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Thunder vs. Trail Blazers: Are the Blazers Tanking, or Here to Stay? (2011-2012 Game 45 Preview)

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GameThread tonight, be there!

Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (33-11) at Portland Trail Blazers (21-23)

Time: 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

TV: Entertainment Sports Programming Network, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Northwest

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal, 750AM The Game

Enemy Blog(s): Blazers Edge, Portland Roundball Society

Previous Meeting(s): Jan. 3, Feb. 6 (Season Series Tied 1-1)

On March 15th, 2012, the Portland Trail Blazers fired coach Nate McMillan and traded away Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby. From a casual fan's perspective, this means two things. 1 is that the Post-Jailblazer Nate McMillan Era is over. Also, it means that the Portland Trail Blazers have mailed it in for the season, and are ready to rebuild. Right?

Well, maybe not. The Trail Blazers destroyed the Eastern Conference leading Bulls on Friday, 100-89. Their point guard wunderkind, Derrick Rose, was injured, but it's still an impressive win considering the Bulls have beaten the Heat and 76ers without him. According to Dave's analysis over at Blazer's Edge, the Bulls' offense was mostly fueled by good three point shooting from Derrick Rose's backups and offensive rebounds. Once the Blazers were able to shut down the Bulls' rebounding and get some responsible offense going, they sealed the win.

The Trail Blazers are a team that has given the Thunder absolute fits this year, despite their inconsistent play elsewhere. In fact, if a certain play towards the end of the last matchup was called correctly, the Blazers would be 2-0 against us this year. Gerald Wallace has proven to be more than an ample defender for Kevin Durant, and Marcus Camby functioned as a defensive anchor and offensive glue. But, with both of them Wallace has been replaced by Nicholas Batum, who isn't as insanely good at driving the ball, but is much more deadly from three. Joel Pryzbilla recovered from injury early in March and will start in place of Marcus Camby, but I can't say much for him other than that he stands in the center of the lane, blocks shots, rebounds shots, and sometimes tips shots in.

Below: How the Trail Blazers Core is Still There, How the New Guys Could Affect the Game, What the Thunder Need to Do to Win, Prediction!

Despite their losses, their core is still there. Lamarcus Aldridge has had field days on our interior D. Any time he's single covered in the post, he's almost guaranteed to score. He has the touch of Zach Randolph near the basket, the range of Dirk Nowitzki on turnaround jumpers, and can sink it from the top of the key like Karl Malone. Meanwhile, the two guys stepping up on the bench, Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt, have shown promise when given minutes this year. All in all, tonight should be at least as much of a challenge as the last two games.

The guys who came in the trades won't provide much of a boost if they do play tonight. The most likely candidate to get time is Mehmet Okur, but he is currently out with a back injury. The other three, Shawne Williams, Jonny Flynn, and Hasheem Thabeet, are all looking like rookie flops so far, and haven't seen much time this season on their former clubs.

In order to win tonight, the Thunder will have to dominate the boards, especially with Camby no longer on the Trail Blazers. The Blazers are a tough team to handle defensively, and unless your team gets at least a few second chance opportunities, you're not going anywhere against them. Their second objective should be to find some way to semi-contain LaMarcus Aldridge. He's a focal point of the Trail Blazer's offense, so he's going to get points, but the Thunder need to make sure that his post shots are at least double teamed, and that his options for passing out are limited. Lastly, the Thunder need to find a way to create turnovers. The Trail Blazers are one of the better teams in the league when it comes to taking care of the ball, and have gone under their season average in both matchups against the Thunder. If the Thunder can pressure them into turnovers and crank up the pace of the game, it might be exactly what they need in order to take control of the game.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Portland Trail Blazers 102