The Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder will square off in Game 1 of their best-of-seven first round playoffs series on Sunday afternoon at the Moda Center. Yesterday, in preparation for the series, we looked at the strengths and weaknesses of each team through the lens of their season statistics. Today we’re getting more specific, examining the head-to-head matchups between teams and players. We know what each team does well. How did they fare when facing each other? And how did Oklahoma City end up taking all four regular-season contests this year anyway?
Note on all charts: Red indicates the stat decreased or went unfavorably for the team in question during the season’s head-to-head matchups. Green indicates the stat increased or went favorably. All stats come courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
Blazers Offense Against OKC’s Defense
In what will become a recurring theme throughout the head-to-head analysis, the Blazers actually did well against the Thunder in several areas this year. Their field goal attempts and offensive rebounds per game were up compared to their season averages. Their three-point attempts and free throws attempts soared radically against OKC. Those factors should spell wins for Portland.
The impression doubles when you look at Oklahoma City’s defense against Portland compared to their season averages:
The Thunder came up short (red) in multiple categories: shots allowed, free throws allowed (again by a huge margin), offensive rebounds (where Portland excelled), and turnovers forced (OKC’s bread and butter).
Victories eluded Portland because the categories in which they suffered ran deep. Oklahoma City’s defensive attack was like a sword thrust, leaving large swaths of Portland’s armor intact but piercing vital organs.
- Portland’s overall field goal percentage fell from 46.7% against the league to 42.3% against OKC. For comparison’s sake, 46.7% put the Blazers 12th overall in the NBA this season. 42.3% is a full percentage point lower than the New York Knicks, the worst percentage shooting team in the league by a mile. Oklahoma City turned an efficient offensive team into a hapless mess.
- The story with three-point shooting was even worse. The Thunder seemed content to let Portland get inside, grab rebounds, and draw fouls as long as nobody hit an open three. Against OKC’s long, rangy defenders, Portland’s three-point percentage plummeted from 35.8% to a wholly-unmentionable 28.6%. Under those circumstances, Portland getting off a comparatively large amount of threes against the Thunder hardly mattered.
Oklahoma City held the Blazers down from the field and from the arc. What else is a defense for, really? Since the Blazers thrive on efficiency, the inability to hit shots proved an uncompromising drawback.
Thunder Offense Against Portland’s Defense
Making matters worse, the Blazers utterly failed to keep the Thunder to low-percentage shooting. Oklahoma City’s total number of three-point attempts went down significantly against Portland, as did their offensive rebounding and assist totals. The Thunder more than compensated for those losses with a rise in field goal percentage, a huge gain in three-point shooting percentage, and massive inflation at the foul line.
As you can see here, the Blazers did not do well against OKC, even by their own defensive standards:
Allowing 39% from the arc along with 30 free-throw attempts is eye-gouging in a single game, let alone averaged over four.
In the main event of Wrestlemania 19, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin ended up switching vests for a brief period, each adopting the other’s mannerisms. That’s pretty much what the Blazers and Thunder did this year. Against OKC, Portland engaged in a higher-volume, inefficient offense. Meanwhile the Thunder shot less and hit more. This did not turn out to Portland’s advantage.
Trail Blazers Players Against OKC
Let’s take a look at some of Portland’s main players against the Thunder this season.
Damian Lillard had a phenomenal year against the Thunder, with a single asterisk. His three-point percentage dropped to 25% against a 37% season average. Aside from that, he took more shots, hit a higher overall percentage, and scored 9 points a game over his season average. In his season-long duel with Russell Westbrook, Lillard gave as good as he got.
(Lillard’s turnover numbers rose against the Thunder, but he spent more time looking to score, and turnovers are an Oklahoma City specialty, so that’s not surprising.)
Though Lillard rose to the occasion, CJ McCollum remained muted. He was one of the only Trail Blazers to succeed from the arc against Oklahoma City overall, averaging a whopping 9 three-point attempts while maintaining a decent percentage. His overall field goal shooting dropped from 46% to 35.5%. He took more shots and ended up scoring fewer points. This was not a great matchup for CJ.
Al-Farouq Aminu played a greater role in the team offense against Oklahoma City than he did on average. His shots, three-point attempts, free throw attempts, and all forms of rebounding rose. His overall percentage fell below average; his three-point percentage was abysmal.
