8:00 PM ET, December 25, 2011
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
It seemed for a while this might not be the case, but Howard is starting the season with the Magic -- though he could be gone by the end -- as they visit Durant and the Thunder on Sunday.
When the lockout ended earlier this month, it seemed inevitable Howard would be leaving Orlando. He had publicly requested a trade, but the Magic were unable to complete a deal to New Jersey for the 26-year-old center and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Although a trade could be worked out in the future, Orlando says it hopes to keep Howard, who is entering the final year of his contract, and he has said he'd be willing to stay -- if improvements to the roster are made.
Orlando has made the playoffs in five straight seasons, but after reaching the NBA finals in 2009, it fell in the conference finals the following year and was ousted in the first round by Atlanta following a 52-30 regular season in 2010-11.
"You only get one time around the track. There's no reset button. You don't want to miss out on any opportunity to win," said Howard, who averaged a career-best 22.9 points last season and was second in the league with 14.1 rebounds per game.
"You gotta do what it takes to win."
Unlike Howard, Durant is happy with the pieces around him. Oklahoma City reached the Western Conference finals after going 55-27 and winning a Northwest Division title. The Thunder would lose in five games to eventual champion Dallas.
Despite falling short, it left the young team wanting more and with the additional experience, Oklahoma City thinks this could be the year to take the next step.
"It's not something that we talk about. I think that true champions don't talk about it," said Scott Brooks, heading into his third full season as coach. "They just go about their work, about their business that this is another day that we have to work together."
While the packed NBA schedule could pose problems for the league's older teams, that likely won't be a problem for a youthful Thunder squad led by Durant, the NBA's two-time defending scoring champion.
While Westbrook is coming off his best scoring season, his turnovers were up to 3.9 a game and rumors of discord between him and Durant persist.
If the two can co-exist and if the team gets bigger contributions from Kendrick Perkins, who lost 30 pounds in the offseason after struggling with knee problems following his trade from Boston, the Thunder believe they can win the West.
However, with the element of surprise gone, Perkins, a playoff veteran from his time with the Celtics, knows the Thunder will have to work even harder.
"By us making it to the Western Conference finals last year, that puts a target on your back," Perkins said. "Going into the regular season, you've got to understand that every game is going to be a playoff-atmosphere type of game whether you're at home or on the road."
Like Perkins, Hedo Turkoglu is hoping to have a better season and he could play a major role in determining whether Orlando can compete in the loaded East. The 32-year-old swingman is coming off a down season, averaging 11.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds in 56 games for the Magic after a trade from Phoenix.
"It's a new year for me," Turkoglu said. "I came in here last year trying to do things in middle of the year. Now I'm starting off the season and just trying to be focused and do the things I'm really good at and trying to be what I was a couple of years ago."
While Orlando has won nine of 11 against Oklahoma City, the teams split two meetings last season and the Thunder have won the last two at home, including 125-124 last season.
Durant had 36 points in that win while Westbrook added 32 and recorded a triple-double. Howard averaged 39.5 points and 16.5 boards in the season series.