It's a battle of high-octane offenses and starpower, the kind of matchup that lights up the marquee at the Garden. It's a big game for both teams, as the Thunder try to keep pace with the Spurs for the top seed in the West and the Knicks desperately try to cling to their chances for one of the top two seeds in the East.
At its heart, though, it's the same as any NBA game, in which one team will try to bludgeon the other with the pick-and-roll, and the other team will try and stop it.
So Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are pretty good. I'm assuming you're aware of this if you're reading this blog. But while a lot of their offense comes from their speed in transition or their ability to simply take their man off the dribble in isolation, the Thunder use a ton of pick-and-roll action. Close to 20 percent of their possessions come directly from the pick and roll, with many more resulting spot-up opportunies because of the attention drawn by the pick-and-roll.
Durant's evolution as a ball-handler has moved him into more of an initiator in the set as well as a finisher. Take a look at the problems he causes with his handle. This is a near-seven-foot player (some swear he's 7 feet) taking premier defenders off the dribble.
You'll note above that when Durant comes off the pick, the defense is faced with the impossible decision of risking Durant driving past them, or giving him space. Tyson Chandler is a premier pick-and-roll defender, and he manages to keep just in between the two extremes, but it's still enough room for Durant to pull up. And when the opponent doesn't explicitly blitz him with pressure coming off the pick, the result is a drive, usually with a hammer dunk.
Westbrook presents a similar set of issues. When his mid-range game is going, he's just as unguardable as Durant. And more and more, we're seeing the Thunder use Durant as the screener with Westbrook, which causes even more mayhem.
Notice how Durant is able to play as a traditional big, cutting to the basket for a simple catch and dunk at the rim with no need to get a running start. He can also spread the floor. And when the defense does manage to send the requesite help at the elbow, in fronting the drive, and pressuring the handle? Westbrook finds a cutter or a spot-up shooter. The athleticism and shooting acumen of the Thunder stars hides what has become a very well-developed skill set that allows them to force you into impossible situations.
Of course, the Knicks don't really need an impossible decision to make the wrong choice. The Knicks are 28th in the league in points allowed per possession on the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports.
Their problems range from an inability to correctly attack, their tendency toward constant switches and a total disaster when it comes to helping the helper. Take a look at what happens when the ball-handler manages to get to the edge against the Knicks.
Those big, bright, wide-open lanes are a huge problem for them, and no one steps in to help contest, not at the elbow at the point of attack or at the rim at the point of the finish.
And there are other issues. Chandler is clearly worried about having to recover to help the helper who's supposed to be helping him that he doesn't want to commit fully. And that means jumpers. Mid-range jumpers are what a defense usually wants, but against quick and talented point guards, it's a problem. Against OKC, it could be a disaster.
The Knicks can match the Thunder offensively (if their isolation jumpers are falling, assuming Carmelo Anthony, who's questionable with a knee injury, plays). But they're going to have to make major strides instantly in the pick-and-roll defense if they want to make sure the Thunder offense doesn't run roughshod.
Of course, the problem is, you can improve the defense. You can challenge correctly, cut off all the valves, and contest the shot. And then ...
That's just KD.
"Like I said yesterday, about the foul, it was not something I tried to do the way it was," Ibaka said Tuesday before the Thunder played the Lakers. "The game was physical. I wouldn't try to hurt someone. I'm not that kind of guy. I like to play hard. Just for all the fans that feel like I tried to hurt him, I just want to apologize to the fans that was watching the game." "I was not watching him, I was watching the basket," Ibaka explained. "If you want to hurt someone, you'd be watching him and do it."