orleans hoping to break through for its first victory against Oklahoma City. Both of the prior meetings between the Hornets and Thunder have been close, hard-fought contests, but OKC ultimately prevailed each time. The Thunder notched a 95-89 victory over the Hornets in the Sooner State on Nov. 29, then secured a 97-92 road triumph here on Dec. 10.

Following Mondays head-to-head matchup, the clubs will meet once more this season, on Feb. 2 in Oklahoma. With the two clubs currently in close proximity in the Western Conference standings, Oklahoma City can wrap up the season series as well as the tiebreaker that goes with it by defeating New Orleans.

One of the NBAs biggest surprise stories of 2009-10, Oklahoma City entered the current campaign with lofty expectations, particularly after taking the two-time defending champion Lakers to six games in a first-round playoff series last spring. After posting a 50-32 record last season, the Thunder are on pace to exceed that victory total, behind a promising and youthful cast of players.

Now in his fourth season, Thunder forward Kevin Durant has emerged as a bona fide superstar, leading the NBA in scoring by a comfortable margin over second-place Amare Stoudemire of New York. Oklahoma City second-leading scorer Russell Westbrook has also received rave reviews for his performances this season, including being named Western Conference Player of the Week three times.

Durant and Westbrook, both just 22 years of age, are surrounded by several valuable and improving role players, such as 21-year-olds James Harden and Serge Ibaka.


Point guard, Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook
The athletic, 6-foot-3 Westbrook has been a handful for the Hornets so far this season, averaging 27.0 points on 19-for-37 shooting. Hes also dished out 10.5 assists in the two Thunder victories. One of the NBAs best rebounders at the point guard position, Westbrook must be accounted for at all times at the New Orleans defensive end. In the Nov. 29 game, the UCLA product grabbed five boards, part of OKCs commanding 56-36 rebounding edge over New Orleans. Paul has averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 assists against the Thunder.

A closer look at the Oklahoma City Thunder:

Jeff Green

Serge Ibaka

Point guard Russell Westbrook has put himself in contention to make the first All-Star appearance of his career next month in Los Angeles. Westbrook has increased his individual statistics virtually across the board, including bumping his scoring average from 16.1 points per game last season to over 22 in 2010-11. Westbrook spent just two seasons in college at UCLA, but has rapidly become of the NBAs premier point guards, in just his third professional year.

Westbrooks starting backcourtmate, Thabo Sefolosha, is the epitome of an efficient, defensive-minded player. During the two previous Thunder-Hornets games this season, Sefolosha only attempted a total of five shots from the field but made all of them. Hes often an afterthought in the Oklahoma City offensive attack, but drilled a pair of open three-pointers in a Nov. 29 victory.

A lottery pick in 2009, James Harden has settled comfortably into a role as a sixth man for the Thunder who provides scoring punch. The smooth-shooting left-hander likes to fire three-pointers, taking a relatively large chunk of his overall attempts from long distance. Over two games against the Hornets so far, he is 5-for-12 from the field, with five of those dozen tries coming from beyond the three-point arc.

With Westbrook flourishing in the two games against the Hornets this season, backup point guard Eric Maynor has seen reduced minutes. The second-year pro averaged 10.5 minutes in the pair of Thunder victories.

Former Hornets starter Morris Peterson, three-point specialist Daequan Cook and skilled one-on-one defender Royal Ivey have not consistently been part of head coach Scott Brooks rotation this season.

The Hornets struggled significantly in recent seasons to defend high-scoring wing players such as Kevin Durant, but with the addition of athletic and long-limbed Trevor Ariza in the 2010 offseason, theyve shown noticeable improvement. While Durant has averaged 25.5 points in the two victories over the Hornets this season, the former Texas standout has gone just 15-for-42 (35.7 percent) from the field. If Durant scores near his average, but is required to take a large quantity of shots to do so, it will be a big plus for New Orleans.

Jeff Green has hurt the Hornets most in the previous 2010-11 meetings on the backboards, where Green has pulled down a total of 15 rebounds. Oklahoma City outboarded New Orleans by a 56-36 margin on Nov. 29. The versatile Green also has the skill to step out to the three-point line and make jump shots, as he demonstrated by going 3-for-6 from there vs. NOLA in the same Nov. 29 game.

Nick Collison is one of the hardest-working players in the league, never afraid to set bruising picks or fight for rebounds in the paint. He provided six points and four rebounds in OKCs Nov. 29 home victory over NOLA, in just 18 minutes.

Third-year pro D.J. White receives sporadic playing time off the bench. White made a five-minute cameo during the Dec. 10 game here, scoring two points. He received a DNP in the other Thunder-Hornets game.

Serbian starter Nenad Krstic occasionally plays fewer minutes than his backup, partly depending on matchups from game to game. In the Thunders home victory over the Hornets on Nov. 29, for example, Krstic was only on the floor for 17 minutes, but he still managed to grab seven rebounds. He missed the Dec. 10 game in New Orleans due to injury.

Defensive and rebounding force Serge Ibaka turned in one of his most valuable performances of the current season Dec. 10 at New Orleans, when he filled in for the injured Krstic in the starting lineup. The 6-foot-10 Ibaka responded with 18 points, including 8-for-13 shooting, as well as nine rebounds. Like Hornets reserve big man D.J. Mbenga, Ibaka is a native of the Congo. Ibaka went scoreless in the Nov. 29 game vs. NOLA, but grabbed 11 rebounds and swatted three shots.

Players the OKC/Hornets want shooting free throws in a close game
Kevin Durant
Daequan Cook
James Harden
Russell Westbrook
Jeff Green
Chris Paul
Jarrett Jack
David West
Marcus Thornton
Marco Belinelii
If the OKC/Hornets need a three-pointer, their best options are
James Harden
Morris Peterson
Kevin Durant
Daequan Cook
Jeff Green
Marco Belinelli
Marcus Thornton
Chris Paul
Jarrett Jack
Willie Green
Career FT percentage (through Jan. 18) Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 18)

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