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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview

The Blazers try to avoid a season sweep by the Thunder as they return to Portland for the first time since the All-Star break.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (39-25) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (39-25)

Thursday, March 7 - 7:30 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Evan Turner (out)
Thunder injuries: Andre Roberson (out)
How to watch on TV: TNT
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City

The Portland Trail Blazers return home after a very successful seven-game road trip that was marred somewhat by a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday. Still, Portland went 5-2 on the trip with impressive wins over five Eastern Conference playoff teams. The Blazers won a variety of ways on the trip. Nurkic dominated some games inside, Lillard and McCollum each carried the team in different games, and Rodney Hood exploded for 27 points off the bench in Charlotte.

The Thunder have struggled since the All-Star break. They have only won two of their last eight games (a double OT victory over Utah, and a 99-95 home win against Memphis). Their struggles have dropped them into a tie with Portland for the third playoff seed. Unfortunately, for both Blazer and Thunder fans, Houston’s six-game winning streak has made it a three-team tie. The bottleneck makes this game crucial for both teams.

What to watch for

  • Stopping Paul George. Oklahoma City’s MVP candidate missed three games recently, but returned for Tuesday’s game against the Timberwolves. He scored 25 points in the game, but shot only 8-25 from the field. George has absolutely destroyed the Blazers this season, scoring 37, 36, and 47 points in three games (all Thunder wins). He has shot 57.1 percent from the three-point line on 9.3 attempts per game and averaged 11.3 of 13.3 from the foul line. Portland needs to find a way to slow down George if they want to avoid being swept by OKC this season.
  • Russell Westbrook’s shooting. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again this season, but his scoring efficiency has taken a step back. He’s shooting 42.4 percent from the field and only 27.4 from the beyond the arc. His volume remains high (20.1 shots including 5.3 threes per game), which has not benefited his team. The Thunder are 20-6 this season when the former MVP puts up fewer than 20 shot attempts; they are 14-16 when he puts up 20 or more shots (they are also 5-3 without him in the lineup). The splits get even more dramatic when you look at his three-point volume. OKC has won 11 and lost only once when Westbrook has put up two or fewer three-pointers (excluding the games he didn’t play). They are 6-13 when he shoots six or more a game.
  • Three-point scoring and defense. Overall, the Blazers are a better three-point shooting team than the Thunder. At 36 percent Portland is in the top ten while OKC is in the bottom ten at 34.8 percent. However, in their three matchups this season those numbers have switched. The Blazers are shooting only 31.3 percent from distance against the Thunder while the Thunder have hit on 42.2 percent of their three-pointers against Portland. The Blazers will need to do a better job of knocking down their threes and defending Oklahoma City’s shooters.

What they’re saying

Noah Schulte of Thunderous Intentions examined several reasons why Oklahoma City’s defense has slipped:

The simple answer to the issues the Thunder have experienced over the past month seems to be tied to fatigue. The primary problems they’ve had in the past few weeks have to do with sloppy team defense and lazy effort getting back in transition, both of which are problems that stem from exhaustion.

Going into the break, OKC was clearly experiencing exhaustion and to play some of the most physically challenging teams in the league coming out of it–but in totally different ways–can’t have helped with that problem. Plus, their run-and-gun style to which they’ve been leaning recently almost certainly made matters worse.

Nicholas Crain of Forbes wrote about the value of Jerami Grant, especially in light of his team-friendly contract:

His impact on the Thunder has been incredible this season, as he is 4th in minutes per game, 5th in points per game, 4th in rebounds per game, 3rd in field goal percentage, 2nd in three-point percentage, 2nd in blocks per game, and 3rd in win shares on the team. That is incredible considering Grant is playing on a star-driven team and is still able to make such a massive impact. Being the second-best three-point shooter on a team at his position is rare. In a three-point heavy league, his stretch-four style of play fits the Thunder’s needs perfectly.

J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City reflected on the Thunder’s loss to Minnesota:

The thing that is most worrisome about this loss is that the Thunder played kinda-sorta OK for most of the night. They put up 120 against a weak Wolves defense, Russell Westbrook scored 38 on an efficient shooting night, and they got Paul George back — although George played the way you’d expect a guy to play after missing games due to a sore shooting shoulder (25 on 8-25 shooting, 4-14 from three).

The problem(s) that welled up however are largely the same we’ve seen for the past 3 weeks, and a lot of it again is on Billy Donovan. He has not properly prepared his team on either side of the ball during this poor stretch, and yes, the team is playing a bad brand of basketball, but they aren’t even approaching the game with a semblance of an effective game plan.