Portland Trail Blazers (11-15) vs (16-8)
Wednesday, December 16
Chesapeake Energy Arena | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Chris Kaman (Questionable - ankle) | Oklahoma City injury report: None
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The Portland Trail Blazers (11-15) kick off a five-game road trip against the Oklahoma Thunder (16-8) tonight at 5:00 pm PST. The game will be broadcast locally on KGW.
The Blazers have rebounded from an early season seven game losing streak to win seven of their last 13. They have played some of their best basketball of the season in recent wins over the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans.
The Thunder have been impressive in recent weeks, winning their last five games and 11 of their last 13. In most years the Thunder's solid play would have garnered national attention, but they have been overshadowed by the even more spectacular play of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. Despite the relative lack of media attention, they are third in the Western Conference and one Steph Curry sprained ankle or Kawhi Leonard broken hand away from the NBA Finals. The return to elite status is a welcome return to form after two seasons of injury-plagued underachievement.
The Thunder have played well offensively in December, with an offensive rating of 108.9 in (No. 2 in the NBA). They are shooting 46.8 percent overall, 37.8 percent from three, and have a true shooting percentage of 56.3 (4th) for the month. Their turnover rate has improved from No. 27 overall in November to No. 17 in December.
The Thunder's scoring success seems to be a case of "making the extra pass" being more than a cliché - when Oklahoma City shares the ball and avoids turnovers they overwhelm teams with their high-octane scorers. Coach Billy Donovan deserves credit for instituting an effective offense system after replacing former coach Scott Brooks, who was criticized for a lack of offensive creativity.
The Thunder defense has also been elite in recent weeks, allowing 100 points only once in the last ten games. The defensive improvement has been attributed to mental discipline. Donovan has emphasized NBA fundamentals (e.g. limiting bad fouls, rebounding fundamentals, and forcing teams into low-efficiency shots) to great success. Consequently, the Thunder have the second highest margin of victory (10.2) in the league this month.
Serge Ibaka has helmed Oklahoma City's defense. He struggled early in the season but has improved in recent weeks. In addition to Ibaka, the Thunder are led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both are legitimate top 10 players in the NBA and could be MVP candidates. Westbrook is sixth in the league in scoring at 26.1 per game and second in assists at 9.6, while Durant is third in scoring at 27.5. Westbrook is tenacious and explosive, and Durant is one of the smoothest and most highly skilled 6-foot-11 forwards in the league. Both are unstoppable as individuals when they're clicking on offense, and when playing well together they make the Thunder scary good.
Andre Roberson is the Thunder's other starting guard. He is an afterthought on offense averaging 4.7 points per game on 26.8 percent shooting from three. Roberson's calling card is defense - he is regarded as an elite perimeter stopper. He will likely match up against Lillard to start the game and make life difficult for Portland's star, but Roberson will also help Portland's defense by allowing the Blazers to "hide" Lillard or C.J. McCollum during Thunder possessions.
Oklahoma City's starting lineup is rounded out by New Zealander Steven Adams. Adams averages 6.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 24 minutes per game. Like Roberson, Adams is on the court primarily for his defense and hustle. He is capable of scoring around the rim, but is not expected to handle any real offensive responsibility while playing alongside Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka. Adams is also known as one of the league's notorious antagonizers, and regularly gets under the skin of opposing players.
Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters provide most of the offensive punch off the bench for the Thunder. Kanter is a maximum contract player this season after the Thunder matched a maximum offer from the Blazers this summer. Whether or not Kanter is worth nearly $20 million per season has yet to be seen - he is averaging 11.3 points and 7.8 rebounds but is a subpar post defender. Waiters is averaging 10.8 points per game, but is only shooting 39.8 percent and has an eFG% of .452.
D.J. Augustin, Anthony Morrow, and Nick Collison round out the rotation.
Keys to the game
Portland big men need to put pressure on the Thunder: Donovan has begun playing a dominant smallball lineup of Westbrook, Waiters, Morrow, Durant, and Ibaka in recent games. The Blazers big men will need to establish themselves early tonight so that they can stay on the court and make it difficult for Donovan to find a matchup for his smaller lineup to exploit.
Goad the Thunder into isolation offense: The Blazers may benefit from limiting double teams on Durant and Westbrook early in the game with the hope of goading one of the Thunder stars into an isolation-heavy mindset. The Thunder have thrived when they move the ball this year - if they can be tempted into abandoning that gameplan the Blazers might have a chance.
Don't give up too many free throws: Durant and Westbrook combine for 14.5 free throw attempts per night. The Thunder average 24.7 per game, while the Blazers are No. 28 in free throw defense, surrendering 26.2 per game. Portland needs to limit free points and three point plays if they hope to stay in the game.
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