The best team in the league (to anyone who's not a Clippers fan) comes to town tonight as the Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Portland Trail Blazers in a game televised on CSNNW and beginning at 6:00 p.m. The Blazers clawed their way past the World Champion Miami Heat on Thursday night, came up short against Rising Team of the Year Golden State on Friday, and now get to match up with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These are the times that try men's souls. These are also the times that determine whether the Blazers are serious about making a run at a playoff seed or whether they're just kind of taking the season as it comes.
The Thunder bring the best offense in the league with them. They score more points per game than anybody and do it more efficiently. Houston scores almost as many as OKC but nobody is close in that efficiency metric. They're scary. And they do this without a credible post scorer, averaging the 16th most points in the paint in the league. They make up for it by scoring on the break and by hitting every shot they throw up, especially from the three-point arc. Nobody is better from range. Only San Antonio and Miami are better in overall field goal percentage. Only the Lakers draw more foul shots per game. (Imagine!) They're only average on the offensive glass but come on, who needs offensive rebounds when you can score like that? The only true flaw in their attack is a propensity to turn over the ball, but most nights this goes in the "oh well, we'll just get it back in a second" category.
Remember how we said the Thunder like to score on the run? Well, they're not fair at all. They're one of the best teams in the league at getting back and defending in transition. How many teams in the league turn games into a track meet both ways? Oklahoma City has the dedication to prevent that. They're decent at defending the paint as well. Denying easy buckets allows them to force you into a mid-to-long-range contest...a battle they're going to win. They're 2nd in the league in field goal percentage allowed. They're less concerned with stopping the three, choosing to watch the key instead. If you can score more than their 106 ppg average shooting from the arc, more power to you.
Ready for some more bad news? Kevin Durant has been on a tear lately, pasting 42 on the Lakers in their last outing and game-high totals of 26 and 29 in their two previous games. He's averaging 28.5 ppg on 52% shooting. This isn't a center. Dude takes 4 three-pointers per game and spends lots of time on the perimeter. He's shooting fifty...two...percent. (41% on those threes.) Add in 9 free throws per game, a 90% free throw shooting clip, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. You just have to shake your head.
Russell Westbrook is not too shabby himself at 22 points, 8.5 assists, and 5 rebounds per game, though his 41.5% shooting clip (36% from the arc) looks licentious next to Durant's averages. New shooting guard Kevin Martin has found a comfortable role with this team: shooting threes. Half of his attempts come from distance and he makes over 44% of those attempts. In addition to the usual nice defense, shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is also taking half his attempts from the arc and making 41% of them. Serge Ibaka shoots 57% from the floor. Are you starting to get the idea that this is a good offensive team yet?
If there's a disappointment on this team so far it's center Kendrick Perkins who's playing less than he did last year, rebounding and scoring worse, shooting poorly. Dude is there to play some semi-average defense and not disrupt OKC's roll. That's about what he does. Reserve big man Nick Collison has stepped up his game even more than Perkins has slid in his, though, so the Thunder might actually be ahead at this point. They've even got Hasheem Thabeet playing something resembling basketball. The rising tide floats all ships.
What are the Blazers to do about this? First, come with intensity. Second, rebound hard. The Thunder are only average on the boards...plenty good enough but you need to try and exploit them somewhere. J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge need to show them what big men are supposed to do. Third, they've shown historically that they can absorb a ton of Durant shots as long as they do not also let Westbrook go off. They'll almost certainly hide Damian Lillard on a shooting guard and use one of their wings to watch Westbrook. It has a chance as long as they manage to keep the Thunder from easy shots off the break and as long as they force Durant to the outside. Finally, they need to move the ball and hit the shots they know they can hit. Obviously the Golden State game was an aberration but they missed plenty of shots they otherwise could have hit that night. The same thing was true against Miami. If you have an open shot, hit an open shot.
The one thing the Blazers cannot do is rely on their home record to carry them through. Yes, they're 13-4 in the Rose Garden but the Thunder are 10-5 on the road...not that far behind. One of two things is going to happen tonight. Either the Blazers will cruise into this game assuming they'll have the same kind of magic they showed against Miami just because they're at home against a good team. If that happens the Thunder will hand them their hats and kick their behinds so fast they won't have time to blink. Or the Blazers will put in the gritty, intense performance we've become used to seeing in the last couple weeks and, win or lose, this game will confirm the impression that they can play with anyone, at least at home. Whether the Blazers actually win or lose this game is less important than the manner in which they play it. We'll see which Portland team shows up.
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