Wolves-Thunder Preview: The “Kevin Durant Comes Around” Edition

Tonight at Target Center, the Timberwolves host the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game tips off at 7:00 CST. It can be seen on Fox Sports North Plus and heard on 830 WCCO Radio. The Thunder is without Russell Westbrook. He aggravated his bad knee and underwent another surgery. Along those lines (and In Case You Missed It) be sure to check out Bethlehem Shoals’ Plea To The Basketball Gods, for GQ. The Wolves are two-point favorites; a betting line that certainly factors in the superstar guard’s absence. These teams have played twice this season and split the matchup. The Wolves won when Russell sat and lost when he played.

Without Westbrook, the preponderance of our attention slides over to his teammate Kevin Durant. (Oh shucks.) KD’s season averages (28.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists) are more or less what we’ve grown accustomed to from the Thunder’s lanky assassin. Durant is the quintessential scorer of this era. He was born for it.

In a league that penalizes pushing, his slight frame is rarely an issue. On defense, his pterodactyl wingspan makes him difficult to score on. In a league with weird zone defense rules that incentivize floor spacing and dribble penetration ability, Durant offers both. Where certain players might’ve starred in the 90s, physical backdown game (Al Jefferson), or the aughts, hero ball slasher game (Tyreke Evans) Durant is the current player whose skillset is most perfect for his time. He shoots over good defenses and draws fouls from bad ones.

Michael Jordan recently listed four current players who he believes could be nearly as successful in his era. Those are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. Setting aside Jordan’s obvious bitterness about a lot of things and his flawed basketball analysis as a general manager and owner, it’s worth hearing him out on this point. That’s an interesting list and Durant is the most conspicuous absentee. Durant doesn’t have much of a post-up game, which was almost a necessity for fourth-quarter awesomeness in the early 90s. Charles Barkley, a superstar post player in MJ’s times who seems largely set in his ways as  hoops analyst, continues to list Carmelo Anthony — and not Durant — as the best scorer in the world. Because of his post game. Durant is scrawny. He famously couldn’t lift one rep of 185 pounds at the draft combine. A weak body may not have responded to Bill Laimbeer and Anthony Mason lane assaults quite like Jordan’s did. It also can’t establish position to demand the ball the way Anthony (and Kevin Love) does.

But who really cares what Durant might’ve been in the 1990s? (Well, other than MJ.) He was born in 1988 and plays incredible basketball in 2014. Durant will, as always, be a handful for the Wolves tonight.

The Thunder’s winning percentage of .781 — higher than any full season in Thunder history — is especially impressive, considering the injury to Durant’s half-Robin/half-Amazing sidekick. Also, that the Thunder marches on this post-Harden (and now, post-Kevin Martin) path with such a conspicuous absence of hiccups speaks to the greatness of Durant as a superstar stabilizer. It also speaks to the underratedness of Scott Brooks as a good, maybe great, NBA head coach.

For the Wolves, the biggest news stories involve bench players. Shabazz Muhammad will be playing some games in the D-League. That is good news. He needs to play competitive five-on-five basketball somewhere. It sounds like Chase Budinger is almost ready to play in games. The Wolves could really use the shooting. I’m hoping Chase’s return will spark an uptick — however slight — in Ricky Rubio’s effectiveness and flash. More than any Timberwolf, Rubio needs a spaced floor to do what he do.

Anyway, tonight’s game should be a good one, as both teams rested last night. I’ll be there, in the stands.

Enjoy.

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