Los Angeles Clippers @ Oklahoma City Thunder
Chesapeake Energy Arena (Oklahoma City)
4:30p PT FOX Prime Ticket / ESPN
We put the hard questions to three of our writers in advance of tonight’s showdown of Western Conference elites. Here’s what they had to say:
1) Fact or Fiction: The Thunder are better this year than they were last year.
Jordan Heimer: Fiction. Even with Kevin Martin off to a hot start, you can’t lose one of the NBA’s top playmakers without taking a step back. And, although Durant and Westbrook continue to say all the right things, one has to wonder if the Thunder chose the optimal secondary star to compliment Durant.
Fred Katz: Fiction. The James Harden trade made sense from a financial and a for-the-future perspective, but that doesn’t mean the Thunder are better in 2012. The bench unit isn’t the same, even with the return of Eric Maynor.
Andrew Han: Fiction, as of today. OKC not only lost a key contributor in Harden, but also the continuity of a team that was together for 3+ years. They might be able to make adjustments during the season and make the pieces fit better, but such a drastic break in roster consistency almost never makes a team better.
2) Fact or Fiction: The Clippers can sufficiently defend Kevin Durant.
Heimer: Challenge the premise – no one can “sufficiently” defend Kevin Durant. He’s 6’10, shoots from 3 with an ease most guys don’t have at the free throw line, and has made steady improvement as a ball handler. And now that he’s playing minutes at the 4? Forget it. All the Clips can do is clog the middle, bring smart help, vacuum up the rebounds, and hope he doesn’t have one of those unconscious nights from downtown.
Katz: Fact. “Sufficiently” has to be the key word because no one can actually cover Kevin Durant well. The Clippers’ defense has been so good, though, that they might be more equipped to contain Durant than most other teams in the league.
Han: Fact. Kenyon Martin was the crunch time defender against Durant last season, but Butler took on most of the responsibility during the game. And the season before? Randy Foye was the “Durant-whisperer” for the Clippers. A team can never hope to shut down Durant, only contain him. And the Clippers have been doing a reasonable job containing him with whatever player was around for the past few seasons.
3) Fact of Fiction: Tonight’s game will be a preview of the Western Conference Finals.
Heimer: Fictionish. I still believe both the Lakers and Spurs have higher ceilings than this Thunder team, albeit ceilings neither team are guaranteed to reach. But if Steve Nash gets healthy and the Spurs continue to improve through the season (which they almost always do) one of those teams will play for the conference title.
Katz: Fiction. The Lakers still exist, don’t they? They seem chaotic now but all that pandemonium will be in the rearview mirror come May. That’s the time when Kobe, Nash, Dwight, and Pau will have the chance to be at their best.
Han: Fiction. Based on the way teams look today, I think most people would agree that the Grizzlies and Clippers would be the favorites to make the Conference Finals. But I don’t think anyone would be shocked if the game tonight ultimately was a preview.