The Portland Trail Blazers take on the Oklahoma City Thunder today at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, 5:00 Pacific Time. The game will be televised on CSNNW. After having defeated the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, this is out of the frying pan and into the raging furnace for the Blazers. It doesn't help that the Thunder lost their season opener to the Spurs last night, though there's always fatigue to consider. Still, this is OKC's home opener and the young Blazers will have to fight the energy of the crowd plus the determination of the Thunder not to go 0-2 to start the year.
The Thunder offer peculiar challenges to Portland's lineup. The most obvious is Kevin Durant. He "only" scored 23 last night but did it on 9-18 shooting from the field. He was last year's league-wide scoring champion, of course. Durant has been up and down versus the Blazers historically. The ups tend to come in Oklahoma City and feature Portland defenders watching in horror as Durant zips around the court hitting from anywhere he chooses. The downs tend to come in Portland and feature Thunder fans watching in horror as Durant forgets himself and launches ill-conceived three-point shots. He requires defensive attention either way but the lesson is clear: Durant has to beat Durant for the Blazers to prosper.
The bigger worry for Portland is Russell Westbrook. This has a historical basis as well, as Westbrook likes to eat the Blazers, particularly on the offensive glass. But he's also staring across the court at Damian Lillard having heard about Lillard's well-heralded performance against the Lakers but also knowing Lillard's defense is at best untested, at worst unreliable. Smart money says Westbrook will look at the rookie and think, "Fresh Meat". The guy took 21 shots against the Spurs, hitting only 6. He'll take that many again. Can Lillard and company keep his percentage as low?
It doesn't help that Westbrook blew OKC's final possession of the then-tied game last night, leaving the door open for Tony Parker to win it. A fella's got to take it out on someone.
Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha should be familiar to most Blazer fans. Like Westbrook, Ibaka's had great games against the Blazers. Perkins is more mercurial. The Blazers should be able to get by with their patchwork center lineup tonight even better than they did Wednesday, and they did pretty well then. Sefolosha is a defensive guru. With Terry Stotts' egalitarian offense one wonders if Thabo's skills will go to waste.
OKC's bench isn't deep but they do pack a punch with Kevin Martin, acquired for the departed James Harden. Martin brought neither beard nor accurate shooting to the Thunder's first game but he still managed 15 points and 5 assists. Veteran power forward Nic Collison and 5th-year point guard Eric Maynor are the only other semi-reliable players off of Oklahoma City's bench. But this team doesn't depend on its bench much.
Obviously this is not the same team without Harden on board. It'll take a while to adjust. But unlike the injured and aging Kobe Bryant and the somewhat-misused Dwight Howard that Portland saw in Game 1, Durant and Westbrook are in full flower and are used to playing with each other. OKC's starting frontcourt has the potential to blow away the Blazers on the glass as well, as Durant, Ibaka, and Perkins can all put up huge rebounding numbers. The Thunder allowed the 4th fewest fast break points per game last season and the 4th lowest overall field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage. They were more middle-of-the-road in three-point percentage allowed, the brightest hope for the Blazers.
Winning on the road in a vocal building against an ultra-talented and deeply motivated roster is going to be a tall order for the Blazers. The first priority is to avoid getting caught staring like deer in the headlights. You know Westbrook is coming hard. You also know you have to keep a man, if not two, on Durant. Mobility should serve the Blazers well, but they can't just make an initial play defensively and be done with it. They have to keep the Thunder (and particularly Westbrook) outside while still finding a way to cover shooters and monitor the glass. Oklahoma City will commit turnovers and the Blazers will need to force them, then take advantage of the run-out opportunities. They also have to stop OKC from running out for easy buckets themselves. If they can manage all that, and if the shots fall, maybe there's a chance. It's a serious long-shot though, even more serious than against the Lakers. But hey, the Blazers were tested on one end of the lineup by Howard and passed that test. Let's see what happens when they get pressure on the other end.
Likely tonight's game will demonstrate the difference between "good...for the Blazers" and just plain "good". Portland's scoring star Wednesday night was Nicolas Batum. He's matched up with the league's premier scoring star tonight. Damian Lillard played an amazing game considering it was his first ever. He's going to meet a guy who makes amazing an every-other-night event. LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews might have advantages at their positions but the Thunder all but define "mismatch" for the entire Western Conference. It's an interesting game, but also a tall, tall order for the Blazers.
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