The Portland Trail Blazers kick off their 2014-15 regular season tonight when the injury-depleted Oklahoma City Thunder limp into the Moda Center for a matchup between two of last year's Northwest Division playoff teams.
By now you've heard that Thunder forward -- and reigning NBA MVP -- Kevin Durant sustained the same foot injury that Blazers guard CJ McCollum suffered last preseason, which will keep the five-time All-Star out of action until at least December.
"Okay," most Oklahoma City fans probably thought once the initial shock of the news wore off. "We have Russell Westbrook at point guard, who is more than capable of carrying the team while Durant heals. We got this"
At that time, Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins and backup forward Grant Jerrett had already been ruled out of preseason play entirely, while guard Reggie Jackson only played in two preseason games. Forward Mitch McGary only saw action in one game before succumbing to an injury of his own.
Shortly after Durant was hurt in early October, Thunder players began to fall to like dominoes.
First, it was guard Jeremy Lamb with back issues last week. Then wing Anthony Morrow hurt his knee. Just when Thunder fans thought things couldn't get any worse, the two wings designated to start heading into opening night -- Andre Roberson and Perry Jones -- were held out of practice this weekend with lingering ailments. Jackson and Lamb re-aggravated previous injuries in practice Monday, and will be held out of at least two contests.
Roberson and Jones will make their way back to the court tonight to start at shooting guard and small forward, respectively, but Durant, Morrow, Jackson, McGary and Jerrett will stay back in Oklahoma City, leaving the Thunder with nine active players for tonight's game in Portland.
No one really knows what to expect from Westbrook with Durant out; Many have speculated that he'll go bonkers offensively, spearheading the OKC charge by launching 30+ shots a night and ignoring any accusations of selfishness.
So far, though, Westbrook is saying all the right things, as reported by NewsOK.com's Darnell Mayberry on Monday:
"...I just think about how we can get better as a team," Westbrook said. "My job as a point guard is to be able to come out on the floor and run my team. And that's all I can do is come out and try to figure out (how) to better my guys, better all the guys we have on the floor and that's about it."
The enigmatic seventh-year guard continued:
"It's about our team," Westbrook said. "I can't win games by myself. I can't do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it on more of the team. Everybody keeps asking what I'm going to do and how I'm going to change. I think it's more about our team and what we can do to get better and what we can do to be a better team."
All indications from Westbrook are that he won't play too much hero-ball in the early season for the Thunder, but there's really no precedent set for how he'll react to playing without Durant; Of the 1,411 minutes Westbrook played last season, only 41 came without his superstar teammate on the floor with him, Jordan Schultz of the Huffington Post reported yesterday.
What we do know, however, is that Westbrook elevated his game in the 2014 postseason, racking up three (!) triple-doubles in 19 games while averaging 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds and drawing eight fouls per contest. His 4.4 turnovers and 28 percent shooting from deep in the playoffs were a blemish, but Westbrook's intensity on both ends of the floor helped propel the Thunder to the 2014 Western Conference Finals, where they ran out of gas against the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs.
No matter how Westbrook decides to play tonight in the season opener, expect fireworks. Starting alongside him are Roberson -- a second-year guard who played 399 total minutes last season for the Thunder -- Jones, power forward Serge Ibaka and center Steven Adams.
Brooks announced just yesterday that Adams would get the starting nod over longtime-Thunder starting center Kendrick Perkins.
Welcome to Loud City, SB Nation's Oklahoma City affiliate, polled readers on whether or not they though this was a good move by Brooks. These were the results:
Apparently, moving Adams into the starting lineup -- and Perkins to the bench -- was a long-overdue move. Unfortunately, the second-year big man out of New Zealand is well-known for being incredibly aggressive defensively, annoying and often getting into the heads of opposing players while racking up fouls. DailyThunder.com editor Royce Daily, in a 35-point season preview of the Thunder, had these predictions for Adams:
15. Adams will foul out 11 times. Or maybe 82 times. I'm not even sure at this point.
16. Adams will force four ejections and two suspensions. Keep your hands to yourself, everyone. Because Stache Adams is just playing hard. No hard feelings.
Offensively, he won't bring a lot to the table -- Adams attempted just 2.3 shots per game last season -- but his starting frontcourt mate, Ibaka, has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat the last two seasons.
Ibaka scored 15.1 points per game last year, hitting 53.6 percent of his shots. Under the basket, he was good for 68.5 percent of his field goal attempts and also added a reliable jumper to his game. Expect a high volume of shots for Ibaka tonight -- at least 15 -- with about half coming in the key and the other half in the mid-range.
