The Portland Trail Blazers will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Portland earned the 3rd seed in the Western Conference with a 53-29 record. The Thunder took 6th place, going 49-33. Both teams enter the post season hot, Portland winning 8 of their last 10, Oklahoma City nearly matching them with 7 out of 10.
Most observers will drool over the individual matchups in this series, highlighted by Damian Lillard against Russell Westbrook...a rivalry which has gotten nasty at times this season. Portland has had no answer for Thunder forward Paul George. The Blazers are missing one leg of their Big 3 with Jusuf Nurkic gone for the season.
Before we delve into the head-to-head player stats in the second part of our series preview, we’re going to look at overall team stats. The Blazers did not fare well against Oklahoma City during the regular season, but on paper the matchup looks closer than you’d think.
Season Series: Oklahoma City 4-0
Homecourt Advantage: Trail Blazers
Home Records: POR— 32-9 OKC— 27-14
Away Records: POR—21-20 OKC 22-19
Margin of Victory: POR—+4.2 OKC +3.4
Blazers Offense/Thunder Defense
Note: Green indicates a Top 10 NBA ranking, Red a Bottom 10.
The Blazers are known for their offense. They thrive off of field goal attempts and efficient three-point shooting. Oklahoma City is decent, not spectacular, at limiting three-point attempts, average in three-point percentage allowed. The Thunder know they have to watch the Blazers at the arc. Their rangy, mobile defenders could present problems for Portland shooters.
The Thunder are good at limiting fast breaks, but Portland doesn’t rely on transition points.
Oklahoma City does foul a bit...a potential (small) Achilles Heel, as the Blazers are among the best free throw shooting teams in the league.
The Blazers don’t commit many turnovers but the Thunder are the best in the league at forcing them. Portland will need to be careful with the ball, as turnovers directly affect shot attempts, which they’ll need. Along with three-point shooting, TO’s will be a number to watch.
The Nurkic Factor—
Losing Nurkic takes away an offensive weapon for the Blazers. Enes Kanter can score inside and out, but he can’t start AND come off the bench. This leaves Portland’s second unit reliant on hot-and-cold jump shooting. The Blazers will probably try to solve that by playing their big-scoring starters longer.
The Blazers have scored huge since Nurkic went down, actually upping their points per game raw numbers and rank in the final month of the season. That streak didn’t come against a steady diet of playoff-caliber opponents primed to shut them down, however. Without Nurkic, Oklahoma City has one less area of the floor to worry about. That’s going to make their preparation easier.
The temperature of Portland’s offense will be THE main question coming into this series. If the Blazers can’t answer it satisfactorily in Game 1, watch out.
Thunder Offense/Blazers Defense
The Thunder are right up there with Portland in points per game. They get up even more field goal attempts than the Blazers do. They’re not nearly as efficient as Portland, though. They want easy buckets in the paint, on the run or at the foul line. They’re great in all three categories. Otherwise they’re shooting jumpers.
The key line to watch is Portland’s fairly efficient field goal percentage defense versus Oklahoma City’s fairly inefficient offense. If the Blazers can get OKC to tighten up, they have a chance.
OKC’s pace is higher than Portland’s. It’s a fair bet that if these teams are running, the Blazers are in trouble. It probably means the Blazers are committing turnovers, have lost control of the boards, or are just getting fatigued with a shorter rotation. Plus, there goes the efficient defense.
Overall (at least statistically) the Blazers have achieved their goal of fielding an average defense to complement their impressive offense. Their defensive column has few true weaknesses...just forced turnovers, which they’ve eschewed throughout the Terry Stotts era. (The Thunder don’t commit many anyway.) That said, Portland’s real weaknesses—individual matchups—aren’t going to show up on the statistical-average table. The Blazers can’t get comfortable until they actually see Oklahoma City lose a game by shooting poorly.
The Nurkic Factor—
Oklahoma City is sure to test Kanter in screen and roll situations. The good news is that his counterpart, Steven Adams, isn’t a threat beyond 16 feet. Westbrook’s long jumpers have been shaky too. The Blazers may be able to collapse into the lane when the Thunder try to draw Kanter to the perimeter. Paul George and reserve point guard Dennis Schroeder have no such issues, however. If Oklahoma City gets a little creative, they could make the Blazers miss Nurkic’s mobility badly.
Portland’s overall defensive numbers haven’t moved much since Nurkic went down, but again that may be due to quality of opponent and sample size. It’s possible the fort will hold, but it’s easy to envision the Thunder moving Portland bigs laterally, then beating perimeter defenders off the dribble.
Rebounds, Blocks, and Steals
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Steals are a known factor: the Thunder value them; the Blazers do not.
Blocks could be significant. If Oklahoma City does penetrate Portland’s perimeter defense, the Blazers don’t have much intimidation factor inside. Zach Collins is Portland’s best play, but foul issues could limit his utility.
Rebounding is a HUGE factor for both teams. They’re incredibly good. Either team would be happy to grab the advantage on the boards. It’ll be interesting to see if either can. That would indicate that the opponent was missing shots and that the rebounding team had a chance to control tempo. Absent a superstar explosion on either side, that could be enough to tilt a game.
The Nurkic Factor—
This is where Nurkic’s absence hurts most. He and Kanter made a dominant offensive rebounding pair. The Blazers can go smaller and/or more perimeter-oriented at center, but they can’t replace the big-body rebounding that Nurkic brought. Steady board-work gave the Blazers a sturdier platform from which to earn their 53 wins. That platform is thinner now, and that’s not a good thing.
Despite the 0-4 season series record, the overall numbers indicate the Blazers aren’t as far out of this head-to-head matchup as it might seem. Then again, as mentioned, we haven’t gotten to the real reasons for OKC’s regular-season dominance yet. Those haven’t changed, and Portland’s ability to cope with them will be further hampered by their hole at center.
Getting swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2018 NBA Playoffs was tough to take. It’ll be equally tough (in a slightly different way) if a couple games in this series come down to a rebound that Portland couldn’t snag or a blocked shot that a non-Nurkic center was out of position for.
It’s fair to say that Portland’s style of play doesn’t play into Oklahoma City’s strengths. OKC’s inefficiency might play into Portland’s if the Blazers could be assured of a rebounding advantage. That wouldn’t be certain even if the team was at full strength.
Even at 0-4 so far, it’d be surprising if the Thunder bulldozed the Blazers this post-season. A series between relatively-equally-matched teams could come down to small, systemic flaws. Oklahoma City may be able to cope with theirs better than Portland can, allowing the Thunder to play to their strengths longer and in more situations. That’ll probably sway the series over time, but in any given game, you’d expect Portland to have a chance.
Stay tuned for a breakdown of Oklahoma City pet plays by Robert Flom this afternoon, plus far more coverage from Blazer’s Edge staff and analysts around the league between now and Game 1 on Sunday!
—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / email@example.com