Only one player this season can lay claim to holding NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant scoreless in the fourth quarter.
New Orleans forward Trevor Ariza.
In the last meeting between the Thunder and the Hornets on Jan. 24, Ariza's defense helped keep Durant off the scoreboard in a closely-contested final period that featured three ties, two lead changes and neither team holding more than a six-point advantage.
Durant went 0-for-5 in the quarter. He played 6 minutes, 58 seconds. Ariza played 6 minutes, 48 seconds. The Hornets won, 91-89, on a game-winner by David West.
Remember those facts tonight. While the point guard battle between Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul serves as the sexiest matchup in the teams' fourth and final meeting this season, the more significant chess match will be between Durant and Ariza.
No player has had more success against Durant, who carries a 28.9-point average into tonight's game inside Oklahoma City Arena.
“I don't know how many times he did not make a field goal in the fourth quarter in his career,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of Durant. “It doesn't happen often.”
Durant is averaging just 24.3 points in three games against the Hornets. It's his second lowest scoring total against any team he's seen at least twice this season. Durant's 36.7 percent shooting from the field against New Orleans is his lowest percentage against any opponent he's faced at least twice, and his 3-point shooting against New Orleans checks in at just 26.7 percent.
“Ariza's one of the top defenders at that position,” Brooks said. “He makes all of his opponents work hard for their shots and he makes Kevin work for his shots…You don't get a lot of easy ones with him.”
Durant has gone without a field goal in other fourth quarters this season. But he typically makes up for his misses in other ways. Against Utah on Nov. 15, for example, Durant also went 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. But he got to the free throw line six times, scoring his six points by converting all of his attempts in the final 18 seconds to help ice the game.
A trend can be spotted against the Hornets, though.
Durant has averaged only 4.3 fourth-quarter points against New Orleans. His average on the year is 6.9. Additionally, Durant has made only three of 15 shots, just 20 percent, in the fourth quarter against the Hornets and has gotten to the foul line in the final period only 2.3 times per game.
Two of the best defenders against Durant have been L.A. Lakers forward Ron Artest and Houston forward Shane Battier. Their success against Durant has been well-publicized, Artest thriving through physicality and Battier succeeding by using length to better contest Durant's shots.
Ariza, in addition to mirroring Artest and Battier's resiliency, has one more weapon.
“He has quick feet and he stays with him,” Brooks said. “He just does not leave his sight. He follows his footsteps, and I think he does a good job of challenging his shots. That's what the good defenders do.”
Ariza has helped to hound Durant into becoming a passer, a fact that also is reflected in the numbers. Durant has averaged four assists against the Hornets, one of only three teams the Thunder has played at least twice that Durant has averaged four or more assists against.
It's a credit to Durant's willingness to make the right play but also speaks to Ariza's effectiveness.
“We just have to continue to set great screens and run great movement plays so Kevin can get loose and get good shots,” Brooks said.
THUNDER VS. HORNETS
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Oklahoma City Arena.
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* Tonight's game could get postponed because of inclement whether. If the Hornets were able to make it to town late Tuesday night following their game against Washington, or at some point today, officials believe the game will be played.
* Hornets center Emeka Okafor is out one to three weeks with a strained left oblique. His streak of 306 consecutive games played ended Tuesday against Washington.
* David West hit a game-winning jumper with .5 seconds left to give the Hornets a 91-89 win over the Thunder in the last meeting.