NEW ORLEANS — The last time Oklahoma City came to town, the Thunder put on a clinic.
On how to play on the road. On how to defeat a young team. On what a championship contender looks like.
Quick as lightning, the Thunder, riding small forward Kevin Durant — perhaps the second-best player on the planet — jumped on the Hornets, not allowing them to gain any confidence. Just as important, the Thunder took out the New Orleans Arena crowd, leaving an inexperienced team without much support if it had the gumption to try to come back.
“We have to swing first,” said guard Roger Mason Jr., a 10-year veteran inserted into the starting lineup four games ago to help get the team off to faster starts with his shooting, defense and savvy. “The last time we played them, they came out and were really aggressive with us early. We know they are going to do that. They are a very talented team.”
Durant scored 27 points in that game Nov. 16 but gave much of the credit to his point guard. Russell Westbrook had 10 points and 12 assists, perhaps ho-hum by NBA standards. But he constantly drove into the lane, setting up open shots for teammates or putting the Hornets in scramble mode on defense in a 110-95 victory that seemed more one-sided than that.
“The penetration was just killing our defense all night,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said, “whether it was right off the bat in transition or a couple of passes and then draw and kick and then getting into the paint. They hit a lot of unbelievable shots, too — shots that were contested.”
The Thunder, who visit New Orleans Arena at 7 p.m. Saturday, ride in playing some of the best ball in the league, averaging an NBA-best 104.4 points entering Friday’s game against Utah. Of note is what Oklahoma City did Monday to another young, vulnerable team, the Charlotte Bobcats: The Thunder led 64-24 at halftime of a 114-69 blowout. It was the team’s largest margin of victory in the Oklahoma City era and included first-half runs of 26-5 and 19-2.
The Hornets already have seen the Thunder’s killer instinct first-hand. And New Orleans had rookie power forward Anthony Davis for that game. For this one, Davis is sitting out his seventh consecutive game with a stress reaction in his left ankle.
Having struggled on offense, the Hornets want to run. But they will have to slow the Thunder to do so, and that won’t be easy.
“We’ll have to get stops,” Mason said. “We’ll have to compete. Last time, we didn’t compete.”
New Orleans will need plenty of production to do so. Backup point guard Brian Roberts continues to play well in his role and could be key in helping starter Greivis Vasquez, 6-foot-6, defensively against Westbrook.