Golden State Warriors (31-5) at Oklahoma City Thunder (18-20)
Chesapeake Energy Arena, 8:00 ET, ESPN
As of January 16, 2015, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 3.5 games back of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. To reach 50 wins, OKC has to go a remarkable 32-12 the rest of the way. Whoa, if this were any other team, they’d already be making vacation plans for the summer. But we’d be foolish to count out reigning MVP Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and co. to miss the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Tonight will be the first step in determining which direction OKC is headed for the rest of the season. Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are healthy and ready to establish some continuity on both ends. Last night, OKC suffered a tough, 112-101 loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Harden, an MVP front-runner and former Thunder stud, sliced and diced his way to 31 points and 10 assists. And while OKC got some offensive contributions off the bench (Dion Waiters and Reggie Jackson combined for 32 pts), they couldn’t stop Houston’s dribble penetration and looked a step slow all night.
And the worst part about it is, tonight is even tougher. The Golden State Warriors are still rolling, taking names and feature the league’s best record. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson appear headed to the All-Star game and are further cementing their place as the top backcourt duo in the Association. The Dubs have won their last 8 games by an average margin of 19.8 points. That’s utterly ridiculous, especially considering they just got starting center Andrew Bogut back from injury.
With a deep bench, including Marreese Speights (12.4 ppg), David Lee, and Andre Iguodala, Golden State has many different options to throw at an OKC squad still trying to establish its identity. For them to continue their winning ways, someone (ahem, Harrison Barnes) needs to take on the responsibility of slowing down Kevin Durant. If KD gets off to hot start, (career-high 30 first-half points on December 18th) things could go south very quickly.
Look for Curry, Thompson, Westbrook and Durant (the Usual Suspects), to contend for top D.O.G. honors tonight. But expect OKC to break through and pick up a key home victory. If they can finally slow down Golden State’s offensive attack (avg. 116 ppg in two games v. OKC this season), Westbrook and KD will provide enough scoring to come out on top.
Kevin Durant: Projected Top D.O.G.
Doggy Bag (News & Notes):
With the way Draymond Green has been performing, it doesn’t look like David Lee will reclaim his starting spot this year. And for good reason…Green is a multi-faceted player who can defend, rebound, score and set up teammates. He fits better with Bogut on the interior and stretches defenders out to the three-point line.
Lee will be another one of the Warriors’ X-Factors if Coach Steve Kerr can make him completely buy into the role as an inside scorer and tenacious rebounder off the bench. If he does, Golden State will have the most complete lineup in the NBA, from top to bottom.
Defense Is Our Backbone?
Although Durant (avg. 37 ppg in his last 3 games) and Westbrook (avg. 28 ppg in his last 10 games) are having no problem scoring the ball, the entire team is struggling to get stops on the defensive end. A top-10 defense a year ago, OKC has surrendered 110.7 ppg in their last 7 games.
To reach the 50-win mark, a defensive identity has to be reinforced by Scott Brooks. Don’t be surprised to see bigger lineups with Ibaka, Durant, Perry Jones, and Steven Adams all on the floor at the same time.
Marreese Speights (GSW) & Anthony Morrow (OKC)
With Andrew Bogut resting tonight, Speights slots back into the starting center position. Even though he is facing a difficult matchup against shot-blockers like Ibaka and Adams, Speights can still wreak havoc with his 15-footer. Look for 12-15 points and 7 boards.
Sharpshooter Anthony Morrow is certain to see plenty of looks in tonight’s open court game. The former Warrior has an outside shot (no pun intended) to light it up and be OKC’s key X-Factor. Expect 10-12 points and 3 triples.