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Durant, Thunder prepare to score with Blazers

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Lillard vs. Westbrook is always a high-flying track meet.

This is everyone's thought when Westbrook and KD leave the floor.
This is everyone's thought when Westbrook and KD leave the floor.
William Bennett Berry

The Blazers so far this season

The Portland Trail Blazers lost four of their five starters over the off-season, and appeared ready for imminent collapse. Nevertheless, armed with All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, this Portland team has managed to hold their own in the Western Conference. As of right now, the Blazers are on the cusp of the playoff picture. Lillard, meanwhile, only saw slight dips in his averages as he took on a larger workload.

The main help for Lillard has come in the form of third year guard C.J. McCollum. McCollum is averaging 20 points a game this year, despite only averaging 7 last year. McCollum's main calling card is long range shooting, as he takes about six threes a game. But McCollum is also very effective in isolation situations on the perimeter, using his speed to get where he needs to go. It's rare to see McCollum use a screen, if at all. In any case, McCollum is easily a leading candidate for Most Improved Player this season.

Other than those two, the Blazers have struggled to find consistent scoring among the rest of the roster. There might be a little bit of hope from reserve wing Allen Crabbe, though. Over the past 8 games, Crabbe is averaging 14.4 points on 51% shooting. According to Zach Lowe, Crabbe's improvement has come as a result of his working off of the passes of Lillard and McCollum.

Besides Crabbe, there are three players who regularly flirt with double digits: Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, and Meyers Leonard. Aminu is a scrappy opportunist, getting a good chunk of his points in transition or charging at the hoop. But Aminu can also hit catch and shoot threes, as well as execute some mid-range pick and roll. Plumlee is a track athlete disguised as a center. Despite possessing no jumper to speak of, Plumlee still finds success running the floor and rolling to the hoop on screens. When things really get going, Plumlee may break out his hook as well. Leonard is like Plumlee in that he's agile for a center, and uses the pick and roll sometimes. But Leonard is more remarkable for his amazing touch from mid-range and long-range.

While we're at it, I also want to give a mention to Gerald Henderson, who scored 19 points on Monday against the Pelicans. Henderson averaged 12 points a game just last season, and is working his way back from a hip injury. So the Thunder should definitely watch for Henderson on the off-ball wings.

Portland's strengths and weaknesses

If it wasn't obvious by this point, the Blazers are a very offensively oriented team. Despite only playing at the 22nd fastest pace in the league, Portland scores the third most points per game. This is accomplished with solid offensive efficiency, a high amount of threes taken, and a dedication to offensive rebounds. The only regular weakness in the Blazers' offense is their low free throw percentage.

Nevertheless, the Blazers possess a number of key weaknesses. Most glaringly, the Blazers possess the league's second worst turnover percentage. This is because the Blazers rely heavily on passing (9th most assists in the NBA), yet only have two players that can consistently handle the ball.

Second most glaringly, the Blazers foul 22 times a game, good for second worst in the NBA. The Blazers foul a lot because they focus on defending the three point line. But that means Portland will give up penetration, and is often forced to foul to protect the rim. As such, Portland maintains respectable numbers when defending the two and the three.

Positives and negatives from recent Thunder times

Over in the Thunder's camp, things have been incredible. Oklahoma City is riding a five game win streak. None of the wins were over fearsome opponents, but the Thunder looked convincing at least half of the time. Most importantly, OKC's two stars look better than ever as they consistently feed off of each other. KD has found his role as a pure scorer, while Russell Westbrook has been more patient and smart with the ball than we've ever seen before.

Unfortunately, the Thunder have failed to provide consistent help for KD and Westbrook. Serge Ibaka, normally the third part of the equation, has been a roller coaster as of late. The past two games for Ibaka have been awful, as he struggled to find room to shoot against the Jazz defense in a back to back. In the second game, Serge hardly shot at all. But in the two games before the Jazz back to back, Ibaka was wonderful from mid-range. So it's any guess as to which version of Serge we'll see tonight. But Ibaka's defense has always been consistent. In fact, Ibaka's presence down low was key during the overtime Jazz win.

The bench might as well be labeled a disaster zone. Enes Kanter has been efficient on offense, but hasn't cracked 15 points in the past 12 games. Minutes and opportunities seem to be dwindling for Kanter as the year has gone on. When you consider that Kanter has been consistently giving up points during fourth quarter situations, you might think Kanter's reduced role is reasonable. But when you also consider that those extra Kanter shots are going to Dion Waiters, it becomes more of a head scratcher. Waiters has taken over 10 shots in three of the past five games, despite shooting 36% from the floor. I understand that Waiters has been effective with the starters, but why is he getting handed the keys to the offense?

In any case, help doesn't appear to be coming from other places. D.J. Augustin has become a complete ghost on the floor, and hardly ever handles the ball anymore. Meanwhile, Augustin's small size on defense continues to be an issue. Morrow has been hot, but is in a nightly struggle for minutes and opportunities. And Nick Collison? Yeah, he's there for defense and passing. McGary and Payne have been glued to the bench for weeks.

What OKC must do to win

Because the Thunder struggle to guard the three point line, they might roll with a small lineup at times to counteract that. But really, I expect the Thunder to concede long-range shooting from the start. OKC simply hasn't proven that they can consistently guard the perimeter. Rather, the Thunder's main focus should be securing rebounds and forcing turnovers. The Blazers are strong at rebounding but the Thunder have the size advantage. Meanwhile, OKC scores the fifth most fast break points in the league, and thrive on perimeter steals. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson will be key in providing defensive intensity and winning the battle of the boards.

Also, expect Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to run the table here. Durant will likely be matched up with Aminu. I have nothing against Aminu, but I just saw LeBron James score 33 on him. That includes several iso shots in clutch situations. If LeBron can do it, KD can too. Also, Westbrook has traditionally had big nights against Lillard's Blazers. Last season, Westbrook scored 38, 40, 40, and 36 in his four matchups with Lillard. That's not to say that Lillard or McCollum can't equal that production on the other end, though.

Ultimately, it will be up to OKC's bench to find some sort of consistent option on offense. Maybe Waiters will charge at the rim and hit a few stepbacks. Maybe Kanter will play some pick and roll. Maybe Morrow will get a couple shots. Then again, maybe pigs will fly. More than likely, this game will go right down to the wire.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Portland Trail Blazers 106.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 25
@
11-15
(Lost 1)

16-8
(Won 5)
December 16th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, KGW (Keep Growing Wiser) TV-8
Injury Report: A Clean Bill of Health!
Last Season's Matchups: Oct 29 (L 89-106), Dec 23 (L 111-115 OT), Feb 27 (L 112-115), Apr 13 (W 101-90)
Probable Starters
Damian Lillard PG Russell Westbrook
C.J. McCollum SG Andre Roberson
Al-Farouq Aminu SF Kevin Durant
Noah Vonleh PF Serge Ibaka
Mason Plumlee C Steven Adams