Two Western Conference heavyweights square off tonight when the Blazers wrap up their current road trip in Oklahoma City with their fourth game in five nights.
The game plan for Thunder coach Scott Brooks right now is relatively simple: With star point guard Russell Westbrook nursing an injured knee on the sidelines, allow forward Kevin Durant to either create for himself or create opportunities for his teammates.
Durant explained to ESPN's Royce Young his offensive philosophy following a run-of-the-mill, 30-point performance in a win against the King's Sunday night: "I just tried to be aggressive, put pressure on the rim and the defense," [Durant] said. "If they draw in, I kick it out. If not, I lay the ball up and take a good shot."
Sounds pretty simple, right? Things have apparently come together pretty well for Oklahoma City in the 13 most recent games Westbrook's missed. Over the last few weeks, the Thunder are outscoring opponents by over nine points a game, out-rebounding them and winning the field-goal percentage margin pretty handily.
Durant's passing and rebounding numbers have slipped a bit lately, but his scoring and efficiency are through the roof his last five games as he's averaged 38 points on 54.5 percent shooting overall while canning 40 percent of his six three-point attempts per night. Combine that offensive efficiency with about six assists and six boards each game alongside a whopping 13.6 free-throw attempts -- Durant's cashing in on 85.3 percent of his shots at the line -- and you can really see how transcendent his play has been lately, exemplified with a career-high, 54-point outburst against the Warriors last Friday night that only necessitated 28 total shots.
With Durant playing so well, forward Serge Ibaka has found an opportunity to play some of his best basketball of the season. He's a talented scorer near the rim and is also able to stretch the floor into the mid-range, hitting almost 61 percent of his shots recently.
Point guard Reggie Jackson is transitioning into playing more minutes lately, and that's reflected in his 40 percent shooting from the field and some struggles from downtown. Even with the recent difficulties, he's usually pretty good at attacking the rim and is a decent jump-shooter. Jackson's three-point shot only goes in a third of the time, but he's a willing shooter from outside. Also keep in mind Portland's struggles with slowing down backcourt players with scoring potential -- if Jackson's read the scouting report on the Blazers, he'll be sure to be in attack-mode tonight. Interestingly, in Portland's two victories over the Thunder so far this year, Jackson hasn't really played his best, scoring under his usual average and shooting worse than normal.
Guard Jeremy Lamb comes off the bench to provide some scoring punch, a good scorer at the rim but a much-likelier jump-shooter. Lamb's efficiency has faltered a bit the last several games, but he's a solid offensive spark and is capable of heating up. Guards Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher contribute a few shots here and there and Nick Collison is apparently a productive cog in Brooks' offense while contributing under five points a night. The rest of the rotation cedes the majority of touches to either Durant, Ibaka or Jackson for the most part.
Portland's offense has been firing on all cylinders the last several games, averaging over 113 points when they take the floor.
The Blazers most productive trio, which consists of guards Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, contributes the most to Portland coach Terry Stotts' high-octane offense. Aldridge is hitting half of his 21 shots a night, rarely turning it over and getting himself to the line about six times every game and converting on over 90 percent of his free-throws right now. Lillard has increased his assists lately, but regressed from the field, though he's still drawing over six fouls a game and is also making 90 percent of his free-throws. Even though Matthews suffered through a 2-9 outside-shooting performance in last night's loss to the Rockets, he's hit 44.1 percent of his threes in his last five games, good for three makes a night. Matthews is hitting about 46 percent of his overall field-goal attempts, not far off his season average.
Forward Nicolas Batum, who may not play tomorrow night due to complications from a swollen injured finger, had been dialing up his offensive attack prior to his six-point scoring output last night against the Rockets. Lately, he's cashing in on over 52 percent of his shots and about 38 percent of his threes. Backup guard Mo Williams often injects energy into the Blazers' offense off the bench, hitting 40 percent of his threes recently, but he's also terrible from the field right now, missing almost two-thirds of his shots from within the arc. Center Robin Lopez displayed a few nifty post-moves last night against smaller defenders, a pleasant surprise for Portland fans as he's continued his efficient shooting ways.
