Ach, what a painful one to watch. The Trail Blazers proved to be defensive stalwarts in the lane, great ball handlers, and the perfect anti-thesis to the Thunder. After such a strong start to the season, the last two losses have been disheartening. But it's important to remember that despite how hot this young Thunder team is, they still have some significant flaws to address.
The Trail Blazers are the perfect team to defeat the Thunder in all of the right positions. Marcus Camby is a wily defender in the lane, able to draw charges better than Nick Collison. He's aided by LaMarcus Aldridge, who can easily outwit Ibaka. He doesn't have the turn around jumper of Dirk Nowitzki, but he is able to shoot the lights out from mid-range. In the post, he's quick enough to avoid the help defense from the other side, and skilled enough to lay it in from tough angles. The Blazers were also excellent at utilizing him on the pick and roll, much like the Suns did for Amare Stoudemire.
At small forward, the Blazers have Gerald Wallace, who is the perfect guy to guard Durant. He's tall and quick, making him able to stay with Durant on the perimeter while also challenging his shot. His offensive night wasn't exactly impressive, but he only scored 6 less than Durant, which is a much better point differential than most teams have.
At Shooting Guard, Wes Matthews was the perfect compliment to James Harden. He can't run an offense as well as Harden can, but he's just as good, if not better, at driving the lane. With Camby luring our center out to the top of the arc and Aldridge always commanding a defender, it was easy for a guy like Matthews to find success down low. The same goes for Raymond Felton, who was also effective defensively because he can keep up with Westbrook's quickness.
Nate McMillan displayed some excellent strategy in tonight's game. His best move was putting in Craig Smith, who hadn't gotten much more than mop-up minutes in previous games. He knew that the Thunder would pound it inside if the Trail Blazers decided to run small. Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas aren't excellent players at first glance, but Thomas is an excellent glue guy, and both can provide size in the middle. They didn't spur any Portland runs, but they prevented a Thunder run from breaking out, especially in the second half.
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Secondly, McMillan did an excellent job of taking care of the ball. The Thunder thrive in games where they can acquire turnovers and turn them into fast breaks. Tonight, the Blazers had only 9 turnovers, and severely limited the amount of fast breaks the Thunder had in the fourth (I only counted one).
The Thunder need to realize that their shooting can't carry them through all of their games. On a good night, a few more Cook and Durant threes would have gone in during the second half, and the outcome of this game might have been much different. But when we rely too much on our outside game, we're relying on something the Thunder aren't exactly too good at. I know the lane was becoming impossible to penetrate and Westbrook was drawing charges, but there's nothing wrong with venturing out to mid-range. Nearly every single player on our team can hit it from there well, and it's absurd to think that nobody was open.
How much did we miss Thabo Sefolosha tonight? Well, his perimeter defense was definitely missed. With Cook doing little but bricking threes, it would have been prudent to have Sefolosha out there. He has the size to force Matthews out of the paint, and can force a steal from someone who dribbles the ball too much. Offensively, his newfound mid-range ability would have been a sight for sore eyes out there tonight. I'm not ready to say that his presence would have changed the result, but I'd be remiss to say that it wouldn't have helped.
Blaming the refs for this loss is an absurd thing to do. Sure, you could point at the fact that we lost the free throw battle, but it was rightfully so. The Trail Blazers were making an effort to get to the line, especially when they were in an offensive desert. When the Thunder's offense started sputtering, they would settle for jumpers, hoping a tough three would re-ignite the offense. Unfortunately, the Thunder aren't the Warriors or Knicks. It's not their game, and playing like that is only going to exacerbate their problems.
To be fair, the Thunder are coming off of a extremely tough stretch. They've played 7 games in 10 days, including three back to backs. Two of them were against the defending NBA Champions, and 5 of the 7 games were against playoff teams from last year. Only the Lakers have played as many contests so far. I'm not blaming the loss on the exhaustion, but I'm sure it played a role.
The win brings the Thunder to 5-2, and leaves them tied with Portland for the first seed in the West. Portland wins the tiebreaker with the victory, and also leads the Northwest Division at 4-1. We next face the Trail Blazers on Monday, February 6th.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 23 Points, 6 Assists, 3 Steals
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 6 Points, 9 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Steal
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant, 8-26 Shooting, Only 4 Free Throws, 3 Turnovers
Thunder Plunderer: Lamarcus Aldridge, 30 Points, 8 Rebounds
Next Game: Versus the Houston Rockets, Friday, January 6th, 7 PM Central Standard Time