The Blazers bring their first two-game losing streak of the season into Oklahoma City tonight to take on a Thunder team missing point guard Russell Westbrook, who's been shelved until the All-Star break following his third knee surgery since April.
The Thunder have seen some mixed results in their first two games without Westbrook. Last Friday, they edged the Charlotte Bobcats by four points on the road. The following Sunday, Oklahoma City dismantled the Houston Rockets 117-86 at home.
In those two wins, forward Kevin Durant predictably led the Thunder in scoring, racking up 33 and 34 points, respectively. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks hasn't really had to mess with his playing rotation too much to compensate for Westbrook's absence, as guards Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher have all seen only slight upticks in playing time -- though admittedly, it's tough to ignore the blowout against Houston allowing Brooks to rest some guys in the fourth quarter, skewing the numbers a bit.
If the Blazers manage to keep the score closer than the Rockets did against OKC a few nights ago, expect to see a minutes distribution more similar to that of the Thunder-Bobcats match-up on Friday, when Lamb, Jackson and Fisher all played at least four minutes more than their averages for the season.
Oklahoma City fans may have been worried how the Thunder's ball-movement would suffer without their starting All-Star point guard in the lineup, but Welcome to Loud City Manager Zebulon Benbrook explained in an article over the weekend that OKC's ball-movement actually increases when Westbrook's hurt because he tries to find his own shot pretty often when he's on the floor. Without him, the Thunder have to move the ball more to find open looks because Westbrook draws so much attention from opposing defenses. True enough, the assists have increased at least incrementally the last couple games for almost everyone in Brooks' playing rotation.
The list of players shooting the ball well lately for Oklahoma City is long, including Lamb, Durant, forwards Perry Jones, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, guard Thabo Sefolosha and rookie center Steven Adams. All have connected on over 50 percent of their field-goal attempts over the last several games. Lamb, Durant, Sefolosha, Ibaka and Fisher have all converted on 40 percent or more of their three-point attempts over the same timespan.
Essentially -- at least in two games over the weekend -- Brooks has been able to distribute Westbrook's minutes and shots relatively seamlessly amongst his remaining backcourt players, and they've responded productively for the most part. Jackson and Fisher have struggled to finish within the arc, but neither player has shot particularly well all season. Jackson's not afraid to uncork about five threes a night along with a sampling of jumpers, but he really likes to get to the rim where he's capable of finishing well.
Expect Durant to attempt about 20 shots tonight. He's accurate from almost anywhere outside the three-point line, is effective from a few mid-range spots and elite at scoring near the rim, where he converts three-quarters of his attempts. Durant can go off the dribble, come off screens and pull-up from just about anywhere, and his combination of athleticism and length allows him to get his shot off whenever and wherever he needs to. Oklahoma City's offense flows through Durant, and his assists have increased recently. He also rebounds well, draws a lot of fouls and converts on his free-throws.
Durant and Jackson take more shots than any of their teammates. Behind them is Lamb, Ibaka and Sefolosha. As mentioned above, all three are shooting well lately. Lamb distributes his shots pretty evenly with threes, jumpers and attempts at the basket, and he's a solid finisher from everywhere. Ibaka stays within the perimeter, a good jump-shooter but an inconsistent scorer inside and Sefolosha usually shoots from deep or close to the hoop, straying from the mid-range. He struggled earlier this year with his shot, but Sefolosha has been more reliable lately. The rest of the Thunder rotation chips in a little here and there, but the individual contributions of the bench players shouldn't be overwhelming.
Oklahoma's City's defense is solid, and they're very tough to score on from anywhere. They lock down the three-point line, bother jump-shooters and are capable of shutting down the paint. The Thunder allow a lot of shots to be taken, but they do not give up high percentages, they're among the league-leaders in shot-blocking and they don't put shooters at the line very often considering how many shot-attempts they defend every night. OKC is difficult to score against, and they've held opponents under 100 points eight of their last nine games and only give up 97.6 points a night on average.
