Game Time: 5:00 p.m. Pacific TV: CSNNW
One of the features of this compressed season is that games just keep on coming. Unfortunately for the Blazers their narrow road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday is followed by an even tougher game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. Blazer fans started to get excited when their team went 3-0 to start the season. How about the Thunder who are, at the time of this writing, 5-0 heading into a Monday game against the struggling Mavericks? OKC has already beaten Dallas, Memphis, and Orlando. They've won on the road and at home. They're a legit threat in the West, maybe not the elite of the elite but good enough to use their name and "Conference Finals" in the same sentence without making anybody blink. They're not talking about playoff seeding but about how far they'll go once they get there. That alone highlights the difference between these two teams.
Kevin Durant is Mr. Everything for the Thunder, obviously. He's producing again this season to the tune of 27+ points per game, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and incredible 55% shooting from the field, 50% from the three-point arc. Not that he needs them, but he also draws 8 foul shots per game and hits 80% of his free throws. Word has it every time he looks up into the crowd you hear a loud "Bling!" and a minty-fresh sparkle shines out from his teeth.
The bad news for everybody outside of Oklahoma City is that Durant's fellow Superfriends are also playing well and seamlessly. Just in case you were thinking of bringing some Kryptonite to try and deal with the MVP here comes James "Aquaman" Harden, Kendrick "Wonder Woman" Perkins, Serge "Green Lantern" Ibaka, and Wonder Twins Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. Harden's three-point shot has been a little off and Ibaka has been slightly shy in his rebounding. That's pretty close to all the bad you can say about this group...or at least all the bad that matters. They field defender, rebounders, and feeding off of all the attention given to Durant they're contributing to the team's collective (and amazing) 48% shooting percentage. In fact of the players just named only Harden is shooting below 50% from the field. Most importantly they know their roles and play them while still sporting enough talent to ring you up if you get in their wheelhouse, as Portland has previously experienced with Ibaka on multiple occasions.
The one guy not mentioned so far, Russell "Batman" Westbrook, is slumping so far. His per-minute production in points and assists has taken a dive. His field goal percentage is in the toilet. His three-point percentage is even farther down than that. His turnovers are also up. He's still stealing the ball and rebounding, but that's it. Westbrook has been a thorn in Portland's side. The Blazers have actually been able to manage Durant well but Westbrook has then received a free ticket to rip the joint apart. That probably paints this as his resurgence game. But him continuing to struggle would make the Blazers' job exponentially easier. The take-home point is this: even with their second-best player producing some of his worst numbers in years the Thunder haven't lost. That's scary.
Portland might be able to glean some hope in the Thunder's failure to dominate opponents. They've won but one game by double-digits, three by four or fewer points. On the other hand that super-efficient offense has been married to decent defense. OKC has won in the 90's and the 100's so it's not like you can grind to make them vulnerable. Portland is the more susceptible of the two, struggling in the halfcourt while the Thunder simple opt for Durant, Ibaka, or a toss to an open shooter. The Thunder will turn over the ball, perhaps allowing a window for Portland's opportunistic defense...providing, of course, the Blazers can take care of the ball themselves. Oklahoma City has a deeper, more proven bench overall. Harden has been playing out of his mind as the 6th man, partially nullifying Portland's usual bench advantage in the 6 and 7 spots. The normal mantra in situations like this is "A cohesive team can beat a superstar." The problem is, the Thunder are the more cohesive team and are more experienced together.
In short, there just aren't many outs for Portland in a road game like this. The Blazers have to hope Durant's performance against them strays once again to the mundane and then smother everybody else with their starting lineup defenders. If the Thunder get even a couple other players off or feast on easy buckets from the break or offensive rebounding while the Blazers are distracted Portland will have a hard time winning. The Blazers will have to take advantage of every opportunity--forcing turnovers, offensive rebounding, running--plus hit their shots all while keeping a lid on OKC's offense. That will take, by far, Portland's best game of the season...a level of effort, focus, and production we've not yet seen this team achieve.
Read about the OKC story at WelcometoLoudCity.