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NBA Playoffs: Trail Blazers vs. Thunder Game 1 Preview

The Blazers and Thunder kick off their series as both teams look to get their first playoff series win since 2016.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Series: 0-0)

Sunday, April 14 - 12:30 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (out)
Thunder injuries: Andre Roberson (out), Paul George (day-to-day)
How to watch on TV: ABC
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City

Another NBA season is in the books, and the Portland Trail Blazers again exceeded expectations with a record of 53-29, grabbing the third seed in a competitive Western Conference. The Blazers are hoping to have a more successful 2019 playoffs than their disappointing 4-0 sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018. It will be challenging as they face a formidable Oklahoma City Thunder team led by Paul George and Russell Westbrook.

The Thunder swept the Blazers this season, winning the season series 4-0. Despite their success against Portland, Oklahoma City finished fourth in the stacked Northwest Division with a record of 49-33. Like the Blazers, the Thunder have struggled recently in the playoffs, failing to get out of the first round since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Oklahoma City might be the only team with as much pressure as Portland (if not more) to win at least one playoff series.

Keys to the series

  • Slow down Paul George. Paul George absolutely destroyed Portland this season. The Thunder star averaged 38 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in four games against the Blazers. George beat Blazer defenders a variety of ways. He shot a blistering 45.9 percent on 9.3 three point attempts per game. He also got to the line a ton, averaging 15 free throw attempts per game (and making 12.8 for an 85 percent rate). Portland needs to make things difficult for George in the series. He has been dealing with right shoulder soreness. George is expected to play, but anything that may slow him down a little will give an edge to the Blazers.
  • Can Kanter’s defense hold up? Enes Kanter has done an admirable job filling in as the starter in place of Jusuf Nurkic. He averaged 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 61.5 percent in eight games as a starter. His offensive skills, however, have not been questioned; it’s Kanter’s defense that has historically been a liability. We’re only two years removed from Thunder coach Billy Donovan saying that he “Can’t play Kanter,” specifically because of his pick and roll defense. However, since moving into Portland’s starting lineup, Kanter has played pretty well defensively. While it’s a small sample size (and not against the best opponents) he has a defensive rating of 99.8 in those games—11.7 points better than his season mark of 111.5. Kanter needs to play solid enough defense so Terry Stotts can leave him on the floor and let his scoring and rebounding give Portland a boost.
  • Win the three-point battle. During the regular season the Blazers were a top 10 three-point shooting team (35.9 percent) while the Thunder were 22nd (34.8 percent). Those numbers were dramatically reversed in the teams’ four regular season matchups. Portland shot a miserable 28.5 percent from deep against Oklahoma City, while the Thunder shot 39.1 percent. Portland put up nearly seven more three-point attempts per game than the Thunder (34.3 vs. 27.5), but made one fewer (9.8 vs. 10.8). That sort of inefficiency imbalance has to change for the Blazers to have a shot in the series.

For more keys to the series check out these Blazer’s Edge articles:

What they’re saying

Ben Mertens of Welcome to Loud City predicts the Thunder will win in six:

In the past, opponents could aggressively help off of the Thunder’s many non shooters. Jerami Grant has partially solved this problem by shooting 39% of his 3’s this season. Grant only takes about 4 attempts per game from deep, and no one is confusing him for Kevin Love, but when opposing defense help off him too aggressively, he has proven he can make them pay (he has also gotten craftier at driving against close-outs as teams have started to worry more about his shooting). The Blazers should be more willing to send help off of Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder, who are both less consistent than Grant. If the Blazers bench Kanter in the hopes of better defending the pick and roll, Steven Adams will eat whichever replacement big man they send in alive on the offensive and defensive glass.

ESPN’s Royce Young wrote about why the Thunder are dangerous:

It’s a pretty straightforward thing with the Thunder: PG and Russ. That kind of combo can score 75 combined on their own and completely take over a series. Against top teams, the Thunder had one of the best records in the NBA this season, and so much of that was because George and Westbrook elevated in those big games. There are some concerns with George’s health after he missed the final game of the season with shoulder soreness, but at full tilt, the Thunder can be fast and furious, with Westbrook and George roaring at you relentlessly.

Sekou Smith of wonders how much stock to put in the Thunder’s regular season sweep:

Plenty. Even though the Thunder are technically considered the underdog in this series, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they dominated the regular season series. For context’s sake, the only other postseason matchup featuring a 4-0 regular season sweep is the No. 1 Milwaukee-No. 8 Detroit matchup in the Eastern Conference. Using that as some sort of launch point for measuring what these teams will do in a postseason setting, however, is a bit shortsighted. The circumstances in a regular season series can never duplicate the pressure-packed, compressed nature that a playoff series provides. And the urgency both teams will play with now is on another level compared to anything they experienced in those regular season matchups.