Oklahoma City Thunder (43-37, No. 9 in the West)
Monday, April 13
Chesapeake Energy Arena | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, NBATV; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Thunder: Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City | Timmay's Viewing Guide
The Blazers head to Oklahoma City tonight to take on the Thunder in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
OKC is tied with the Pelicans at 43-37 on the year, but New Orleans owns the tie-breaker and the No. 8 seed out West. Both teams have two games remaining with one each against the lowly Timberwolves, which could likely be chalked up to a win for both squads.
The Pelicans, however, close their season on Wednesday against the Spurs, which, for all intents and purposes, is a very losable game for New Orleans considering how well San Antonio is currently playing (yes, Gregg Popovich could rest some key guys in the regular season closer, but still). The possibility of that loss on the Pelicans' schedule leaves the door slightly cracked for Oklahoma City to slip into the playoffs, but that would require OKC to win out, making tonight's matchup against the Blazers a must-win to keep the team's postseason hopes alive.
All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook did all he could last night against the Pacers to will his team to victory, hitting 21-of-43 shot attempts -- which he won't apologize for, in case you were asking -- for 54 points. He also handed out eight assists and hauled in nine rebounds, turning the ball over just twice while registering 40 minutes in the 116-104 loss.
Westbrook put the Thunder on his back last night, as he has all season, only to fall short while still turning in video game statistics. The most unfortunate stat for Westbrook and OKC fans from the Pacers loss, however, was the one at the end of the box score, which reads:
Technical Fouls: PLAYERS: 1 OKLAHOMA CITY ( Westbrook 1 ) - TEAMS: INDIANA (1) - COACHES: None
Last night Westbrook earned technical foul No. 16 on the season -- which leads to an automatic one-game suspension, per NBA league rules.
Yes, even after injuries derailed the seasons of Kevin Durant and then Serge Ibaka, Westbrook was able to carry an injury-ravaged Thunder roster all the way to the front steps of the postseason, only to fall an inch short at the finish line with his team's season hanging in the balance.
The same man who fought through ailments of his own -- and put himself in the MVP conversation even though he missed 16 games of his own the year -- finally allowed the frustrations of a long season spent teetering on the edge of postseason contention to boil over last night when he contested a late call by official Ed Malloy, earning himself a technical foul and, subsequently, a one-game suspension. Westbrook, the only player who could've stamped the Thunder's ticket into the playoffs this year, may have helped send his team packing into this Spring's NBA Draft Lottery instead.
Oklahoma City is 6-10 without Westbrook this year, the wins coming against the Nuggets, Kings, Celtics, Jazz, Knicks and Lakers. That doesn't tell the whole story, though. Have a look at the Thunder's numbers with Westbrook on the floor and then off the floor this season, courtesy of NBA.com:
|Statistic||OKC w/ Westbrook On Court||OKC w/ Westbrook Off Court||Net|
According to NBA.com, the Thunder play better team defense when Westbrook's on the sidelines, but that doesn't matter when the offense is scoring 16.2 fewer points per game and performing markedly worse in field goal attempts and field goal percentage, assists per game, free throw attempts per game and rebounding percentage while playing at a significantly slower pace.
Simply put, OKC is generally able to put up enough offense without Westbrook to beat only the worst of teams. Marina Mangiaracina of Welcome to Loud City looks at the Thunder's options at point guard tonight:
Expect D.J. Augustin to start at point guard in Westbrook's place. Augustin will likely see the lion's share of minutes, as well as run the offense. Meanwhile Dion Waiters, Jeremy Lamb, Kyle Singler, and Anthony Morrow all could see shots at running the offense.
Augustin is a capable game-manager, though he's only made 23.1 percent of his limited field goal attempts the last five games and 18.8 percent of his threes. He won't provide much offense, but he can distribute. The rest of OKC's point guard prospects tonight look troublesome at best for the home team.
Morrow and Singler are excellent three-point shooters, but not much else. Without Westbrook collapsing the defense, expect them to get fewer open shots on the perimeter than usual. Waiters is reliant on creating off the dribble, though he's a poor finisher inside and a mediocre jumpshooter. He's shooting a decent 35.3 percent from deep the last five games, but is a fairly one-dimensional scorer, otherwise. Lamb's practically gotten more DNP-CDs than game minutes recently.
Centers Steven Adams and Nick Collison provide limited offense up front, and though big man Mitch McGary lit up the Blazers for 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting the last time the two teams met, he's played less than a dozen minutes a night the last few weeks. Center Enes Kanter is OKC coach Scott Brooks' most legit scoring option tonight, with decent touch around the rim and a willingness to shoot that -- while it doesn't rival that of Waiters -- will make him a threat to go off.
Portland dropped a disappointing game to the Jazz at home Saturday, as forward LaMarcus Aldridge rested and guard Arron Afflalo joined wings Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright on the injured list. Still, Utah was without forwards Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. A listless defensive effort by the Blazers sealed their fate and the Jazz snuck off with the win, even though guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to score 54 points on 21-for-49 shooting from the floor.
Coach Terry Stotts uncharacteristically called out his team's effort to the media following the loss to Utah, which was a message that apparently got through to the players afterward. The Blazers would prefer to not back into the playoffs on a losing streak, and dropping two consecutive games to the undermanned Jazz and the Westbrook-less Thunder could seriously dampen Portland's momentum heading into the postseason.
Though regular season wins and losses are inconsequential for the Blazers at this point -- they're locked into the fourth seed without hope of home court advantage and have no control over their first-round opponent -- expect Portland to come out tonight and put in a much more spirited effort than the team did Saturday. Aldridge may not be ready to return, but he may not need to.
Injured as they may be, the Blazers have enough talent -- particularly in the backcourt, where McCollum has emerged recently -- to beat Oklahoma City sans Westbrook, even as his team makes its last grasp at the postseason tonight. With their All-Star point guard healthy the last nine games, the Thunder still managed to lose seven times. If the Blazers can step out of character the way their coach did after the game Saturday when he tersely criticized his team, they can coldly kick the Thunder tonight when they're down and put another win in their back pocket as the postseason approaches.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter