The Portland Trail Blazers finish out their 5-game road trip today with a 4:00 p.m. game against the 51-19 Oklahoma City Thunder, televised on CSNNW.
Unlike most of the opponents on this road trip, the Thunder are on a little bit of a downswing as the Blazers catch them. Of course "downswing" is relative. They've only won 4 of their last 6 games. (This would qualify as a hot streak for the Blazers.) The two losses were legitimate: Denver and Memphis. In fact the Thunder have only lost to sub-.500 teams twice all year, neither one at home. Even carrying a brace of upset road wins into this game, the Blazers have their work cut out for them.
Rehearsing the Oklahoma City lineup is like reading an awards-show playbill. Kevin Durant: 28 points, 8 rebounds, 50% shooting, 40% from distance. Russell Westbrook: 23 points, 7.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals. Serge Ibaka: 13 and 8 with 57% shooting from the field. Thabo Sefolosha: the usual good defense and three-point shooting. Kevin Martin: 14 ppg off the bench and the best three-point shooting on the team. The weak link is the center position. Kendrick Perkins defends pretty well but his rebounding and scoring have never picked up in OKC. The Thunder rely on heavy doses of Nick Collison. He's about the same level rebounder as Perkins but his scoring is more reliable...a semi-hidden glue guy on the roster. Their skills, levels of experience, and dedication all mesh together to form a cohesive whole, as that .730 winning percentage demonstrates. San Antonio has a better record but the Thunder are still the flagship of the conference and its scariest team.
Oklahoma City's offense is a sight to behold. They score more points than anybody outside of Houston. They're more efficient than every team but Miami. Elite shooting percentage, great three-point percentage, #1 overall in foul shots drawn per game...you can't name a way they don't score. The paint is their weakest area. Perkins isn't a huge threat. Durant and Westbrook take plenty of jumpers and even Ibaka falls in love with the perimeter game. But hey, it works for them. Besides, that "weakness" still leaves them 10th in the league in points in the paint scored per game. A propensity towards turnovers and lack of offensive rebounding are the only dull facets on this gem of an offense. Most games they don't matter.
Length and smarts also allow the Thunder to negotiate the defensive end well. They're 2nd in the league in field goal percentage allowed, 9th in three-point percentage allowed, 6th in defensive efficiency. They're the best shot-blocking team in the league (length again). Their defensive rebounding is slightly sub-par (bigs again) but as with everything else, it's a relative rather than absolute weakness.
Add this all together and you have a league-leading +9 point differential per game. That's not all-time-great territory but it's head and shoulders above the rest of the league. By comparison the Thunder are as far above the Spurs and Heat in this category as the Heat are above the Clippers. People will talk about Miami's amazing winning streak (and really, Miami will probably end up winning the title again) and San Antonio's ageless excellence but in many ways Oklahoma City is still the standard for elite in the league.
Teams that beat the Thunder score a ton of points on them. They've only lost 3 games all year to teams scoring fewer than 100. The Blazers are going to have to follow the recipe they've employed in their last two games: hot start, exploit rebounds, win the turnover battle, hope a couple starters go on huge streaks. Defensive rotations have long been an issue for the Blazers against OKC. The Thunder stars mandate help defense but anybody you leave open outside of Perkins can light you up. Serge Ibaka has made a mini-career out of burning the Blazers for just this reason. Before that Westbrook regularly sliced apart the Portland defense and rebounders. Pushing Durant outside and getting a hand in his face on the jumper goes a long way towards making Portland's defense look sound. You also hope Damian Lillard gives as good as he gets against Westbrook. And watch out for Mighty Meyers Leonard off the bench...a potential difference-maker on the offensive end.
Nobody in their right mind would expect a win, or even a close game, here. But nobody would have expected Portland's last victory against the Hawks either. You never know. But I must say, these road games against Oklahoma City make me miss the Roy Era more than any other single event. Everybody has moved on and bid goodbye to those dreams, of course, but I can't help but get a pang when I imagine what this game could have meant for both teams if the Blazers were bringing Roy, Oden, and Aldridge into town...easily the marquee matchup in the West and one of the season's best games. Instead the Thunder take the marquee and the Blazers will hope to sneak in and rearrange some of their letters for a day.
Welcome to Loud City is a nifty Thunder site.
Your Jersey Contest Form for this game.