- When: Sunday, 07 April 2013 at 12:00 PM CST
- Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
Part of the mission has been accomplished. As I mentioned in this previous article, the goal of the Thunder in the last 5 games was to catch up to the Spurs and at least tie them for the Western Conference lead. Now that that has been achieved, the Thunder hold their Western Conference destiny in their hands. All the Thunder have to do now is keep stride with the Spurs, and head into the playoffs with the number 1 seed.
The first step to that begins against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. With the San Antonio Spurs’ win against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, they sit a half game ahead of the idle Thunder. It’s your move, Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently playing their best basketball of season since the 23-4 stretch that began in late November. They’ve beat the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in convincing fashion with close-out 4th quarter performances from their superstar duo.
The New York Knicks come into the game playing their best basketball of the season, having won 11 in a row. The streak, which is the best current streak in the league, can be attributed to 2 things: Carmelo Anthony (32.4 ppg) and JR Smith (23.9 ppg on 49.2% shooting) efficiently attacking teams offensively, and Tyson Chandler and, new addition, Kenyon Martin providing the muscle on the interior. Their margin of victory during the streak has been 13 points.
It’s a funny thing that happens when you write about important stretches in a season. I had the last 5 games tabbed as the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder. But after taking care of business, this game now becomes the most important game of the season. It’s important, not only because we accomplished the goal of catching up to the Spurs, but, because, now, New York is the hottest team in the league. And they are winning by using the same formula that has hurt the Thunder in the past: dribble penetration, 3-point shooting, and 1-2 offensive stars that perform within a system. New York has surprisingly become a lot like Miami during this streak, and it will be a good litmus test for the Thunder moving forward.
Probable Starting Line-ups
New York Knicks
- PG – Pablo Prigioni
- SG – Raymond Felton
- SF – Iman Shumpert
- PF – Carmelo Anthony
- C – Tyson Chandler
Oklahoma City Thunder
- PG – Russell Westbrook
- SG – Thabo Sefolosha
- SF – Kevin Durant
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Kendrick Perkins
3 Keys to the Game
Perimeter defense – With the absence of Amare Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby, the Knicks are hurting inside offensively. Anthony and Smith have actually pushed their games inwards during this streak, but are still very perimeter oriented. Felton is a lot like Andre Miller in that he does his damage by penetrating inside and uses his strength to power shots in. Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Prigioni are all ready to shoot 3-pointers at the hint of daylight. As is usually customary with Thunder coach Scott Brooks, when the Thunder get a player that was recently with another team, Brooks usually plays said player extended minutes when it’s against his old team. So, with that said, Ronnie Brewer, you’re up.
Match-up Land Mines – With the injuries to the Knicks’ front line, they have been forced to play small ball from the outset of games. With that said, do the Thunder really want Serge Ibaka guarding Carmelo Anthony at the start of the game? Or do they want Kevin Martin guarding JR Smith when the bench checks into the game? Or Derek Fisher guarding Raymond Felton? Knowing that Brooks has a very consistent substitution pattern, it will be very interesting to see how the Thunder adjust on defense. As I said before, this is a very good prelude to what Miami and Denver will do to us if we meet them in a future series.
Buckets – The elephant in the room. The scoring title may be up for grabs in this game. Kevin Durant leads Anthony by a tenth of a point (28.4 to 28.3, respectively). With Durant already saying that Anthony can have the scoring title, will team success have any bearing on whether any of these two players eases off the gas when it comes to scoring. Like Durant said, “I really wanted my first one (scoring title). Don’t get me wrong – – I never want to take stuff like that for granted. But if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it.” The only thing for Durant, and Anthony as well, is that their games are about scoring. With as much as Durant has a tendency to stat-watch, will he try to get that extra point to one-up Anthony? Regardless, this game certainly reminds of the scoring title race in 1994, where David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal went back and forth on the scoring title till the last game of the season, where Robinson scored 71 points to finally take the scoring title. We can only hope that one of these two players puts up 50 in the game.