Coming off a season-high, 37-point home annihilation of the Orlando Magic Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers now hit the road to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The season series between the Blazers and Thunder is tied at 1-1, with the home team winning both games.
The last time these two teams went at it, however, the Blazers were a much different team. The victory in January over the Thunder improved the Blazers record to 16-24 and dropped the Thunder to 26-12. That win for Portland kickstarted a stretch that saw the Blazers win 18 of their next 22 games and get themselves into the thick of the playoff race. The Blazers now stand as the current sixth seed in the Western Conference at 35-32. If the playoffs started today, Portland would be matched up against the West's current No. 3 seed, the Thunder.
OKC entered the season with championship aspirations from the get-go as long as they could get healthy seasons from their two Superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. After injuries derailed championship aspirations the last few seasons, The Thunder enter Monday's game against Portland supporting the league's fifth-best record at 44-22.
New Thunder coach Billy Donovan has orchestrated an offense that ranks second overall at 109.5 points per game. Although the Thunder are second in scoring behind the ridiculous 115.5 points per game from the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder's 109.5 points per game this season is the best of any team, other than this year's Warriors, since the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns. The Thunder also lead the league in offensive rebounds per game at 12.9 per game, total rebounds at 48.3 per game, and give up the second least amount of rebounds at 40.3 per game.
The Thunder's offensive attack is, of course, led by two of the NBA's top eight leading scorers this season, Durant and Westbrook. Combined, these two account for 52.2 points, 15.7 rebounds, and 15.1 assists per game. This of course is a gigantic chunk of the team's production. The rest of the Thunder roster has combined averages of only 57.3 points, 32.6 rebounds, and 7.6 assists
The Achilles heal of the Thunder this year has been their inability to close games. Twelve times this season, the Thunder carried a lead into the fourth quarter and lost, which is the most of any NBA team. Having a new coach this season may impact close games, but with a roster as accustomed to winning as this Thunder team is, closing out games is a problem OKC wasn't expecting coming into the year. A fourth quarter lead will be anything but safe against a young but confident Blazer team.
No surprise on what the key matchup is here: Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. Lillard has of course been on fire all season, even more so since the All-Star break, averaging 31 points on almost four 3-pointers per game on 42 percent shooting. Westbrook is one of the top overall athletes in the NBA and can be a disruptive defender at times. He does, however, have a tendency to over-help and lose track of his man.
For instance, with this recent game against the 'Wolves on the line, watch how Westbrook abandons his assignment to try and make a play on this drive:
The ball screen defense was not perfect. Steven Adams did not slow the ball down and allow Durant as much time to get through the screen as he should have. But by the time Wiggins got to the rim, he had Durant and Adams there with him and had almost no place to go. Randy Foye and Kyle Singler were both in the passing lanes, leaving Wiggins only one option, the wide-open Rubio.
Westbrook came in to help, probably because it looked like Wiggins had a lane to start out with, but he ended up in what is referred to as no-man's-land. He neither stopped the ball nor dissuaded a pass to his man, Ricky Rubio. Even as a 30 percent 3-point shooter, a wide open shot off of a kickout from under the basket is the most practiced shot in basketball. If Westbrook is assigned to Lillard or McCollum, they are going to make him pay dearly if he over-helps and loses sight of them.
On the other side of the ball, coach Donovan has ran Westbrook through the post more often than ex-Thunder coach Scott Brooks ever did, and it has paid off. Some post-ups are not even a set play. Westbrook just takes the inbounds pass, dribbles down the court and starts backing his man in from the 3-point line. Westbrook has a size and strength advantage on most of his point guard matchups, and although McCollum and Lillard are not shorter than he is, he would still have a strength advantage on the block.
A Westbrook post-up against a smaller guard usually forces a double team. He's a very good passer out of the post. As soon as he starts backing in, watch the activity level of normally dormant offensive threats like Steven Adams and Andre Roberson skyrocket as they try to position themselves for an easy basket.
There has never been another player as tall, athletic, and talented with a basketball as Durant is. He starts at the small forward position, but shoots like a shooting guard, rebounds better than most centers, brings the ball up the court off of a rebound like a point guard, and plays the power forward position a lot in smallball lineups. In short, he is a matchup nightmare.
If, however, you were to create a player that would be the appropriate body type to match up against him, it would probably be someone like Al-Farouq Aminu -- 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, athletic, good motor and a great defensive instincts. It will still, of course, take a team effort to slow down the 2013-14 MVP and four-time scoring champion, but it will be interesting to see if Aminu can give Durant some trouble.
Side note about Durant: He's averaging 8.2 rebounds per game, but has a grand total of only 32 offensive rebounds all season. In comparison, C.J McCollum, who only averages 3.4 rebounds per game, is almost 7 inches smaller than Durant and is not considered a good offensive rebounder, has 39.
Keys to Blazers success
Control the Glass: Rebounding is always key, but especially against the NBA's No. 1 rebounding team. The Thunder do not rely on one guy to rebound, they gang rebound. Even the Thunder guards are good offensive rebounders. Pretty much everyone besides Durant goes to the offensive glass. All five Blazer players need to find bodies to box out on shot attempts and attack the rebounds.
Protect the Rim: The Thunder lead the NBA in field goal percentage in the paint. With Westbrook and Durant attacking the rim and everyone all over the offensive glass, it really is no surprise. The Thunder are just a mediocre jumpshooting team outside of Durant and a few 3-point specialists so the Blazers need to take the rim away as much as possible. Oklahoma City is too good of an offense to try and outscore them. The Blazers need to keep OKC out of the paint as much as possible.
The Thunder are not a complicated team, but still can be difficult to stop. If Durant and Westbrook are going to hit tough shots with a hand in their face, the Blazers can live with that. But they cannot let the other Oklahoma City players get easy opportunities. They all pretty much live on either backdoor cuts, open spot up 3-pointers, or offensive rebounds. All of those can be limited, the Blazers just need to stay disciplined.