The Portland Trail Blazers. Who the heck are these guys?
They made some waves this Wednesday by being the second team to defeat the seemingly invincible Lakers. But even though the win was impressive, most would have agreed going into this year that Portland wasn't a playoff team. They certainly weren't the Kings, but they had an outside shot if things clicked extremely well.
But the Trail Blazers do have talent on their roster, and a lot of people were disillusioned by their poor finish to last season. LeMarcus Aldridge is still starting at power forward and playing at an All-Star level, while Nicholas Batum and Wes Matthews offer bridges to the past with their solid play. Outside of these three, it's hard to put a finger on this team.
There's a slew of rookies in Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, and Will Barton. There's some first year foreign imports in Spain's Victor Claver and the UK's Joel Freeland. And there's some NBA journeyman that amaze you with their ability to stay in the league, like Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic, and Ronnie Price. Lastly, you've got J.J. Hickson at center, and it's really hard to anticipate how well he's going to do night to night.
In all honesty, when you take a first look at their roster, the Trail Blazers just look like a tryout squad. They're not gearing their team for a specific direction. Rather, they just seem to be looking for ways to get talent on the cheap, so that they can find out the best way to build the team when the time comes.
That's not a horrible strategy, but it doesn't mean that the Trail Blazers aren't dangerous. I'm sure they're going to have nights were they totally implode and look atrocious, but they've got the pieces to make things click as well. The main problems they'll face are the inconsistency of Damian Lillard and J.J. Hickson, and how well the bench is going to play in general. They ran their starters for quite a good portion of their game against the Lakers, and they'll need to log heavy minutes if they're going to beat the Thunder.
What the Thunder need to take advantage of is Portland's size. Serge Ibaka was limited to a negative performance last night against San Antonio because the Spurs played small and kept on him around the perimeter. But if the Thunder could stretch the bigger Blazers by taking advantage of Ibaka's jumpshot, then that could open up a variety of options on the inside. I know that these Blazers play a faster brand of basketball, but they keep a close eye on the lane while doing so. (The Lakers shot 32 free throws Tuesday night, including 19 from Howard.)
The Thunder's success will also rely heavily on their defense of Damian Lillard. If they try to trap him and force rookie mistakes like the Lakers did, they'll probably find themselves giving up a lot of free points in the lane, like they did against the Spurs last night. The Thunder need to trust Westbrook to play physical defense and keep Lillard out of the lane.
Lastly, the Thunder need to continue to dominate the boards. The amount of second chances the Thunder had on offense was the only reason last night's game was even close. Durant and Ibaka are always the team's most reliable options in that department, but it would be nice to see Thabeet or Collison hold down the bench. The Blazers technically weren't as dominated on the boards on Tuesday as the box score shows, but I could see that becoming an area of weakness for them as the season rolls on.
Anyway, it should be a fun home opener for all, and I look forward to seeing Kevin Martin Hasheem Thabeet, and maybe even Perry Jones or Doron Lamb get their first home minutes tonight. The game should be an easy win, but with how new this Blazers team is, it could still go either way.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 102, Portland Trail Blazers 88
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