Jones is OKC's best available outside shooter, coming in with a 36.1 percent clip last year from deep, though he only attempted about one three per game. The next best three-point shooter on the foor tonight for OKC is backup point guard Sebastian Telfair, at 32 percent for his career, followed by Westbrook, who made 31.8 percent of his threes last season.
The Thunder attempted over 22 outside shots per game in the 2014-15 preseason, making just 27.8 percent of them. The Blazers were No. 3 in the NBA last year in three-point field goals allowed, so don't expect much success for OKC when shooting from deep tonight.
Most of the Thunder's offense will be generated through Westbrook, Ibaka and -- to a lesser extent -- Jones. If the Blazers can limit the other six healthy players available for Brooks tonight, those three probably don't have the firepower to win the game alone. Westbrook and Ibaka will get their points one way or the other, but the key for Portland on the defensive end should be preventing any ancillary players from making serious contributions.
Still, Blazers fans probably remember Phoenix Suns big man Miles Plumlee coming out of nowhere on opening night 2013, dropping 18 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a victorious effort.
On the other end, Portland should be able to score consistently, though it's worth noting that Damian Lillard struggled to score against the Thunder his first two seasons, averaging 34.9 percent from the floor and 31 percent from deep his rookie year. Last season, Lillard was held by OKC to 35.6 percent from the floor and 24.1 percent from outside, a full decrease of 15.3 percentage points off his season average of 39.4 percent from beyond the three-point line.
Blazers All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, however, stepped up against the Thunder last season, averaging 26 points and 13.8 rebounds against them in four meetings. Expect more big numbers from Aldridge tonight, as he could get a few extra touches that Lillard might normally take.
Tonight would be a good opportunity for starting Blazers wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews to step up -- Lillard will be in an unforgiving matchup with Westbrook, while Aldridge battles Ibaka. Center Robin Lopez has a size advantage on Adams, Perkins and Thunder big Nick Collison, but all are considered tough players and don't make things easy for opponents.
Batum and Matthews will be mostly guarded by Roberson and Jones, both playing somewhat out-of-position on the wings to accommodate their team's lack of depth. Matthews may not be able to go into the post against the 6-foot-7 Roberson, but he should be able to get plenty of good, open looks on the perimeter due to Roberson's lack of quickness.
Jones won't be of much help defending the perimeter either, so if the Blazers can employ their trademark ball movement, Batum should also be able to cash in on a few open threes tonight, as well. Portland backup guards CJ McCollum and Steve Blake will be up against the likes of Telfair and the unproven small forward Lance Thomas, who saw action in just five games last season with the Pelicans. As the Thunder already struggle to defend the three-point line, Portland's backcourt and wing players should be able to get up plenty of clean shots.
Last season, Oklahoma City was an average-to-decent team on the boards, rebounding slightly better on the defensive end and relying mostly on a team effort. The Blazers were a middle-of-the-pack defensive rebounding team last year, but excelled on the offensive end. Ibaka, Adams and Perkins are all respectable rebounders on the defensive side of the ball, so Aldridge, Lopez and backup bigs Chris Kaman, Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson will have to work for their rebounds on that end. The Blazers will likely be getting back into transition defense quicker this year, sacrificing some offensive rebounds and second-chance points in the process, too, so the Thunder could make even more of an impact on the defensive glass.
Though Lillard has struggled against Westbrook and Oklahoma City in the past, don't be surprised to see him play aggressive early tonight, as he went toe-to-toe with Clippers point guard Chris Paul last Friday and registered a 21-point performance in just three quarters of play. Lillard may come out motivated, but the smart play tonight might be to exploit other matchup advantages instead of trying to power through Westbrook.
Expect a game that is close early -- Westbrook is one of the most talented backcourt players in the NBA, and has a lot to prove with Durant on the sidelines -- but the Blazers should be able to pull away from the Thunder eventually as their injuries and lack of depth are exposed as the game wears on.
On the other hand, it's early in the season and Brooks could just ride his starters tonight and hope Westbrook and Ibaka explode enough offensively to keep OKC in the game. Roberson, Jones, Thomas and Adams, to some extent, are all relatively unknown quantities and could slip past any Blazer who overlooks them. Portland coach Terry Stotts should be making sure his team doesn't overlook anyone tonight.
Editor's note: In a feature new to Blazer's Edge this year, staff writer and video whiz Sam Tongue will be previewing key individual matchups for each Blazer game this season. Check out his first entry:
View the 2014-15 Thunder season preview with Welcome to Loud City manager Zebulun Benbrook here.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter