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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview

ESPN NBA writer and proprietor Royce Young stops by Blazer's Edge for a Q&A session discussing tonight's matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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Oklahoma City Thunder (32-25, No. 8 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (37-19, No. 4 in the West)
Friday, February 27
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, ESPNHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Thunder: Kevin Durant, Steve Novak, Steven Adams
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud CityTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

From time to time, Blazer's Edge collaborates with blogs that cover other NBA teams to get an in-depth view of Trail Blazers opponents from the people who follow them most. Today we'd like to welcome ESPN NBA writer and proprietor Royce Young to preview tonight's Blazers-Thunder matchup.


Blazer's Edge: Kevin Durant's missed the last three games, but as of this writing, the Thunder have rattled off seven straight wins and have averaged the most points per game in the league since the All-Star break. Obviously Russell Westbrook is a huge part of this equation, but what other pieces have fallen into place for OKC lately that have led to the current surge?

Royce Young: The deadline trade is obviously a factor, because it's given the Thunder extra depth to absorb Durant's absence, specifically in that it allows Westbrook to hover between distributor and scorer more. In the past, with no Durant, Westbrook basically had to shoulder an offensive mindset to make up for the loss of Durant's production. Now, with Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Morrow, Dion Waiters and others, Westbrook doesn't have to do as much on his own.

BE: Up until the last several weeks, many prognosticators were still wondering aloud whether or not the Thunder would even make the playoffs. Now with New Orleans falling off, Phoenix trading away some of its core and OKC back to its winning ways, do you think the Thunder can sneak up on Portland and win the Northwest Division? What has to go right for that to happen?

RY: I think it could happen, but I don't think it's likely. First step for the Thunder is winning Friday's game. But it would take an especially hot finish by the Thunder and while I think they're capable of winning 19 of 25 or something, the Blazers would also have to drop. For example, OKC went 19-6 to finish out, they'd be 51-31. But to pass the Blazers, Portland would need to finish 13-13. I don't really see that happening.

Blazer's Edge reader BlazerTucker asks: How have the Thunder done integrating their newest players? Does Kanter seem like the solution at C, or is he too much of a liability on defense? Could this open up the middle for our guards more than they have seen against OKC in the past?

RY: The new pieces have slotted in really well, especially Kanter. He and Westbrook already have an obvious chemistry in the pick-and-roll, with Westbrook actively looking to set him up in the paint as much as possible. When Steven Adams returns, it's a good question as to who starts, because there's no question Adams is a better, stronger, more physical defender. The interior is definitely more open now, because Adams is an excellent paint clogger, but Serge Ibaka is back to his weakside swatting ways, so I don't think there's some runway to the bucket or anything.

BE: I've heard some national pundits criticizing coach Scott Brooks' offense, generally calling it "simple" and implying that he essentially just rolls the ball out and lets Durant and Westbrook do their thing. What is the national media missing here, or do they have a solid point?

RY: That's an oversimplified narrative that's easy to jump on and run with. Is Brooks' offense intricate or complex? Not at all. But the proof is in the pudding: When Durant and Westbrook are healthy, the Thunder have routinely finished top six in offensive efficiency. So ask yourself: Is it the job of a coach to have an offense that's complicated, or an offense that's successful? And I don't think you can argue much with the results. The Thunder have some tremendous improvisational players in Westbrook and Durant, and Brooks, to a fault sometimes, let's them play to their strengths. The Thunder do take some bad shots, but like anyone's offense, it doesn't look good when the shots don't fall. But when Durant drops 36 and Westbrook adds 28, nobody is praising Brooks' offense. It's just that he's got two great players. Like I said, that's an easy narrative to follow, and one that I don't think is especially fair.

BE: OKC has twice lost to Portland this season, both times with Durant in street clothes, as he will again be for this matchup. What's the key for the Thunder tonight against the Blazers?

RY: Westbrook. Westbrook, Westbrook, Westbrook, Westbrook and Westbrook. If he can play well and orchestrate the offense, keeping everyone involved and included, the Thunder can be dangerous even without Durant.

BE: With the acquisition of Dion Waiters earlier in the season and the trade-deadline additions of Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Kanter, the Thunder are now legitimately at least two-deep at every position when healthy. Who are the key role players for this team and what are their main functions?

RY: Quietly, I think D.J. Augustin is a critical piece. He gives the Thunder a terrific change of pace behind Westbrook and even has the ability to play alongside him. Singler is your prototypical glue guy, Waiters your stereotypical gunner, Anthony Morrow your straightforward sharpshooter. But Augustin can do a lot and keep the scoreboard moving even when Westbrook or Durant aren't on the floor.

Special thanks to Royce Young of ESPN NBA and for joining Blazer's Edge to preview tonight's matchup with OKC. Follow Young on twitter @royceyoung.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

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