Guard C.J. McCollum and big men Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson contribute in limited time, hitting shots relatively efficiently when utilizing their scoring opportunities. McCollum is a willing shooter off the bench, and he's hit 46.4 percent of his shots and 44.4 percent of his three-pointers.
Portland's most glaring issue -- even considering some impressive wins in the last several games -- is an inability to consistently defend opposing teams for 48 minutes. The Blazers have given up over 107 points a game in their last five, the offense often bailing the team out with an average of 113.8 points in the same timespan. Portland has dipped in their defense of the arc lately, too, a huge strength for the team early in the season. Opposing teams are still limited in their attempts, but their percentages have been creeping up over the last few weeks, culminated in a 16-33 performance by Houston last night in which they beat the Blazers at their own game. Even though Lillard, Matthews, Lillard & Co. have managed to outscore their opposing backcourt counterparts lately, they still give up a lot of points and cough over the edge in efficiency, as well.
Oklahoma City's defense is about nine points a game less-forgiving than that of the Blazers. Still, they'll allow decent ball-movement, fast-break opportunities and shots from behind the three-point line -- though they're not bad at contesting shooters and allow pretty low shooting-percentages from mostly everywhere on the floor. The Thunder are also willing to put teams on the line, so Portland should take advantage of Oklahoma City's tendency to foul shooters, using their league-leading accuracy at the free-throw line to help negate the dozen free-throws Durant is likely to attempt tonight. Inside scoring comes pretty hard against the Thunder, but the Blazers have beaten them twice this season so far without really using that tactic, instead relying on monster games from Aldridge and a balanced scoring attack.
Oklahoma City is a great rebounding team, but so are the Blazers. The Thunder's best individuals on the boards are Ibaka, big man Kendrick Perkins and rookie center Steven Adams, though the latter two play far fewer minutes than Ibaka. As a team, Oklahoma City is good on both ends of the floor, the Blazers a much better offensive-rebounding team than defensive. Aldridge paces the Blazers on the glass, lately exploding for over 15 rebounds a game in his last five outings. Lopez and Batum contribute about seven a piece, and the rest of Portland's boardwork comes from a plethora of other contributors, similar to the Thunder, a team that does solid work on the glass as a team. Another huge rebounding output from Aldridge doesn't seem farfetched, considering his recent efforts to corral loose balls and his 13.5 average total rebounds against Oklahoma City this year.
The Thunder are really finding a rhythm right now offensively with Durant uncorking superhuman-like ability with the ball in his hands, creating for both himself and his teammates. Stopping Durant during this current stretch of play seems like a pretty tough task, and Ibaka's found a way to be a legit second option with Westbrook in street clothes. Brooks' roster isn't exactly lighting the world on fire right now outside of those two, though, and forcing Durant's teammates to make an impact could open the way for a Portland victory tonight. Still, that's much easier said than done considering the emphatic fashion the Thunder have won in during their current three-game winning streak.
The superstars for both teams -- Durant and Aldridge -- have both had huge games against each other in the two meetings so far this year and both are currently playing arguably their best basketball of the season. The stars will likely get their points tonight, but this game might come down to which team has the best supporting cast and which team can slow down the other's offense more effectively. Lillard has struggled against the Thunder this year, and Jackson has similarly not played his best against Portland. If one of them gets on a roll tonight, that could really change the tide of the game in their team's favor.
Will the Blazers correct recent defensive woes tonight and finish this road trip strong? Many fans would consider a split of this trip a success and that's already been secured. Some combination of secondary scorers for Portland -- Matthews, Williams, Lopez and (possibly) Batum -- will probably have to be a bit greedy tonight if they plan to weather the oncoming offensive storm from Durant and escape Oklahoma City with a victory.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter