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Game 73 Preview: Trail Blazers versus Thunder

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Game Time:  5:00 p.m.  TV:  KGW

It's hard to move on from a thrilling, last-second victory but alas, we must do so as the Thunder loom on the horizon.  The major issue for the Blazers in this game may be their own inability to move on.  The problem with fantastic, emotional wins is that they lead to tragic, horrible letdowns the game after.  With the Thunder having won 11 of their last 13, knowing the Blazers have a (faint) chance to catch up to them in the division, and traditionally viewing the Blazers as nasty rivals, this game won't survive a Portland letdown of any kind.  The victory against San Antonio was great but it was hardly conclusive.  After all, the Blazers probably shouldn't have put themselves in the position of having to steal that game in the first place, seeing as how the Spurs were without Tim Duncan.  It's not like they served notice that they were ready to set the league on fire and beat down all comers.  In order to do that Portland would need to win tonight.  But the Blazers' M.O. doesn't including winning this type of game.  They tend to lose the game that would put them over the top and send a message then, just when you get down on them, come back and win a couple they probably shouldn't.  Maybe that mindset has changed but they'll have to prove it.  With the opponent on a roll and at home, a hard time conjuring up emotion, and traditional failure in this kind of situation, it's a tall order.

You know about Oklahoma City's main guys, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  At 28 points and 7 rebounds per game Durant is a headache, one that even Portland's wing defenders might have a hard time curing.  But Westbrook has been the real problem against the Blazers.  He averages 22 points, 8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and almost 2 steals against the league but he seems to light up special when he sees Portland's uniforms.  He creates a breach in Portland's defensive dam that the whole team tries to cover for, leaving all the other Thunder players with ludicrously easy shots.  This has led to power forward Serge Ibaka looking unstoppable against Portland.  The Thunder have added Kendrick Perkins from Boston to feast on easy shots, adding size that they previously lacked as well (perhaps a concern against Portland's smaller lineups).  Throw in some defense from Thabo Sefolosha and some solid role playing from Nazr Mohammed, Nick Collison, and James Harden off the bench and you have a team that has incredible upward potential but doesn't make that many mistakes even on their off nights.  The Blazers feed on mistakes.  When things go wrong against the Thunder they find themselves the only ones making them.

That's not to say the Thunder are invincible.  In fact you'll have to go a ways before you find someone who thinks the darlings of the league are more average than I, even with the acknowledged greatness of Durant and Westbrook.  Their 26-10 home record is the exact same as Portland's.  They can score every way imaginable but their key strengths are fastbreak points and free throws.  If you can get back on defense and prevent the refs from systematically benching your players you have a decent chance against them.  The dangerous thing about OKC is that, though they're wing-oriented, they score a ton in the paint.  These guys aren't settling for mid-range jumpers.  They attack hard, thus drawing those fouls (with a little extra credit for their reputation).  However they'll have stretches--at times game-long--where they cease attacking and settle for one-on-one basketball and longer shots.  That's when they become distressingly normal.  The more that happens they more they go to their two stars.  Either is capable of winning a game single-handedly but it's seldom to OKC's benefit to watch them try.

The Thunder are great at preventing opponent breaks but once the halfcourt offense ensues they suffer.  They allow the 5th most points in the paint of anyone in the league.  With no true stopper in the lane they're faced with allowing easy attempts or collapsing and leaving shooters open.  They're not horrible but their defense in no way matches their offensive production, falling around the middle of the league.  Their rebounding is similarly mediocre, a possible advantage to the Blazers tonight.

The key to Portland's chances will be attacking just as hard as the Thunder do.  When Portland loses to this team it's because Westbrook charges like a bull on offense while the Blazers twiddle their thumbs and go, "Doo de-doo de-doo" when they have the ball.  If the Blazers can find aggression from guys like Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum, blasting through the lane for layups and drawn fouls, Portland can score with these guys.  Rebounding and controlling the pace will be another key factor.  The Thunder like to go.  The Blazers should make them deliberate, especially since, outside of Westbrook, they don't tend to share the ball.  If you can bog them down you can begin to predict where the shot is coming from and defend accordingly.  Most of all the Blazers need to find a way to beat them down and beat them up without getting whistles.  Even though they're better than they were a couple years ago you can still enforce your will on the Thunder with a swift, direct punch to the nose, much as if facing a shark.  If you even begin to turn and run, though, they will bite your butt so hard there won't be anything left.  Then again, that will-enforcing goes back to determination and emotion.  You know Wallace will have it.  Andre Miller might.  Who else is going to step up and own this game?

Odds are it'll be the guys in the Oklahoma City uniforms.

Welcome to Loud City will be justifiably proud of this season so far.

Here be your Jersey Contest game form.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)