The Oklahoma City Thunder believe that they are storming their way to a championship. Raining on the Magic’s parade in Orlando would be another indication that OKC is bound to devastate all comers on their righteous path to glory.
Meanwhile, Orlando has several issues that have conspired to drop them into the lower bracket of playoff-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference. Chief among these is the uncertainty surrounding the immediate and long-range future of Dwight Howard. Otis Smith and the rest of the front office are hoping that a win over the Thunder just might convince Howard that the Magic have a legitimate shot at the championship, and encourage him to finish his career in Disneyland South.
HOW THE THUNDER CAN WIN
Notwithstanding the warp speed of Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook is quicker with the ball than any point guard in the league. As such, there’s no way that Chris Duhon or Jameer Nelson (assuming his sore knees allow him to play) can keep Westbrook from zipping the ball into the paint whenever the spirit moves him. In so doing, the Magic’s defense will be forced to collapse en masse to prevent Westbrook from shooting multiple layups. By virtue of Westbrook’s timely kick-out passes, the Thunder’s sharp-shooters will have the time and space to launch uncontested treys. Moreover, Westbrook is a rhythm shooter, who rarely misses when he can pull-up right.
• To put even more pressure on Orlando’s bent-out-of-shape defense, it’s virtually impossible for Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, or Jason Richardson to single-handedly keep Kevin Durant from scoring points by the dozens. KD’s incredible range, along with his various step-backs, pull-ups, curls off of pin-down screens, and long-limbed drives hoopward create another situation where gang-defense is required.
• Adding to Orlando’s defensive difficulties is the perimeter shooting of Daequan Cook, who must necessarily be left unguarded while the focus must be on Westbrook and Durant.
• A further complication is the irresistible point-making of James Harden, arguably the most potent sixth man extant. Harden’s left-handed drives are both powerful and tricky, and result in multiple visits to the foul line. Also, Harden can shoot well enough from the outskirts to make him still another high-volume scorer. Plus his body-up defense in isos is highly effective.
• Since OKC always looks to push the ball, Orlando’s defensive transitioning will be continuously challenged.
• With Kendrick Perkins setting massive screens, and the high-flying Serge Ibaka routinely knocking down mid-range jumpers, no wonder the Thunder are only one of three NBA teams to average over 100 points per game. Their 102.7 per game is topped only by Denver and Miami.
• On the defensive end, Perkins has the mass and the willpower to avoid being bullied by Howard.
• Ibaka’s hops, length and defensive reads have made him the league’s leading shot-blocker. With the rim protected, his teammates can vigorously pressure perimeter and wing players, and also play for steals.
• If he’s healthy, Nick Collison plays defense as well as any other power forward in the NBA.
• With Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison each providing a different look in defense of Howard, Orlando’s interior offense will be non-productive.
• In addition, Ibaka’s defensive range is incredible, and OKC’s bigs do a terrific job in jamming high screen/rolls.
• The numbers say that Orlando’s defense ranks fourth, allowing only 90.83 points per game. But this is misleading because the Magic’s game plan is to play slow-down half-court basketball, which limits the scoring opportunities for them (93.1, ranked 23rd) and their opponents.
• Most importantly, Howard’s effectiveness seems to be on the wane. He’s been slower off his feet, sloppier with the ball and he runs only when he can establish himself in the low-post in early-offense sequences. In other words, he’s been playing as though his bags are already packed.
• By controlling the tempo, OKC can run away with a significant victory.
HOW THE MAGIC CAN WIN
Howard has to be at the top of his game:cControlling both boards, making tight spins and forceful moves in attacking the rim, converting his free throws, making savvy out-passes when he’s two-timed and menacing every shot he can conceivably reach.
• Nelson must play since he’s the unheralded leader of the team. His mastery of screen/roll offense, his clutch jumpers and his surprising bursts to the hoop are vital to his team’s success.
• In Nelson’s absence, Duhon has to be aggressive and not afraid to take chances.
• Anderson’s bonus shots must be on-target, if only to lessen the defensive pressure on Howard.
• Jason Richardson is actually Orlando’s best post-up scorer and he should have an easy time overpowering Cook in the pivot. However, Richardson’s physical battles with Harden will be fascinating to see. Richardson is also a dangerous 3-point shooter.
• Turkoglu’s comfort zone beyond the arc will unsettle both Ibaka and Collison. Other weapons in Turkoglu’s offense include his nifty passwork and his ability to bag step-back jumpers off his left-handed dribble.
• J. J. Redick brings perpetual motion and bull’s-eye shooting off the bench.
• Glen Davis has to discard his diapers and play like a grownup — making his mid-range jumpers, being active on both boards, and making good decisions on defense.
• Although OKC’s bigs can seal the basket and pressure the ball in S/R defense, they typically leave the screener by his lonesome near the foul line. Using Anderson and Turkoglu here will create numerous open shots.
• The individual defense of Westbrook, Cook and Durant can be exploited.
• Westbrook’s tendency to overhandle and to force shots and passes makes him a turnover machine vulnerable to sniping defense.
• Backing up Westbrook is Reggie Jackson, another shooting guard playing out of position. Harden will also take a turn at the point and, although he’s generally unselfish, his subpar passing is a plus for the home team.
• OKC’s 17 turnovers per game will lead to more fastbreaks than usual. The Magic must take full advantage of these occurrences.
• The Thunder’s backup point guards can be pressured for profit.
• Harden has to be forced to drive and finish with his right hand.
• Durant must be banged and bumped on offense, prevented from driving left, and run into multiple screens on defense.
• The refs have to continue to allow Howard to set moving screens.
• Orlando takes and makes more 3-balls than any of their opponents, but they must show more patience in hoisting shots from beyond the arc.
• Since their overall passing leaves much to be desired, gambles have to be avoided.
• Whenever OKC’s bigs front Howard in the low post, the Thunder must move quickly into hi-lo alignments with either Anderson or Turkoglu executing the available lob passes.
• Hustle, command of the boards, Howard using drop-steps and baseline spins to elude double-teams, and slowing the tempo are the keys to victory.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1) Notice how Perkins can deny straight-line drives by Howard, forcing the All-Star center to make adjustments on the move — which are definitely not Howard’s specialties.
2) Just as he gathers for a shot, Howard always exposes the ball.
3) On how many possessions will Orlando’s offense become stagnant and lead to long jumpers under pressure late in the shot clock?
4) Notice how many too-quick shots are launched by both Durant and Westbrook.
5) Will Westbrook register more turnovers than assists?