When the Sixers play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, for two-and-a-half hours I plan on forgetting all about the previous 35 games, the remaining 30, the race for home-court advantage in the East, the team's long-term cap situation and really anything other than what's happening on the court. Specifically, what's happening with two superb matchups.
The Sixers have the #1 defense in the league thanks mostly to the play of Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday. The Thunder have the #2 offense in the league, thanks mostly to the play of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. You've got the premiere wing defender in the league locking horns with the two-time reigning scoring champ. At the same time, you've got who I believe is the best defensive PG taking on probably the second-best scoring PG in the league. Durant is very much a jump shooter, Iguodala's strength lies in forcing opponents out further than they want to be on the floor, then contesting shots at the last second. Westbrook's offensive game is built around penetration, Jrue is second-to-none in on-the-ball defense in isolation. This is the test for all four of these guys. In a team game, you rarely get one matchup of pure strength on pure strength, let alone two. This is going to be a battle.
The parallels don't stop there. The Thunder come in with probably the leader in the 6th-man of the year award, James Harden. The Sixers boast a pair of guys who could challenge for the award in Lou Williams and Thad Young. Daequan Cook vs. Jodie Meeks, another mathcup of similar players. Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. While the Sixers rely on Elton Brand's defense up front (when he's able to provide it), and a couple of rookies to fill up the rest of the minutes, the Thunder sport a tremendous shotblocker in Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins who at the very least knows how to defend and takes up a ton of space, and off the bench they have Nick Collison, possibly the best big in the league at defending the pick-and-roll (now that Al Horford is on the shelf).
The Thunder have three guys who can, and will, take turns carrying the offense. I believe Jrue and Iguodala can at least slow Durant and Westbrook down. They'll get their points, but their efficiency will be down. I'm not sure who handles Harden, though. It's not going to be Lou, it can't. Collins is going to have to rely on either Jrue or Iguodala to take Harden when he's on the floor for either Durant or Westbrook. If all three are out there, I don't think Collins has any choice but to play Iguodala, Jrue and Turner if he wants to match up with them. On the other hand, I've watched a bunch of OKC games this season and if Harden has an Achilles heel, it's his one-on-one defense. He's absolutely terrible at stopping penetration, so maybe you attack that with Lou, see if Lou is hot, and then hope Lou can out-score him.
One thing to watch for is the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-pop/roll way out on the floor. Typically, the Sixers switch when this happens, and against most teams they can afford to do that because Jrue and Iguodala are pretty interchangeable in most matchups. Against these two guys, though, they can't get away with it. Westbrook is too quick for Iguodala off the dribble, and Durant is just too long for Jrue to contend with. KD will just shoot over him. If Westbrook is handling the ball, Jrue needs to go under the screen so they don't need to switch. If Durant is handling, Iguodala needs to fight over, which he should be able to do.
A couple things playing in the Sixers favor. None of the OKC bigs has a post game to speak of. Ibaka has a decent mid-range jumper, but Perkins and Collison are basically pick-setters and opportunists on the offensive end. The bigs can provide help to the perimeter guys. Defensively, OKC is pretty much league average. They'll give up points. Finally, last night against the Pistons, the Sixers were able to force turnovers and get out in the open floor. The Thunder turn the ball over at an alarming rate. Durant and Westbrook both cough the ball up with great regularity (Harden takes much better care of the ball), and the OKC bigs are veritable turnover machines. If the Sixers stay active in the passing lanes and throw timely traps at the Thunder, they should be able to get their transition game going, and those easy points could make the difference.
Tonight's game is huge beyond being a great matchup. The Pistons game was reminiscent of their early-season thrashings of the league's bottom feeders. A win tonight, on the second night of a back-to-back against one of the best teams in the league would swing the momentum completely. The 2-7 finish to the first half would be a a distant memory and maybe, just maybe, we could start to believe again.
It's a tall order against a very, very good team, but a team the Sixers have played very tough over the past two seasons (the Thunder have won all four, but the games were close, save one two years ago), and also a team whose strength (perimeter scoring) can be offset by the Sixers strength (perimeter defense).
The tip is at 7pm. Game thread will land around 5pm. And remember, no Turner talk in the comments today. It's a Leap Day special.