Mar 20, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder (50-18) at Toronto Raptors (38-29): 3 keys to close game

Mar 17, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) is defended by Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich (12) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder make their final visit to the Air Canada Centre looking for revenge. When we last saw this absurdly successful team, they surrendered a substantial lead in Q4 to let the Raps escape OKC with a 104-98 victory. That surprising defeat didn’t slow the  Thunder down even somewhat, as they possess the second-best record in the NBA’s Western Conference. Only the evergreen San Antonio Spurs have the higher seed.

OKC still has a lot to play for. The Los Angeles Clippers are nipping at their heels; conversely, should the Spurs slide, the Thunder could grab the #1 slot, and enjoy home court advantage all through the playoffs.

The Thunder are led by two top-drawer players, tall, fast and fine-shooting point guard Russell Westbrook, and an unfair advantage named Kevin (The Slim Reaper) Durant. This amazing swingman leads the NBA in scoring by well over 2 PPG [Points Per Game], at 31.9. Despite the sublime season being enjoyed by LeBron James, a number of pundits believe this is Durant’s year to win the Most Valuable Player award. There are no other names in the conversation. KD has played 33 consecutive games scoring 25 or more points, the longest streak since Michael Jordan in ’86-’87. Westbrook missed half the season with a knee injury, and sits the occasional game for rehab. He scores over 21 PPG, leads the team in assists, and ranks top-ten in steals. Serge Ibaka has added a consistent scoring touch to his resume, which formerly featured shot-blocking and rebounding. With those three leading the offense, it’s little wonder they can afford to test-drive 2 rookies as starters. Andre Roberson will be on the floor as long as he can contain DeMar DeRozan. Steven Adams, a mobile centre from New Zealand, has stepped into the injured Kendrick Perkins’ spot. The enforced switch hasn’t hurt OKC in the least.

OKC’s bench features Reggie Jackson, a point guard skilled enough to start for half the teams in the league, and veteran forward Nick Collison. Swingmen Jeremy Lamb and Caron Butler will get some minutes.

Can the Raps somehow grab a win against the OKC juggernaut? Perhaps, if they:

  • start Steve Novak at power forward. Stay with me, folks, I haven’t lost my mind. Perhaps the only way to put Durant off his game is to give him a defensive assignment out on the perimeter. Let him keep tabs on a deadly shooter for a change. This move may be necessary because of the uncertain status of Jonas Valanciunas, who’s troubled with a back injury. Amir Johnson’s ankle troubles are far from over, so his contribution may be limited, and Patrick Patterson is still in sick bay.
  • pin Ibaka. Tyler Hansbrough must provide another strong game, but not necessarily with big rebounding numbers. Instead, he will need to body up on Ibaka, allowing a lane for DeMar to drive on offense, and giving another Rap a chance at the board on defense.
  • keep Terrence Ross in the game, even at the risk of fouling out. He’ll need to score; we won’t beat this team (which outscores its opponents by 6.6 PPG, third in the NBA) strictly on defense. They pile up the points against everyone.

While I hate predicting a loss, the Raps are banged up. OKC wins 111-104.



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