Game 81 Preview: Thunder vs. Blazers

Buckle up Blazer fans.  Here...we....go...

Game Time:  7:00 p.m. Pacific  TV:  Comcast

If you haven't followed the Thunder much and need a primer on who they are and what they do, you can check out the Game 74 Preview we did here.  Other than that I'm going to assume you know Durant, Westbrook, Green, and company by now.  You need to know that the least Kevin Durant has scored in the last five games is 33 points and three times he's topped 40.  You also need to know that the Thunder have lost 3 of those 5 games.  Center Nenad Krstic is out with a knee injury.  Nic Collison and Serge Ibaka have been filling in for him.  Each got a dozen rebounds in their last game, though it was against the Warriors so you can reasonably cut that number by a third.  Russell Westbrook has been on fire alongside Durant.   Jeff Green has been hit and miss.  OK, are we done with trends now?  Because we really, really need to talk about what this game means.

With the Blazers beating the L*kers and the Thunder losing to the Warriors yesterday both teams are tied with each other and the Spurs in a three-way, 49-31 deadlock for the 6th-8th playoff seeds in the West.  In case you've missed us saying it 92 times in a row during the last week, that means this game is for all the marbles between Portland and Oklahoma City.  The Blazers lead the season series 2-1 but the Thunder have a better division record.  No matter who wins tonight the best the other team could achieve in their last game would be a tie record.  Whoever comes out ahead tonight will own the tiebreaker (3-1 season series favoring Portland or 2-2 series but better record against the division favoring OKC).  Thus...this is it.  No second chances.  No woulda-shoulda-coulda's.  You want a higher seed?  You want to say you earned every bit of your playoff spot instead of settling for one?  You win tonight, period.

As if that wasn't enough, this is a game between two of the most promising young teams in the league.  Both the Thunder and Blazers want (and need) to make every bit of a mark they can.  Both the Thunder and Blazers should be eyeing each other across the benches, knowing that this could be the first salvo in a decade-long war.  You wouldn't think it because it seems logical that 30 important games against each other over the course of a few years are just that...30 important games.  But you'd be surprised how often a team gets a psychological edge over another simply by coming out ahead a few times early in the process.  Suddenly you're a nemesis, a thorn in the side, their Achilles Heel.  Does this game decide everything for these teams for the next 10 years?  Of course not.  But it will make the difference between which team continues the uphill climb next year unabated and which is playing catch-up.  It's a head start, a building block, a learning experience, a good or bad memory built into the foundation and DNA of these teams.

In short, this is as critical of a game as either team has had this year.  This is, in effect, the first Game 7 either will have faced in their uphill climb, quite possibly the only one either will get this year.  This is exactly the kind of game both teams have fought to earn the right to play.  And it's here, tonight, against each other.

Of course the Blazers have bad news beyond the season-long ache of missing Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.  Brandon Roy is out for the evening with a bone bruise.  There's no further news about how long that will last, but this game is enough.  Portland is now missing two of its top three impact players and unquestionably the best player on its roster.  But you know what?  Tough.  Toss that aside.  The team needs to look at the Thunder tonight and say, "Fine.  We'll do it this way.  It's fair.  No complaints.  No excuses.  You bring your best and we'll bring ours and let's see where we are."  That's how you win playoff games you're not supposed to.  That's how you prepare for a title run, particularly your first when someone who is supposedly better ALWAYS stands in your way.  Marcus Camby has been stepping up no matter what the situation.  LaMarcus Aldridge has been stepping up as well.  Andre Miller has swayed plenty of games in the last month.  If Brandon is gone then it's up to those guys to go out and get it.  It's up to Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless to sell themselves completely on the court, doing everything they can to get the "W".  No...more than that.  I talked a couple weeks ago on the radio about the gap between young guys and veterans in crucial situations.  I framed it so:  "Young guys do everything they can to get the win.  Veterans do everything that's necessary to get the win.  There's a difference between the two."   We've seen some horrific play from the bench players in the last few weeks.  We've also seen some sparks of life in the last couple of games.  If there's a time for these guys to grow up, it's now.  Portland needs everything necessary, not just everything comfortable, in order to get this win.  If the supporting cast cannot provide that, Portland has literally no hope in the post-season.  Whatever thin thread they're holding onto of an upset, of making this season more than everything it can be, rides on the guys the team will need to call upon tonight.

Brandon's absence will put considerable pressure on LaMarcus Aldridge to make shots and plays both tonight.  If the Thunder have any kind of brains in their collective heads they're going to double-team LaMarcus every time he touches the ball in scoring position.  How many teams succeeded with that strategy when Roy was injured earlier this year?  I don't expect Aldridge to get free looks early.  Everything depends on him making the right decision, which will usually mean the correct pass.  After that it's all about shooters and cutters putting the ball in and Camby sticking back their misses if they don't.  Beyond that, ugly could well be the Blazers' salvation tonight.  Oklahoma City can win at any score but a gruelling game of the type we saw yesterday in L.A. would probably benefit the Blazers.  You never want it to come down to one shot with Durant but even that would be better than the Thunder prancing up and down the court for easy buckets in the lane and open shots outside of it.  And speaking of, we need to see better help defense than we saw yesterday because Durant isn't hobbled like Kobe and his supporting cast is more comfortable playing off of him than Ron Artest and Lamar Odom are off of Bryant.  If the rotations aren't quick we'll be in big trouble.  Durant is also 6'9"+ so it'll be interesting to see how Webster and Batum and company guard him...or even if the Blazers have a surprise or two in store.  In extremis, remember that the Thunder only have a couple of guys truly proficient from range.  When in doubt, force them out and take your chances.  Also remember that Oklahoma City rebounds well as a team so you're going to need 48 minutes of solid board work from everybody on the floor without a letup.  I doubt either team will let fatigue come into play but if it does it'll be interesting to see how OKC's depth (now that Roy is out) holds up against the frantic contest they had yesterday versus the Warriors compared to Portland's shallower pool holding up against a slower but more physical game versus L.A.   In particular I'm curious to see how Rudy Fernandez holds up as the game progresses.

And there you have it...the introduction for a game that needs none.  Blazers...Thunder...playing for just about everything that matters in practical sense in their respective microcosmic seasons.

7:00 p.m.   At the Garden, on TV, via radio, in the Gameday Threads here...just be there.

See what they have to say over at WelcometoLoudCity.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.  There's only one bonus question entered four times:  Will the Blazers win?  Go all-in or hedge your bets, it's up to you.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

P.S.  In case you're wondering about exact schedules remaining, here you go.  All three teams are currently at 49-31.

Blazers  vs. Thunder, vs. Warriors

Thunder @ Blazers, vs. Grizzlies (Winner of tonight's game will finish ahead in seeding no matter what.)

Spurs vs. Timberwolves, @ Mavericks (Blazers own the tiebreaker, meaning SAS must win 1 more game than the Blazers to finish ahead of them.)

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