NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets had trouble guarding James Harden in Wednesday night’s loss in Houston.
On Friday night at New Orleans Arena, the Hornets (3-3) face double trouble — and then some — when they face defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The game is the first of a back-to-back for the young Hornets, who play Saturday at Milwaukee.
Harden torched the Hornets for 30 points in the Rockets’ 100-96 victory Wednesday. Now the Hornets have to try to slow two of his former teammates: small forward Durant, a three-time NBA scoring champion, and point guard Westbrook, one of the quickest players in the league.
Durant, Westbrook and Harden led the Thunder (6-3) to the NBA Finals last season, where they lost to Miami in five games. Hornets coach Monty Williams said defending Durant and Westbrook is only the beginning.
“(The Thunder) defend well. They have three guys who can go for 20, 25 points every night,” Williams said. “They have great role players. They’ve got guys like (backup power forward Nick) Collison and (defensive-minded guard Thabo) Sefolosha, who know their roles and they play it every night, and they have experience.”
But it all starts with Westbrook and Durant, the runner-up for the MVP award last season. Through nine games, Durant is averaging 24.2 points — which is sixth in the league but his lowest output since his rookie year of 2007-08, when he scored 20.3. However, he’s averaging 10.3 rebounds, by far his career best.
Westbrook, in his fifth season, is averaging points 20.7 points — fewer than the past two seasons — but his assists average (8.1) is in line with his two best seasons. And center/power forward Serge Ibaka is averaging a career-high 14.4 points. Ibaka, who led the league in blocked shots last season at 3.6 per game, again leads at 3.7.
Hornets small forward Al-Farouq Aminu had a difficult first half guarding Harden, who scored 19 in the opening 24 minutes. Aminu fared better in the second half, mainly because he adjusted to the pick-and-roll involving Harden, he said.
Durant likely will be an even bigger challenge. Aminu moves his feet well enough to stay in front of scorers but play off them. When they stop their dribble, he closes out and uses his length to stop or bother their shot.
But Durant has outstanding range and, if he’s headed on a drive to the basket, Aminu’s length will not be a deterrent.
“I’ve guarded him before,” Aminu said, acknowledging the challenge ahead of him. “He doesn’t use the screen-and-roll as much as Harden does. It’s more of making sure you contest shots and don’t let him get easy stuff. He’s a great scorer, but (guarding Durant) is more of what I’m accustomed to.”
Williams and Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez, who will be matched against Westbrook, stressed that team defense will be imperative.
“He’s going to be a tough matchup,” Vasquez said. “I think we just have to do what we do — we have to play our defense. We have a system in place, and if we apply that system, we’re going to be fine.”
The Thunder are adjusting to the loss of Harden, last season’s Sixth Man of the Year whom they traded in the preseason and like Durant and Westbrook a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team. Coach Scott Brooks has tinkered with his substitution patterns and the roles of his bench players, and one of his goals is to get more rest for Durant.
Oklahoma City has missed Harden’s playmaking — backup point guard Eric Maynor has proved not as capable — and Kevin Martin, obtained in the trade for Harden, is more of a shoot-first shooting guard.
Still, the Thunder were on a five-game winning streak before losing 107-97 at home Wednesday to Memphis. Durant scored a season-high 34 points in the defeat.
Shooting guard Matt Carroll, a 10-year veteran obtained Tuesday from Charlotte for forward Hakim Warrick, has not reported to the team, Williams said. Williams said general manager Dell Demps was working out details with Carroll’s agent. Carroll is in the final year of a contract that pays him $3.5 million this season.