Injury Updates (Friday): Mike Tokito of The Oregonian reports that Portland Trail Blazers forward/center J.J. Hickson will return on Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder after missing one game with a sore back and that forward LaMarcus Aldridge (illness) will play again. Guard Wesley Matthews and forward Nicolas Batum (shoulder) will both sit out again. -- Ben
It's a case of "out from under the obsolete, slightly broken greasy buffet heating lamp and into the fire" tonight as they move on from Wednesday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers to face the cream of the conference's crop, Oklahoma City. Coverage starts at 7:00 p.m. and the game will be televised locally on CSNNW.
We don't need much of a preview here because you already know the Thunder pretty well. They start Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins is the weak link of the five. He's sputtering more this year than ever and that's saying something. When motivated he can defend and rebound well. But "when motivated" is a huge red flag when your team is a contender for the NBA Finals. Fortunately the Thunder have the anti-Perk in Nick Collison coming off the bench. This guy seldom gets mentioned in conjunction with OKC's success but he's been with the franchise his whole career and gives his heart every night. He's a jack-of-all-trades doing whatever the team happens to need in a given moment. Finish it off with three-point Picasso Kevin Martin coming off the bench and you've got a formidable team...if not the clear championship favorites at least good enough to dispose of the Blazers tonight should they so desire.
Injuries remain a problem for Portland. J.J. Hickson, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews sat out the Lakers loss. That left four rookies starting with LaMarcus Aldridge and further thinned the Blazers' sparse bench. The L.A. game was an exciting, emotional, near-victory...the perfect opponent and type of game for Portland's young players. The Thunder aren't likely to be so charitable. They're fighting with San Antonio for the #1 seed in the West. They have a better road record than the Blazers have at home. Portland's main advantage, if any, is that the Thunder played last night against the Warriors. But as Wednesday night taught us, that only goes so far when the motivation is strong enough. Oklahoma City won't play Durant and Westbrook 48 minutes the way L.A. did with Bryant, but it probably won't take 48 minutes for them to destroy Portland's defense either.
The Thunder play fairly fast and extremely efficiently on offense. They score on the break, from the arc, and from the foul line. They're not dominant in the paint but they make up for it with deadly jump shooting and slicing penetration. Their only real offensive weakness is a propensity towards turnovers.
Defensively the Thunder rely on mobility, chasing you off the three-point line and staying in front of your dribblers. They're also good covering screens. They're vulnerable to good post players and iso sets but those plays move slowly enough that the opponent has a hard time scoring enough points to overcome OKC's offense. The cardinal rule of playing the Thunder this year: unless you're Memphis you have to score 100 to win.
Looking up and down Portland's lineup, it's going to take a whale of an effort for the Blazers to score 100 tonight. They managed it against the Lakers with hot three-point shooting and, well, because the Lakers defend like the Lakers. Asking for a repeat of the hot arc shooting versus one of the best three-point defending teams in the league would be...greedy. The Blazers need to hope that Oklahoma City comes in inattentive, overconfident, or just plain tired. Having Damian Lillard score a billion again and watching Westbrook take it as a personal challenge would help. Westbrook is more than capable of outscoring Lillard even on the rookie's best night but the Thunder tend to falter when the offense becomes Westbrook-dominant. LaMarcus Aldridge will also need a huge night if Portland plans on challenging.
All that said, with the conference crown in their sights, it's hard to imagine the Thunder playing poorly enough to blow this game. The Blazers do have one win left in them this season, but it's unlikely to be tonight.
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