Portland Trail Blazers (42-37) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (54-24)
Wednesday, April 6
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - shoulder)| Oklahoma City injury report: None
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City
Just three weeks after their 128-94 loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the Blazers are at home to take on OKC in a potential playoff preview. The Thunder are firmly locked into the third slot in the Western Conference after their victory against the Denver Nuggets, leading the fourth place Clippers by five games with only four contests remaining. Portland, meanwhile, has been hanging around the No. 6 slot in recent weeks, while making a push to overtake the fading Grizzlies for the No. 5 slot and a chance to bypass OKC and face the Clippers.
With the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference locked up, OKC could look to limit their starters' minutes on the second night of a back-to-back. Regardless of how the Thunder play it, a Blazer win tonight would be a boon for Portland's hopes at reaching the No. 5 seed, as their next two contests are against the lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. However, assuming that OKC isn't strategically resting players, Portland will have to get through two of the NBA's top players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, averaging a combined 51.8 points, 16.1 rebounds, and 15.4 assists on the season.
Unsurprisingly, the Thunder feature the league's second-rated offense, averaging 110 points per game. Oklahoma City also pulls in a league-leading 48.4 rebounds per game including 13 offensive, best in the NBA.
After losing six of eight contests from February through early March, OKC kicked it back into high gear, starting with their March 4 trouncing of the Blazers. From then until March 28, OKC went 9-2, which included wins over Boston, Utah, San Antonio, and Toronto -- all with a margin of victory of at least 19 points.
The Blazers, 7-3 in their last 10 contests, are coming in highly motivated to earn the aforementioned fifth seed. Portland is playing their fourth game in five nights and wasn't able to put the Kings away last night until about the 4:00 mark in the fourth quarter, which resulted in the starters playing heavy minutes. While the victory (and managing to avoid the annual "unexplainable loss in Sacramento") was critical, it would have been nice for Portland to be able to limit some of their starters' minutes, as fatigue has clearly been a factor over the last several games.
One bright spot for Portland is that Maurice Harkless continued his recent stretch of excellent play, putting up 20 points and 16 rebounds against the Kings, with most of his production coming in the second half when his team needed it most. Harkless brings instant energy to the court and was THE difference maker in the second half.
CJ McCollum also dropped 30 on Sacramento. When McCollum is on like that, he does much to alleviate the pressure on Lillard when teams decide to double him well in front of the 3-point line, something that opponents are doing with more frequency late in the season.
Keys to the game
Make Durant work: There is no stopping Kevin Durant; that much has been made clear over the last eight years. But it's critical to make him work for his shots. Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, the Portland's best perimeter defender, has the length and physicality to at least make life difficult for the OKC scoring machine. Aminu is going to need to do all he can do deny K.D. the ball whenever possible, body him up, and generally be a physical pest without getting himself into foul trouble. Aminu also only played 21 minutes last night, mostly due to matchups, and should be relatively fresh.
Win the rebounding battle: The Thunder absolutely dominate the offensive glass. Portland needs to stick to fundamentals and box out. An offensively dominant team like OKC will break your back with second chance points.
Get Westbrook frustrated: A hit and miss proposition, but when Westbrook feels like he has to take over, he develops tunnel vision. Of course, having a player of his caliber decide he's taking over is going to turn out well for OKC as often as it doesn't, but once Westbrook enters attack mode he can be forced into bad shots while ignoring his teammates. He doesn't fall prone to this as much as he did in years past, but it does still happen.
Stop anyone else from getting hot: Let's not forget that the Thunder still have Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, and Serge Ibaka, supporting players who can get hot in hurry. Though one dimensional, Kanter and Waiters can get in a groove and demoralize a defense that has put all of its effort into stopping Durant and Westbrook.
Oklahoma City is firing on all cylinders heading in to the playoffs. Having won in Sacramento last night and playing their starters more minutes than they would have preferred, the Blazers will have a tough time hanging with the Thunder. This isn't to say it's impossible, but the Blazers will need to execute on a high level in all facets of their game.