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Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Preview

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Without Damian Lillard, the Blazers will have their hands full keeping up with OKC’s Big Three.

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New York Knicks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (21-18) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (22-18)

Tuesday, January 9th - 5:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Damian Lillard (out)
Thunder injuries: Andre Roberson (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA TV
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City

After taking down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the few exciting games the Moda Center has seen all season, the Portland Trail Blazers kick off a tough four-game road trip against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Damian Lillard will not suit up for Portland as he continues to recover from a strained right calf. Likely starting in his place will be Shabazz Napier, who has averaged more than 18 points per game as a starter this season.

What to Watch For

  • How will Oklahoma City’s Big Three play together? Earlier in the season, the Thunder struggled mightily as they tried to integrate their two new stars, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, into the offense. Lately, both have taken more of a back seat to Russell Westbrook, who is putting up 28/10/10 over the last 18 games.
  • Portland’s wings may have a rough night. Though Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton and even Moe Harkless have all had various levels of offensive success this season, they’re going to have a hard time getting going with Paul George, one of the best two-way players in the NBA, roaming the perimeter. Scoring may have to come from elsewhere Tuesday night.
  • McCollun might have an advantage. Though the Thunder have one of the best defenders in the NBA in George, they are missing their lockdown shooting guard, Andre Roberson. While Roberson struggles mightily on the offensive end, he is able to effectively guard nearly any shooting guard in the league. Look for Terrance Ferguson to get the start and match up against CJ McCollum. While Ferguson is an athletic player with promise, he’s nowhere near the defender Roberson is.

What They’re Saying

Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript writes about how the Thunder offense is becoming one of the best in the NBA:

The Thunder offense bottomed out Dec. 18, when it was averaging just 102.2 points per 100 possessions. The team had started to squeak out some wins by then, winning seven of its previous 10 games to climb back to .500 for the first time in more than a month-and-a-half. The offense of a group cluttered with stars, however, still wasn’t flowing.

...

In the nine games since Dec. 19, the Thunder are scoring 118.6 points per 100 possessions, giving them the NBA’s best offense over that time.

“We knew we’d get to this point. We definitely knew that,” George said. “We knew it was going to take some time. There was some stuff we were going to have to figure out but that’s what we signed up and wanted to be together for is for these moments, battles like this.”

...

Maybe it’s no coincidence Dec. 19 is the marker when it all started to change. That was, after all, only one game following Anthony’s proclamation following a Dec. 16 loss at the New York Knicks.

“That’s what we have to figure out, what we have to nail down as far as the roles that we all have on this team,” Anthony said then when asked about his role. “I think until we kind of figure that part out, we will continue having these ups and down, having good games and bad games, relying just on our talent, our skill level to get us through.”

SB Nation’s Seerat Sehi writes about Andre Roberson’s importance to the Thunder:

None of this is to say the Thunder should look elsewhere for their fifth starter. Quite the opposite. Roberson is Oklahoma’s peskiest defender, a conundrum only because of how effective he is on that end. For the Thunder, whose playoff hopes will rest on overpowering opponents with their elite athleticism, defense, and size, Roberson is a key to the formula. When the offense grinds to a halt, and Roberson gets hacked and sent to the line, it may feel like the Thunder can’t live with him. There’s no getting around this: It’s frustrating to watch. But in the grand scheme, they can’t live without him either.

Yes, without Roberson, life would be easier for the Thunder. They would also have a lower ceiling.

The heart of the matter is this: Even in an age of educated sports fans armed with sophisticated player tracking data and advanced stats that have flattened the importance of one-on-one offense and shone a light on vital role players, defense still isn’t valued as much as offense. If Roberson’s offensive equivalent was the worst defender in the NBA, nobody would dream of sending him to the bench. He’d be a superstar.

Maybe it’s because individual defense remains difficult to quantify. But here’s a snapshot of what happens in his absence. The starters, with Roberson, have an 11.3 net rating, with a defense that allows just 96.3 points per 100 possessions. With Alex Abrines — who is admittedly far below replacement level as a defender — starting in his place, the Thunder allow a maddening 116 points per 100 possessions. That 20-point swing morphs Oklahoma City’s defense from the NBA’s best to its worst. Despite the fact that Paul George is playing stifling, career-high level defense, Roberson has the best defensive rating of the starters.