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Thunder attempt to right ship, use KD vs. Trail Blazers

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Will Aldridge play? Will KD play? One team needs their star far more than the other....

Next time you get angry at Russ for taking a bad shot, just imagine him as an elf.
Next time you get angry at Russ for taking a bad shot, just imagine him as an elf.
William Bennett Berry

So, here we sit. What we could have tonight is one of the greatest matchups to hit the Western Conference. We could have Kevin Durant going in a direct scoring battle with LaMarcus Aldridge, with tons certain to be scored. But nagging injuries could force both of those players to sit out tonight. Neither team is willing to show their cards, so, as fans, we're left in the dark. (When I'm writing this, anyway.)

Should Durant and Aldridge not be able to go, the makeup of these teams becomes very different. Both teams will look to their point guard as their primary scorer. Obviously, a Damien Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook battle would still be fun, and should produce a lot of points. Both teams are suffering from interior D problems, so it's not like either will offer much resistance. The Thunder have a lack of athleticism and speed from their bench bigs, while the Blazers are suffering from the long-term injury to Robin Lopez.

Still, it's easy to see either team's offense stalling out without their big star. The Thunder have really suffered without Durant over the past two games, registering assist numbers significantly lower than their opponents. Russell Westbrook has also been particularly criticized for his decision making at the end of games, opting to take an egregious amount of shots. He's literally approaching 2010 levels, and it's been really worrisome to watch him regress.

The Blazers, on the other hand, can suffer from a lack of ball movement as well. Their lack of sharing can be seen as a bit more warranted though, as they just don't have as many offensive options. I saw Portland's game against the Rockets last night, and it was painful to see just how badly the injuries to their front line had effected them. If the Blazers don't want to become totally guard oriented, they're going to need to rely on Kaman hooks and Freeland threes. That might sound bad, but when the Thunder have their bench bigs in, that kind of offense can still work.

Going back to Portland's loss last night in Houston, another thing that really stood out to me as a problem for the Blazers was their atrocious defense. I could try to explain all the little things I saw, but here's the nutshell from the more familiar eye of Blazers Edge's Dave Deckard:

The story of this game was pretty simple. Portland's offense never clicked without Aldridge manning his usual left-block post position. The Blazers made a go of it, trying to score via layups and threes. The approach was smart, the execution less so. Unfamiliar lineups (Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland started the game) led to players out of position, errant passes, and general confusion. The result was 10 Houston steals by halftime, 22 Blazers turnovers at the final horn. The Rockets picked off passes, ripped away dribbles, then ran for layups.

I was almost afraid to say it, but there it is. The Blazers were looking downright awful. To give you some perspective, the Rockets were integrating two new players from different teams during this game. Alexsey Shved just came in from the Sixers to play some backup combo guard, while Corey Brewer had just come in from the Timberwolves to slot in as a backup swingman. Shved's game was rather pedestrian, but Brewer managed to post some monster numbers. 12 points on 5 of 10 shooting, 4 assists, 5 steals. in 22 minutes. In his first game for a new team. It's not like he was scoring on a lot of complicated offensive sets....the dude was just being an opportunist and taking advantage of a broken team.

I also feel like Nicholas Batum's statline was indicative of just how wrecked the Blazers were that night. Batum scored two points on just three shots, a season low in both categories. In a game where 165 total shots were taken and 205 total points were scored, how was Batum's offensive output so low? Part of the answer is Ariza's defense, but I also feel part of the answer was Portland's lack of center and transition play. Batum really likes to dribble the ball around screens, and he really excels in the open court. When he's got no one to set him a screen and his team doesn't go out in transition, his offense completely collapses.

Without Batum, the Blazers are left to heavily rely upon Lillard and Matthews for their scoring. Neither had a bad on offense statistically, as they hit 10 of 21 shots and logged 5 assists with just 1 turnover. But when the Rockets have Harden and Howard hitting 21 of 37 with 11 assists to 3 turnovers, you can see why the Blazers struggled.  Portland's stars were simply playing responsible basketball, getting what they could while deferring to others. Meanwhile, Houston's stars were able to completely carry their team, nearly doubling their output in almost the same amount of time.

At the end of the day, it's not rocket science. Both teams will benefit heavily from the presence of their stars, and if either team is with while the other is without, they will have a much greater chance of winning. Still, I feel like the Thunder possess a distinct advantage if both stars are out. The Thunder are having some problems moving the ball and can be defensively exploited by certain lineups, but I don't think the problems are deep or systemic. Sunday night's game against the Pelicans could have been fixed with a few extra passes, while Friday night's game against the Lakers could have been easier had Jones and Lamb cut down on their mistakes. You can't say the same about Portland's game last night, and we don't have another non-Lopez and non-Aldridge game to compare it to. So yeah.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Portland Trail Blazers 97.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 29
(Lost 1)

(Lost 1)
December 23rd, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Northwest
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (Questionable), LaMarcus Aldridge (Questionable), Robin Lopez (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 29 (L 89-106)
Probable Starters
Damien Lillard PG Russell Westbrook
Wesley Matthews SG Andre Roberson
Nicholas Batum SF Kevin Durant or Perry Jones III
LaMarcus Aldridge PF Serge Ibaka
Joel Freeland C Steven Adams