Against OKC, Aminu was the classic role-playing character with nifty ancillary abilities who could never roll above a 6 on the “to hit” die. If the party could hide him among a bunch of tanks and fireball-tossers, he might have been useful. Portland had no such luck. He ended up on the front lines; neither he nor the Blazers prospered.
Normally Jusuf Nurkic would be in this spot. His absence makes any center comparisons difficult. For reference, I’ve included Enes Kanter’s season numbers against the Thunder as a whole, playing with the Knicks and Blazers.
As the red in the above chart shows, those numbers are not great. That’s not iron-clad indicative of the coming series, just an observation that Kanter will need to turn it around if he wants to help save the Blazers.
The Blazers didn’t field much against Oklahoma City this year except a super-explosive Damian Lillard. They’ll need their superstar ablaze in the playoffs, but they’ve got to find help for him somewhere.
Thunder Players Against Portland
One of the problems with the Blazers only bringing Damian Lillard to the party is Russell Westbrook pretty much matched him. Westbrook came in 5 points below Lillard head-to-head, but Russ still averaged nearly 30 per game. His famously-busted jump shot came alive against Portland as well. His assists were down from their usual triple-double level and his turnovers were up, but again...he scored 30 per game.
It’s tempting to call Westbrook and George Oklahoma City’s one-two punch. Against Portland, George was punches one through seven while Westbrook came off the top turnbuckle to finish the match.
George averaged an obnoxious 38 points per game while shooting 46% from the arc against Portland. He scored like Jordan, shot like Curry, averaged more free throws than Harden, and rebounded like a starting center. George is THE reason the Thunder swept the season series and the number one problem Portland will need to solve.
There’s literally nothing to say other than the Blazers better have a better answer for him or the playoffs series is already over. He’ll break down the defense all by himself, freeing up everybody else in the process.
Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson
Thunder center Steven Adams should come next on the list, but his head-to-head numbers are near-meaningless since the head he was playing against isn’t suiting up for the series. Adams averaged 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds shooting 60% from the floor this year. He is a serious threat, especially if Kanter gets in foul trouble.
Instead, we’ll look at a couple key members of the supporting cast: power forward Jerami Grant and shooting guard Terrance Ferguson.
Note that other than rebounding, Grant’s aggregate numbers declined against Portland...including and especially scoring. Westbrook and George averaging 70 points between them explains most of it. But aggregate scoring among role-players isn’t the chief concern. Look at that shooting efficiency. Grant may not have touched the ball as much as usual versus Portland, but when he did, he shot 54%.
The story intensifies with Ferguson’s numbers:
That is not a misprint. An Oklahoma City starter shot 71% from the floor and 50% from the arc over all four games of this season matchup. While Portland was busy getting pummeled by OKC’s stars, young guys put daggers in Blazer backs.
If playoffs basketball revolves around matchups, Portland could be in trouble. They’re facing two insoluble problems in George and Westbrook. They’ll need to muster some kind of defensive fortitude they’ve not yet shown, this with their trustworthy backstop out of action and his replacements not known for defensive prowess. The answer can’t be as simple as overloading OKC’s stars either, as their other players have proven more than capable of hitting open shots.
The higher seed in any matchup usually comes into a series relying on consistency, staying the winning course and assuming the opponent will have to scramble to make up the gap. Portland may be the 3-seed in this 3-6 matchup, but they’re the ones under pressure to make adjustments right away, from the opening tip of Game 1.
If the Blazers had played poorly against the Thunder but rectified their ways later in the season, the outlook would be more positive. Portland’s problems against Oklahoma City have been pervasive and consistent. The Blazers have often played well, benefiting from near-heroic nights from Lillard. Like the Coyote running over a cliff holding an anvil, their plan was set and their legs were moving. OKC’s gravity still pulled them down.
Hoping that CJ McCollum finds another gear while Seth Curry and Rodney Hood shoot them out of the three-point slump is one thing. The Blazers will take the points. If they’re going to win four games, they also need a defensive overhaul. Zach Collins is the best (heretofore untried) hope on that end of the court, but even if he plays well, will it be enough?
Russell Westbrook has gone rogue in the past. Paul George is not always the invulnerable superhero he’s been against Portland this year. If the Thunder show cracks, it’s up to Portland to drive a wedge through them hard. They’re capable...if the cracks are there. The Blazers will pray that Oklahoma City’s oft-mercurial performances carry over into the next two week, but hoping for the opponent to stumble is the last refuge of the post-season damned.
Game 1 commences Sunday at 12:30, Pacific.