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Game 54 Preview: Thunder vs. Blazers

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Game Time:  7:00 p.m.  TV:  Comcast, NBATV

The Thunder are one heck of an interesting team right now.  They're good, playing extremely well right now in fact, but they're young.  Their season has been typified by short streaks:  win 2, lose 3, win 4, lose 5, win 3 and so on.  Put it all together and you have a 29-21 team that's capable of winning on many nights but could also throw the unexpected stinker performance in there.  To be fair, though, 17 of their 21 losses have come against teams who could plausibly make the playoffs this year.  On the other hand only 12 of their 29 wins have come against such teams.  The best way to put it is that you can't pencil in a win against this team anymore.  Not even close.  But if you play well you can still give them trouble.

The season really turned for the Thunder around Christmas when they rattled off a 5-game winning streak.  Since then they're 16-7 with victories over Phoenix, Utah, Atlanta (twice), and Denver, some of those on the road even.  Although there have been exceptions when they beat good defensive teams in general they need to score to win.  They've averaged 105 in their last five games, all victories.  A huge part of their scoring is Kevin Durant, who is playing out of his mind.  Since December 23rd he has failed to lead the team in scoring only once.  He's topped 35 points 7 times during that span.  He's simply destroying everyone in his path.  They key to his surge has been the 10 free throws he draws per game now.  Those make average nights good, good nights great, and great nights into Hall-of-Fame moments.  He shoots them at an 88% rate too.  He's not shooting as well from distance as he did last year but he's getting more quality shots overall, having developed a sense of timing governing which shots to take and when...wholly absent in his earliest years.

On one side of KD is point guard Russell Westbrook who is having a hard time shooting the ball this year (a miserable time from three-point range) but still gets his shots and averaged 7.5 assists (thanks, Kevin!) and 5 rebounds besides his 16 points.  One some nights he looks like a bona fide star.  On others he makes you bang your head against a wall.  He came into the league with a lot of talent.  The question will be how well and how quickly he develops the subtle parts of the game that will take him from whiz-kid to dependable point guard.  On Durant's other side is forward Jeff Green who also went up and down a little bit early but lately has returned to steadier form.  He's an all-around player whom I have coveted since he came into the league.  He can score a little, rebound, plays smart, and finds the right moments to contribute.  If there's a caution to his game it's that he might be drifting outside too much on offense and his shooting percentage from range doesn't justify him becoming a sniper.  But if the Thunder flourish in years to come Green will probably become known as the king of the complementary players in the league.

The Thunder have surrounded these three with a bunch of guys tailored to specific roles.  They wanted a 7-footer who can contribute on offense without clogging up the lane.  They got Nenad Krstic.  They needed better defense on the wing.  They got Thabo Sefolosha.   Nick Collison provides rebounding.  James Harden shoots threes.  The supporting cast isn't the strongest in the world but they know how to play around the three main guys and are more than capable of not losing the game for Durant, Westbrook, and Green.

The Thunder make bank in several ways besides the obvious.  Their defensive efficiency is 5th in the league overall.  They get back on defense nowadays, part of their new commitment to winning.  They still have trouble allowing points in the paint as their interior defenders are not strong and their perimeter guys lose contain in the halfcourt.  Despite that they're 4th in the league in field goal percentage allowed.  If you don't penetrate on them they can get long, rangy defenders over to bother your shot.  They're good at bothering three-point shooters.  They're not great defensive rebounders.  On offense they feast on free throws and offensive rebounds.  They're neither great shooters nor three-point shooters.  They want Westbrook to break you down or Durant to overwhelm you while everyone else looks to clean up the mess.  If you can force them to execute in the halfcourt, running back-up options instead of taking you to the cleaners with mismatches every time down the court, they tend to fall apart.  Plan A is great for this team.  Plan B, not so much.

The other thing you have to consider with Oklahoma City is that they have the Blazers dead in their sights.  The division rivalry makes it a natural, but the Thunder just passed the Blazers in the standings and are now half of a game ahead.  They're not going to want to give that up tonight.  Plus there's the whole Oden-Durant thing.  Plus there's the former Sonics thing.  Plus OKC has heard for a couple of years now how the Blazers are stacked and the Blazers are the rising team in the West and the Blazers are on a short track to greatness.  Excuse them, but while Portland is doubled over nursing injuries they're more than happy to steal that crown and all of the monikers that go with it.  They want to be the Next Big Thing.  As such they'll be invested in leaving their logo tattooed on the forehead of the former owners of that appellation.  This game won't mean much in the long run, but a victory tonight, placing Portland even further behind them, could confirm a lot of things about their season and give them confidence that they, not the Blazers, are playoff bound this year.

Keys to the Game

The difficulty for Portland tonight is matchups.  Kevin Durant is going to be a tough cover for anybody on the team.  The best we can probably do is sick Nicolas Batum on him with instructions to give him any jumper but not let him put the ball on the floor.  If Nic can stay out of foul trouble this could limit Durant to merely a good performance instead of an immortal one.  If the Blazers had Brandon Roy breaking down their perimeter players and Greg Oden shoving around Krstic and Collison the Blazers could claim matchup advantages of their own.  Is it is the threads are pretty thin.  Most of our strong offense guys are jump-shot oriented and OKC likes to cover that kind of player.  Without the two-handed chopper to lop the Thunder's heads off the Blazers will have to settle for a thousand little dagger cuts.  Bayless and Miller have to penetrate and get fouled, particularly if that speeds the Thunder into their bench players.  Portland will have to execute on their screens and cuts, not just to score but to make sure guys like Martell Webster and Rudy Fernandez are open on their long shots.  If the Oklahoma City defenders don't have to move away from our shooters then our shooters are going to have a lousy night.  If they play smart the Blazers should be able to score on this team.

Back to defense for a moment, I think you do your best against Durant while privately deciding to live with whatever he gives them.  You don't want his teammates running roughshod on you though or this game will be a blowout.  To that end you keep the game slow for them, make them play in the halfcourt, and rebound every miss.  You concentrate on Westbrook and Green, trying to make them have substandard nights, daring anyone else besides them to provide enough points to support KD.  If you can keep the Thunder below 100 you have a chance.  Durant could give them 40.  You want everyone else to choke trying to provide that other 60.

The Blazers need to match Oklahoma City's intensity about winning this game.  It goes without saying that energy will be important.   Conference and division standings matter to the Blazers as well, even in this bombed out wreck of a season.  Keeping the Thunder behind them would be a big deal.  Also picking up tomorrow's game in Phoenix will be hard and going into the All-Star break losing three straight and four of five overall would be discouraging.  The Blazers have pulled out so many "better win this or it gets depressing" wins so far this season.  It would be selfish to ask for one more.  But we need one more tonight.

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--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)