Note: If you haven't already, look right below this post for an interview with Blazers' General Manager Kevin Pritchard. Go ahead...we'll hold the preview until you get back. Really!
OK...are you ready now? Then here we go.
A Look at the Thunder
Oklahoma City starts and ends with three pretty good players. Kevin Durant is the obvious one. At 25.8 ppg, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists he's having a fantastic year. To put it in perspective, if he could learn to pass a little more and if his teammates became a bit more reliable putting the ball in the bucket he would be averaging Brandon Roy numbers plus. He's no stranger to the 30-point game, having achieved that mark in 21 of his 65 outings this year. He's not entirely unfamiliar with the 40-point night either.
Jeff Green is having another solid season as well. He's right at 17 and 7 and is doing almost everything better than he did in his decent rookie season. Of particular note: he's improved his three-point percentage from 27.6% to 39.4% while tripling his number of attempts. If the Thunder had a little more of an interior game he and Durant would open the floor big-time. As it is OKC still manages a lot of points in the paint because the main scorers' shooting opens up extra drive time.
Russell Westbrook is the third leg of this triumvirate. Unlike the other two, he's not shooting worth squat. He's barely over 40% from the field and right at 28% from distance. He's still averaging 15.7 per game, though, partly because he can get shots on this team and partly because he draws over 5 foul shots per game and at 82% he's an excellent free throw shooter. (Durant, by the way, draws 7 and shoots 86.5%. Yikes!) Westbrook is averaging 5 assists and 5 rebounds.
You're going to see the ball in the hands of Westbrook and Durant most of the time because after the top three the OKC lineup falls off precipitously. They're mostly full of players who didn't quite work out elsewhere along with some who will never work out anywhere. Nenad Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha (sorry, but don't those look a lot like anagrams?) round out the starting lineup. Their bench features Nick Collison, Malik Rose, Damien Wilkins, Earl Watson, and Kyle Weaver. Collison and Watson have given the Blazers some trouble in the past but unless things are rolling perfectly that lineup is a little anemic.
Oklahoma City's 21-53 record can be explained by two factors. They have trouble scoring and they have trouble defending.
The Thunder get a whole lot of shots up but they have the darndest time making any. They're 26th in the league in field goal percentage, 27th in three-point percentage. The only bankable points they have come from free throws. Those often make the difference between wins and losses for decent teams but when there's no offense behind them it's like having a really nice slip cover but no futon. You can spread it, fold it, or lay it any which way you want but at the end of the day it's still sleeping on the floor. The Thunder are next-to-last in the league in offensive efficiency. They also commit more turnovers than anyone in the league, which doesn't help.
Nor can they find redemption on the other end of the floor. Their biggest defensive shortcoming is giving up too many easy points. Only two teams give up more fastbreak points. Only three give up more points in the paint. They're 26th in opposing field goal percentage. They're middle-of-the-road in forcing turnovers and blocking shots, and that's not enough to compensate.
Basically, if you think of the game in rock band terms you score like the drummer, OKC scores like the keyboard player, and that's the end of the ballgame.
When the Thunder have beaten good teams (and it's happened a handful of times) it's usually been because they've rebounded decently and the other team forgot to play defense, letting them run away with the score. Or the other team has been San Antonio, whichever. Absent either of those two things happening, this should be a win for Portland.
Keys to the Game
1. Interior dominance would be one way to safely put this game away. They're not going to intimidate you in the middle. Aldridge, Oden, even some drivers should be able to have a field day. The big guys might be able to bully people around for rebounds as well. If you take away Oklahoma City's rebounding ability you've probably won the game.
2. This Durant dude is good, but young. Go ahead and run a lot of different players and looks at him. Front him, then double-him, then push him around. Throw Batum on him, Outlaw, maybe LaMarcus. Don't let him get settled. Make him score uncomfortably. He'll get his points but if he's having to work and use clock to do so it's unlikely anyone else will ride to the rescue with enough punch to push the team over the top.
3. Test their commitment to get back on defense just like you tested Utah.
4. Remember that outside of Durant and Green, this team doesn't really like to shoot threes. You can watch the inside a little closer. Deny the drive first and worry about the bomb later, after they've proven they can hit.
5. This is another game where non-stop bench scoring would overwhelm the opponent beyond their capacity to compensate.
This is an important game for Portland. It's a division game. It also begins a road trip where two losses are likely. It would be a huge mistake for the Blazers to concentrate on Houston and San Antonio and take OKC and Memphis lightly. 1-3 would be quite the schedule dampener with only 7 games remaining total. Just come out and take care of business. It doesn't have to be pretty. Just do it.
Check out the game story and the BE-themed wallpaper over at WelcometoLoudCity.
Those who are in the Jersey Contest playoffs should already know what they're doing. If not, scroll down a few posts.
Daily Standings Update
For those who are interested, Denver's victory over Utah last night pushed them to 5 straight wins and 9 out of their last 10. They are streaking away with the division right now. Your assessment of that outcome probably depends on which of two congruent Blazer goals you find most important. For those who want to take the division it's bad news, of course. For those who are just trying to keep their heads as far above water as possible, drawing a higher seed and more favorable matchup regardless of division standing, it could be good news as it knocks Utah farther down in the standings. Here's the conference from 2-8.
- 2. Denver 50-26
- 3. San Antonio 48-26
- 4. Houston 48-27
- 5. New Orleans 47-27
- 6. Portland 47-27
- 7. Utah 46-29
- 8. Dallas 45-30