In Portland's win over the Thunder about a month ago, Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge paced the Blazers with 38 points on 17-28 shooting, many of his baskets coming via jump-shots. Aldridge will likely be defended mostly by Ibaka and OKC big man Nick Collison tonight. Ibaka is tough to score against inside, only allowing about 43 percent of opponents' attempts to go in at the rim. Collison is less difficult to score on, so don't be surprised to see Blazers coach Terry Stotts take advantage of that match-up when it's presented.
The Thunder have allowed 17-46 shooting on field-goals from opposing point guards since Westbrook's injury, a list including Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks. Portland guard Damian Lillard is probably a tier ahead of these three in the NBA's point guard pecking order, but the evidence so far shows that Jackson makes life difficult for the man he's defending. Still, Lillard has shot himself back to respectability lately and he's connecting on half of the eight three-pointers he tries every night. Also keep in mind that Lillard plays about 10 more minutes a night than Jackson even with Westbrook gone, so Fisher -- at age 39 -- will likely be defending Lillard for a handful of possessions tonight, and it's not likely that Fisher stands a chance of guarding him effectively in one-on-one situations.
Besides Lillard, all the Blazers outside shooters have struggled in the last couple weeks, save for a few outlying games. Wings Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright and Mo Williams have all hit three-pointers at below their season averages the last five games. The Thunder allow a reasonable amount of ball-movement -- certainly enough for an offense like Portland's to be effective -- and the Blazers were able to launch 23 triples against them in the last meeting, so the shots will be there. It'll be up to Portland's jump-shooters to capitalize on their open looks. In the win against OKC four weeks ago, the Blazers only made a third of their attempts from deep. Aldridge might not be able to bail out his teammates this time with a monster performance, so converting on the three-point opportunities provided by the Thunder's defense will be paramount for Portland if they hope to get a win in Oklahoma City.
The rebounding battle is tough to predict. On the one hand, the Blazers are one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in the NBA, but the Thunder counter with solid defensive-rebounding ability. On the offensive glass, OKC cleans up relatively well while the Blazers can struggle at corralling defensive boards. Portland probably features better individual rebounders, but the Thunder, as a team, might be more effective on the glass. Expect to see a lot of scrappiness down low between Blazers frontcourt players Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard competing against Durant, Ibaka and OKC center Kendrick Perkins for rebounds. In particular, Durant has been rebounding like crazy lately, pulling down 12.5 boards a night since Westbrook's injury. Contrast that with the respectable 6.8 rebounds Batum gets per contest from the small forward position, and it's even more clear how dominant Durant can be all-around.
In the last match-up between the two teams, Portland allowed 33 points from Durant and still won, though that's partially because Westbrook decided to take matters into his own hands down the stretch and took some ill-advised shots a few times when he probably should've deferred to Durant. Tonight, there will be no Westbrook to keep the ball out of Durant's hands.
Should the Blazers try to lock down Durant and dare someone else on the Thunder roster to step up and beat them, or should Portland play OKC straight-up, allowing the chips to fall where they may? It's tough to say, as the only time the Thunder have lost this season without Westbrook was the second game of the year on the first night of November when Minnesota held Durant to 13 points on just 11 shot-attempts, and that's certainly not likely to happen again tonight.
Also consider Portland's coming into tonight's game on the second half of a back-to-back road set after losing two close games in a row, so there will certainly be some fatigue, especially after Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews and Batum all played about 40 minutes last night against the Pelicans. Even so, heavy minutes are nothing new for this squad and they already have the confidence from taking out OKC a few weeks ago at home.
If Portland's defense steps up -- they've allowed no fewer than 104 points by any opponent since defeating the Jazz 105-94 ten games ago -- and finds a way to slow down Durant, they may be able to weather the storm from the Thunder's secondary players. Then again, Portland might dare Durant to shoot and try to take everyone else out of the game. Either way, the Blazers' defense needs to make a stronger appearance than it has its last several outings, because Oklahoma City will probably not be very forgiving.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter