The Brooklyn Nets have played some fine basketball all season long, and they will face their next test in the form of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. Oklahoma City has won five straight, and is in first place in the Northwest Division.
Similarly, the Nets have won five of six and trail the New York Knicks by just one game in the Atlantic Division. Both Brooklyn and Oklahoma City like to play a fast-paced game, not to mention some tough defense, and that will make for an epic showdown at the Barclays Center.
It's still going to be an uphill battle for Brooklyn. Center Brook Lopez will likely miss his third straight game, thus leaving the Nets without substantial size in the paint, and Deron Williams' shooting struggles remain an issue.
The Thunder will definitely take advantage of short-handed Brooklyn, using their depth and balanced attack to show the young Nets just how to play with the NBA's big boys.
Sure, the team has played well thus far, but it still has a lot to learn about what it takes to play together as a winning team and go far in the playoffs. Granted, the postseason is a long way off, but it's definitely something to consider given how much Oklahoma City has improved over the past three seasons.
The stage is thus set for this game to be unpredictable and close. Both teams want the victory badly, and for different reasons. Brooklyn wants to further assert itself as a top team in the Eastern Conference, and Oklahoma City wants to extend its streak to six.
Thus, fasten your seat belts, fans. This game has the makings of a bumpy ride!
Time: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBATV, YES, Fox Sports Oklahoma
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (14-4) vs. Brooklyn Nets (11-5)
Betting Lines: Oklahoma City (-4), Brooklyn (+4)
Injuries: Brook Lopez (foot, doubtful)
Key Storyline: Are the Brooklyn Nets For Real?
The Nets may have a solid record right now, but it is important to note that they haven't truly been tested yet. Of their 11 wins, only seven have come against teams that made the playoffs last season. Factor in that the Orlando Magic are now without Dwight Howard and basically a lottery team, and that total shrinks to four.
Regarding losses, Brooklyn has lost to the Miami Heat twice and the Los Angeles Lakers once. Their other two have come against the young and feisty Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors, so it's pretty telling as to how inexperienced Brooklyn really is against experienced, championship-caliber teams, not to mention younger ones with passion.
Facing the Oklahoma City Thunder will thus be the Nets' ultimate test. Brooklyn will be at a great disadvantage on defense without Brook Lopez, and the Thunder are the highest-scoring team in the league with 105.1 points per contest. If the Nets really want to prove themselves, they'll need to slow this game down and force the Thunder to play at their pace.
So long as the game can be kept close and not get out of hand quickly, then the Nets will have earned the right of being taken seriously. If they lose by a wide margin, it's only going to add to the case that they cannot keep up with elite teams.
Key Matchup: Gerald Wallace vs. Kevin Durant
The key to slowing down the Thunder is to slow down Kevin Durant, which is no easy task. The three-time scoring champion is currently third in the league with 26.2 points per game, and has also shown improvement on defense this season. He is averaging 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, doing all he can to be a more complete player and help the Thunder get back to the NBA Finals.
He's going to be in for a long night against the Nets. Brooklyn forward Gerald Wallace is one of the league's best athletes and pests, and he's going to be on Durant like a moth to the flame.
The man known as "Crash" is averaging 1.9 steals on the season, and is slowly starting to regain his scoring touch. Over his last five games, he is averaging 11.2 points per game.
Durant has a height advantage at 6'9", compared to the 6'7" Wallace, and also outweighs his opponent by 10 pounds, at 235. Still, this will matter little once the game is underway. Wallace has proven that he can and will play beyond his size, which may not bode well for the Thunder if he takes Durant out of the game.
Yes, Oklahoma City is deeply talented, but Durant having a bad scoring night could spell doom for the Thunder in Brooklyn. Russell Westbrook is going to have his hands full with Deron Williams all night long, so he won't be able to turn on the savior switch in a heartbeat should his teammate struggle.
Durant just needs to do what he always does and fake Wallace out as best he can. He needs to create off the dribble and not be afraid to dish the ball off if need be.
By sticking to his guns and not being afraid of Wallace, Durant will be able to get past the pesky defense and once again lead Oklahoma City to victory.
X-Factor: Joe Johnson
Without Lopez manning the paint and Deron Williams continuing to struggle with his shooting, it's going to be up to Joe Johnson to help the Nets win this game. The natural scorer has only shot 41 percent from the field for the season, but is slowly starting to regain his touch. He is shooting 45 percent over his last five games, and is averaging 15.6 points per game for the season.
Under normal circumstances, Johnson would be working in tandem with Williams as the team's one-two punch in the backcourt, with Lopez contributing as necessary. This has yet to come to fruition. Williams is averaging 15.4 points and 8.9 assists per game, but is shooting just 38 percent from the field.
The team as a whole has struggled to score points, and ranks 20th in points per game at 95.3.
It is thus all the more important that Johnson be fully locked in against Oklahoma City. With Williams struggling and Lopez out, he needs to carry the load and pick his shots wisely. He is a fine scorer to begin with and this shouldn't be a problem, but he cannot just throw up shots willy-nilly and expect them to fall.
Johnson needs to be willing to take risks against a tough Thunder defense that will be trying to do all it can to shut him and his teammates down. This means driving the lane to draw a foul. It means creating off the dribble and not being afraid to pass the ball to an open teammate.
Most important of all, it means staying focused and not being afraid of a seemingly superior team. So long as Johnson maintains that type of attitude, he will set himself up for a great game and, potentially, a key victory for his Nets.
The Nets will do a great job of keeping this game close, but their efforts will fall short in the end. Oklahoma City is just too deep and talented, and the odds of them having a bad game against a Nets team that is sans Brook Lopez are slim to none. The former Stanford Cardinal is just too big a loss, and Andray Blatche is not the same type of impact player despite playing some fine basketball in Brooklyn.
It will be a hard-fought battle, but Oklahoma City will walk away with the victory in this one. Kevin Durant will fight and claw his way past the tough defense of Gerald Wallace, and Russell Westbrook will defend Deron Williams to the point where the point man's shooting struggles continue for yet another night.
Who will win?
Joe Johnson will do a fine job of keeping the Nets in the game, but will run out of gas in the fourth quarter. In just one short moment, he'll go from being the team's seeming savior to ice cold.
The Thunder will just be too much for this Brooklyn lineup, from flashy scoring to tough defense. At the last buzzer, their winning streak will be at six games and the Nets will be left wondering just how they can go about facing elite teams.
Oklahoma City Thunder 108, Brooklyn Nets 101