Game 6 Preview: Thunder vs. Trail Blazers

Game Time 7:30 p.m. Pacific   TV:  TNT  (which means you'll miss the first half hour of the game as they run down to the last second of the previous, too tightly sandwiched, game and/or run commercials up the wazoo...be prepared)

The Blazers carry a nice 4-1 record into their second home game of the season.  Nobody can, or should, argue with success.  It's also fair to say that Portland has only faced one opponent at the level of Oklahoma City.  That wuold be the Chicago Bulls, who handed the Blazers their hats and kicked their butts out of town.  Portland followed that game with a fine effort against the Bucks.  Portland also returns home for only the second time this season.  Nevertheless, the Blazers will be tested tonight.

Obviously Kevin Durant is a monstrous issue for any team facing the Thunder.  He's scoring over 29 per game so far.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that it's on 38.8% shooting, meaning he's burning through a whole lot of possessions en route to the MVP award.  The misfires won't last all season but the Blazers would happily take one more game.  Oddly enough, Durant's three-point percentage is sky-high, resting right around 46% on 4.3 attempts per game.  It seems counterintuitive to play him for the deep shot though.  He probably won't destroy you from the arc.  The Blazers would do well to let him fire from out there if he'll oblige.  At least he won't be drawing free throws.  He attempts an astonishing 11.7 per game with a full 10 points of that 29-point average coming at the line.  The Blazers are knee-deep in wing players.  They could burn through all of them guarding Durant alone.

Speaking of firing from the arc, forward Jeff Green has fallen in love with the three, shooting 5.7 per game.  As of press time he's hitting 16.7% of those.  The Blazers should also encourage that.

Despite the spotty percentages of those two worthies, Russell Westbrook will be a fly in Portland's ointment.  He's averaging 46.3% from the field.  He's not going to be seduced by the siren call of the three-pointer either.  He just doesn't take them.  He does take foul shots, though, almost matching Durant's prodigious numbers at 10.3 attempts and 9.3 makes per game.   That explains his 22 ppg average.  He adds 7.3 assists besides.  He's exactly the type of guy, hard-nosed and relentless, that the Blazers have traditionally had trouble covering.

The Thunder also have a nice supporting cast.  Serge Ibaka is a fine rebounder, a good defender, and one of the more exciting young power forwards you've not heard of.  Thabo Sefolosha is a great defender, the go-to guy when a Brandon Roy needs to be guarded.  Guard James Harden is supposed to bring offensive punch but he's struggled so far this year.  Nenad Krstic has as well but he won't embarrass you at center.  These guys know their roles and they know enough not to get in the way of the top six options on the team (Durant, Westbrook, Green, Durant, Durant, and Green).  The best bench advantage Oklahoma City has, though, is not being forced to use their bench if they don't want to.  They average a paltry 20.7 fouls committed per game.  They play Durant and Green over 40 minutes a night because they can.

The major strengths of the Thunder, outside of the superstar in the lineup, are the aforementioned free throw shooting (41.7 attempts per game so far this year, 84% made) and their opportunistic defense.  Their commitment to straight position defense appears to be shaky early on, as they're allowing opponents to shoot 47.5% from the field.  The trade-off is that they're generating 11.3 steals per game.  They're still not putting the complete defense together, though, as their total turnovers-forced number is only 16.3, meaning if they don't pick your pocket they're not forcing you into other mistakes.  It's a high-risk, high-reward prospect and the Blazers will need to avoid being on the latter end tonight.  It's certainly possible to take advantage of them right now, though.  Of the four games the Thunder have played, Durant has been the high scorer in only one.   Three times that honor belonged to a member of the opposing team.  Neutralize the impact of Durant's scoring by posting numbers as good as he and you're matching the rest of each roster against each other.  That's a battle the Thunder are going to lose against good teams.  OKC's overall offense has been spotty.  They're averaging 103 per game but that's on 40% shooting, under 21% from the arc, a contributing factor in their 2-2 start.

You can probably throw all that out the window tonight, however.  This has been an intense matchup for the past two years and will remain so.  This team had its eyes on Portland from Day 1 of its existence.  Last year's series with the Lakers doesn't change that.  (Or if it does, they're fools.)  Neither the Blazers nor the Thunder are lined up against L.A. yet.  They have to get past each other first.  The Blazers prevailed the last time the two teams met.  That was a crucial game for both squads.  Portland sent the Thunder rolling back down the Sisyphean hill into that 8th seed and they won't have forgotten it.   Between that and coming off of two straight losses, last night's at the hands of the Clippers, OKC will not want to lose tonight.  If this turns into a Portland rout something is seriously wrong with the Thunder.  I expect them to play with frenetic energy and keep the score close, if not surge ahead.  How Portland deals with being smacked straight in the face will determine the flow of this game.

Perhaps that same drive can be used against the Thunder, with the back-to-back games and high minutes for stars.  The Blazers should be aware of the potential for a fourth-quarter blitz.  Beyond that they need to take advantage of every opportunity the Thunder give them.  As always, look for passes and cuts on offense.  The Thunder trade on steals and those can't happen if you keep your head and get your scorers the ball in positions they're comfortable.  If you don't force they won't disturb you.  As always, rebound hard.  The Blazers should be a better overall rebounding club than the Thunder.  Kevin Durant bends almost any defense but in general Portland should look to pack the middle and let the opponent bomb.  Make them prove they can beat you that way.   The Blazers also need to be aware that Westbrook is about the only true ball-mover in the lineup.  Everybody else who touches the ball with regularity is going to shoot.  Some well-timed pressure may fluster those scorers.  The nightmare scenario is the Thunder picking pockets, running, and laughing their way to easy points.  Take care of the ball and get back and this game will be no worse than close heading into the late minutes.  At that point, as long as we're not talking a final possession in Durant's hands, the Blazers should have the advantage.

My gut says this game will depend on Oklahoma City's fast break points, Portland's rebounding, and Russell Westbrook's points.  Prosper in two of those three categories and the Blazers will win the game.  Fall apart in two of three and it's going to be a long night.  This should prove true no matter how much Durant scores.  The Blazers probably won't be able to stop him but if they win these battles they may not have to.

You can read about the Thunder at Welcome to Loud City.

You can enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

Don't forget that 10+ minutes of "LUUUUUUUUKE" chant.  I expect they'll mention it on TNT.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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