Thursday Night NBA Preview: Scorer Showcase

Though there are only two games on tap tonight in the NBA, superstars and scorers will not be at a minimum.

Yeah, sometimes Thursdays can be real bummers for NBA fans. We were spoiled with 10 games last night, including a buzzer-beater in Orlando.

Tonight we get only two games, which means no League Pass alerts and a lot more commercials. But there's good news: tonight's matchups shouldn't disappoint.

Cavaliers at Thunder

RecordnERDOffensive Eff.Defensive Eff.

Now, I know if you just looked at this table, especially at the difference in record and total nERD, you'd expect this game to be a complete blowout in favor of the Cavs. But these numbers are, of course, skewed by the fact that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have missed a combined 31 games through the first 21 games of the season.

It's no wonder that, without their two best players on the court, the Thunder have struggled this season. But since the Thunder buddies joined forces on the court on December 2nd against the Pelicans, Oklahoma City has gone 3-1 with an offensive rating of 108.3 -- nearly 7 points better than their season average to this point. But it's going to take more than scoring to beat the Cavs, who boast the league's fourth-most potent offense. It'll be interesting to see if the Thunder can contain the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James (as long as he plays).

Matchup to Watch: Irving vs. Westbrook

I know this wouldn't normally be the matchup to watch in this game -- it would be KD v. LeBron. However, KD's still on a minutes restriction, and LeBron is a game-time decision with general soreness in his left knee. Ugh.

But we still get a very juicy matchup between two of the best offensive point guards in the league in Irving and Westbrook. Both players average over 20 points and 5 assists per game. But what has separated the two, at least in the past, is defense. Westbrook has made strides as a defender, from his defensive rating of 111 his rookie season, to a rating of 102 a year ago, to a career high 100 so far this year. Irving, on the other hand, has struggled defensively. His average defensive rating over his first three-plus years is 109.

However, under LeBron's wing, Kyrie is now posting a career-best 107. Kyrie will have to be even better than that if he wants to stop this freak of basketball nature. I know one thing -- it'll be fun to watch.

Rockets at Kings

RecordnERDOffensive Eff.Defensive Eff.

This matchup isn't what it was supposed to be just a few weeks ago. And, hopefully, when these teams meet again on April Fools Day, it will be what we imagined it would be before injury and sickness struck both Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins -- arguably the two most dominant centers in the game. But for now, we get to see how these teams matchup without their star bigs.

Without the likes of Howard and Cousins, the Rockets and Kings have fared very differently. Since Howard was ruled out prior to the Rockets' matchup with the Lakers on November 19th, the Rockets have gone 7-3, beating Western Conference powers like Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix during that stretch. The Kings, on the other hand, have only won two out of the seven games Cousins has been out due to viral meningitis. It's clear that the big man means much more to his team than does Howard to the Rockets. It's no wonder as Boogie leads the team in nERD (7.5), scoring (23.5) and rebounding (12.6).

So it will be up to Rudy Gay and company to get back on track with a win tonight in Sacramento. Much will be asked of Darren Collison to pick up some of the scoring load once again, while Jason Thompson and Reggie Evans will have to play the defense and man the boards where Cousins is sorely missed. Houston will again call upon James Harden, his beard and his friends to rebound from a loss at Golden State just a night ago. Patrick Beverley will be a key to the Rockets getting another win on the road absent Howard.

Matchup to Watch: Harden vs. Gay

Now I know what you're thinking -- Harden won't guard Gay, and Gay won't guard Harden. You're probably right. I'd expect Ariza to try to slow down the outstanding scorer. But it's scorer vs. scorer here. Harden versus Gay. Without Cousins, Gay will have to put up a lot of points for the Kings to stand a chance. He's not lacking the ability. Gay is averaging 21.6 points per game on 46% shooting this season. He's been playing very efficiently, as his nERD (6.9) indicates. We'll have to see if he can keep it up against the defensive prowess of Ariza. Otherwise, Harden will probably outscore Gay and lead his team to yet another W. No one has stopped him yet.

It doesn't matter what team he's played against, James Harden has been playing on an MVP level. He continues to put up 25 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds per night, and even in a loss last night to the defensive-minded Warriors, the Beard put up 34 points on 14-27 shooting from the floor and 3-8 from three point land. Tonight, he will likely see the youngster Ben McLemore, but I don't see that ending well for McLemore, who hasn't stopped many opposing shooting guards this season (defensive rating of 110). It's likely that Harden bests Gay tonight, but we'll have to wait and see if Rudy is up to the task.