5:00 4:00 p.m. Pacific TV: Comcast
Well now, who would have thought two years ago that we'd have a back-to-back with the Hornets and Thunder and view the Oklahoma City game as the more precarious and important of the two? And yet here we are. The Thunder have a record of 44-27 and it's a nice 44-27. They've lost games but they've managed to spread out those losses, never going on a long losing jag. They've had 3 losing streaks of 3 games and one stretch where they lost 5 of 6 but everything else has been singles and doubles. They always bounce back. As the season has progressed those losses have been spread farther and farther. They've won 9 of 13 games this month and have already beaten the Rockets and L*kers on this homestand. It's the kind of pattern that establishes confidence in a young team. It's exactly the pattern the Blazers evidenced as they rose from a bad team into a good one. The Thunder have shown this year that they're ready to be a good team.
The most striking improvement for OKC has been their defense. They're currently 5th in the league in defensive efficiency and 4th in field goal percentage allowed. They make up for relatively weak interior defense by hustling back, keeping opponents from scoring on the break, then giving help when necessary. They have decent speed which helps defensively but the real story is that they've committed to that end of the floor. Defense is about more than individual prowess. 6-7 shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is probably the best example of that on the team but individually you'd raise your eyebrows at many of their defenders. Defense also takes trust, awareness, and five guys working together intentionally to achieve a goal. (This is part of why the old adage of "defense wins championships" holds truth. Those are some of the same basic building blocks for playoff success.) You can tell watching a team when that switch has been flipped. It's been flipped for the Thunder. Thus Kobe Bryant scoring 11 against them the other night and the L*kers scoring but 75 while committing 18 turnovers. Admittedly it was not a typical L.A. performance and probably isn't a repeatable experience, but the Thunder had something to do with it. The Thunder aren't at the stage where they're holding everybody down every night, but they're capable on a given night.
OKC's offense obviously revolves around Kevin Durant, who is averaging just short of 30 ppg this season plus 7.5 rebounds. Russell Westbrook has been ill, thus up and down, lately but he's still averaging 16 points and 8 assists on the year. Jeff Green is the utility third guy with 15 points and 6 rebounds. Together they lead an offense that's solid most nights, spectacular some. They like to run. They're fine in the halfcourt. They get good percentage shots, a category into which most Durant shots are falling nowadays. They're OK at scoring in the paint. They're great from the line. If they have a weakness it's three-point shooting, something only guard James Harden excels at. Durant is decent. Everybody else you're happy to see behind the arc.
The big men are an unsung crew but capable. Nenad Krstic (8.5 and 5 in 23 mpg) starts but the Thunder also get contributions from reserve forward/centers Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, both of whom give them around 6 points and 5 rebounds. All of them understand the team plan and follow it. Rookie Ibaka has even shown flashes of promise when doing so.
This game features two good teams who have done fairly well in the weeks prior. This game features two teams complete with stars and solid supporting casts. This team features one-and-three-quarters teams that pundits have labeled official Franchises of the Future©®TM in the NBA. (The missing ¼ accounted for in Oden's absence.) Not since vampires fought werewolves has there been such a titanic struggle of youthful exuberance. This game also features two teams who have beaten each other up in the past couple of years...OKC delivering some disappointing losses to Portland in between the Blazers trying to continue the pounding that was de rigueur when the Thunder were struggling. Most importantly this game features the team sitting in 6th (OKC) in the West right now competing against the team sitting 8th (Portland) with but two losses separating them and few games remaining. Neither team is an automatic home-court winner and both are good on the road, so the Blazers are hoping that the homecourt advantage won't tell. If Oklahoma City puts on a prime defensive performance, however, that hope may be in vain. The Blazers love bad defense. The Blazers often crumble against good defense. Portland is way more than capable of ripping this game away from the Thunder given the chance. It's a sign of respect for what the Thunder have demonstrated this season when I say that the ball is in OKC's court, deciding whether that happens. If the Thunder play like a legitimate, polished, committed playoff team the Blazers will have a hard time winning. It's not that Portland is that much worse than the Thunder right now. Rather Oklahoma City has been growing to this point all year, getting more cohesive and focused, while the Blazers have been stuck at this point all year, fighting lack of cohesion brought on by the ever-shifting lineups. The team that's practiced in playing well has an advantage over the team that finds itself playing well.
I expect a gutsy effort from both squads and I'm going to be plenty disappointed if we don't see it. I'd be more shocked, and think it would be more telling, if the Thunder come out flat or fail in their execution. They have all the incentive not to. They still have something to prove, whereas everything the Blazers have to prove comes next year at the earliest. I'd also be sad if Portland comes out flat as this could be a great game. But in reality the Blazers have less at risk in a loss than OKC does. The pressure's on for both teams, though. We'll see who ends up king of the mountain on this night.
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