The Oklahoma City Thunder -- fresh off a two-point victory over the Kings
in Sacramento last night in a game that went down to the final shot -- bring an eight-game winning streak into Portland for a matchup tonight with the Western Conference-leading Blazers.
Thunder forward Kevin Durant
, the NBA's scoring leader, brings an efficient game that relies heavily on his ability to draw free-throws and convert at the line. He's also a good defensive-rebounder, solid distributor and plays over 39 minutes a night. Over the course of Oklahoma City's current eight-game winning streak, Durant has increased his field-goal attempts, rebounds and is shooting 40 percent from outside.
, starting point guard for the Thunder, kicked off his season earlier than many expected a bit slowly, coming off a serious knee injury that occurred in the first-round of last year's playoffs. His scoring has somewhat fallen off lately, as have his shooting percentages, but Westbrook is setting up his teammates better than before and crashing the boards harder. He still takes about the same amount of shots as Durant, and the All-Star point guard-small forward tandem is accountable for almost half the Thunder's overall scoring.
Oklahoma City doesn't feature many good three-point shooters -- only Durant and guards Thabo Sefolosha
and Jeremy Lamb
have shot well from downtown lately -- and they're aware of how inaccurate they are as a team from behind the arc, limiting their own attempts. Well, most Thunder players are, anyway; Westbrook still jacks a ton of threes and hits them at a paltry 32.8 percent overall, two percentage points lower in the last eight games.
The Thunder take the majority of their shot attempts near the hoop, where they're efficient to an average degree as a team. The real place they're dangerous, though, is in the mid-range. Stretched closer to the perimeter, Oklahoma City loses potency like many other teams, but they feast from within 15 feet or so. Still, they'll take most of their shots in the paint and make a lot of them thanks in large part to center Serge Ibaka's improved ability to play third-wheel to Durant and Westbrook, occasionally creating his own offense and shooting relatively well in the post.
The Blazers match up sort of weird with the Thunder; Portland gives up a ton of points in the paint while also daring teams to take long twos and simultaneously locking down the three-point line. Against most teams, this is a sound strategy because more and more coaches are placing a high value on the outside shot, thus allowing Portland to limit a team's efficiency by keeping the opposition's three-point percentages low and often giving up the mid-range and the key.
The Thunder play a lot better when they're taking fewer three-pointers, and they've won a lot of games staying away from the outside shot and working from the mid-range-in offensively. This means, unfortunately for the Blazers, that if Portland plays their usual defense that hounds deep-shooters and leaves closer shots more open, they'll be playing to the strengths of Oklahoma City instead of their weaknesses.
There's a small sample size of only three losses, but in those defeats, the Thunder have averaged five more three-pointers attempted than their season average of 18. The other discernible factors in Oklahoma City's losses are that they turn the ball over more (hard for any team to overcome) and getting beaten on the defensive glass, though there are fewer defensive rebounds to be had when the opposition is making shots.
Backup Thunder guard Reggie Jackson
has been getting to the hoop and finishing well, scoring a bunch of points and setting up teammates while playing ruthless defense. Guard Jeremy Lamb has also shown that he can come off the bench and score effectively, though the bulk of his points comes from further out. Many pundits wondered whether the Thunder could offset the loss of scoring punch provided by sixth-man Kevin Martin
last season in a reserve role, and so far this year, Jackson and Lamb have basically split the "super-sub" duties between each other. They've kept the scoring up -- both are actually higher-volume scorers than starting off-guard Sefolosha -- when Thunder coach Scott Brooks
is resting his starting backcourt.
Oklahoma City's defense doesn't exactly stop teams from taking three-pointers. In fact, they allow opposing teams to launch away from deep. Somehow, though, they keep other teams from punishing them from outside. The Thunder don't play particularly aggressive defense up top and on the wings, allowing the ball to often move freely and not forcing a ton of turnovers. Their defense closer to the basket is much more solid with the frontcourt platoon of Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
, Nick Collison
and rookie Steven Adams
Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge
will see multiple bigs guarding him throughout the game, and he'll have to find ways to score against a variety of defensive looks. In the win against Indiana a few nights ago, Aldridge had his scoring versatility on full display as he punished the Pacers
with his trademark mid-range jumper and attacked the rim opportunistically against one of the top defenses in the entire league, both inside and out.
Portland point guard Damian Lillard
went to the hoop and stayed consistent with his typical below-average success of finishing in the paint against the Pacers. Lillard loves the outside shot, though, and should have plenty of chances to take them against the Thunder. He should continue taking threes tonight, as should wings Wesley Matthews
and Nicolas Batum. The outside shots will be there, and it's up to Portland's perimeter players to convert them. Hitting threes against Oklahoma City predictably increases the likelihood of a victory for the Blazers, so a 5-13 performance from outside like the one against Indiana probably won't cut it against the Thunder, who take advantage of long misses and often push the tempo to great success.
Oklahoma City is a great rebounding team, and they have some excellent individuals on the glass in Ibaka, Durant and sometimes Adams. The rest of the Thunder players chip in on the boards, too, and Portland's best rebounders -- Aldridge, center Robin Lopez
and backup bigs Joel Freeland
and Thomas Robinson
-- will all have to be willing to bang down low with the Oklahoma City frontcourt to grab their own rebounds and afford tertiary rebounders like Batum and Lillard the ability to contribute in that department.
Pushing the ball against the Thunder when the opportunity is presented is a good plan, because Oklahoma City doesn't stop the fastbreak well. They sure love to run it themselves, though, so the Blazers will have to get back and stop easy transition points, something they've done proficiently to start the year.
Stopping the Thunder defensively is theoretically the best way to come up with a win against them. In practice, however, keeping the Oklahoma City shooting percentage low is a different animal. The more Westbrook shoots the ball, the better for the Blazers, most likely. He's just not himself yet this season, missing a variety of shots from just about everywhere on the court. He's by far the least efficient scorer of the rotation right now, and every shot he attempts is one less taken by the much more accurate group of Durant, Ibaka, Jackson and Lamb.
Preventing the Thunder from going to the free-throw line would certainly help Portland keep the score close or maintain a lead, because Oklahoma City -- in Particular Durant and Westbrook -- gets a lot of points off of foul shots. The Blazers have sent players to the line somewhat often this season, so tonight would be a good night to curb that tendency, and not allow the Thunder to receive a huge chunk of their scoring off of free-throws.
This will be a battle of wits and execution for Portland coach Terry Stotts
and his players against a surging Oklahoma City team that doesn't leave much room for error. Durant will likely get his points -- like Paul George
did the other night when he scored 43 in a losing effort against the Blazers -- but holding the supporting cast down will be as important tonight as it was against Indiana on Monday.
Portland has shown that it can make adjustments to other teams in order to appropriately attack strengths and weaknesses effectively on both sides of the ball, and the matchup tonight poses many challenges, because most of Brooks' rotation is playing pretty well outside of Westbrook lately. Rebounding, pushing the ball and getting to the line are three important factors tonight that could swing momentum either direction, and whichever team wins most of those battles will put itself in the best position to win.