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Thunder vs. Trail Blazers preview: Russell Westbrook to play, LaMarcus Aldridge out

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The Blazers will have some serious weaknesses on the wing, but how will the Thunder take advantage without Westbrook?

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Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

How Injuries affect the Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers face a serious shortage at the wing position, as they will certainly be without three key rotational players. But it's almost certain that LaMarcus Aldridge will be in the lineup tonight. Aldridge played on Thursday night against the Warriors. Furthermore, there were rumors that the stated "left foot sprain" that kept Aldridge out of Saturday night's game vs. the Jazz was simply an excuse to rest him..

UPDATE: Looks like Aldridge will be out tonight. Look for the Blazers to give shots to Robin Lopez in the post, Meyers Leonard long-range, and Allen Crabbe any time he can use his speed to get open. Obviously this bodes well for OKC's ability to play inside and win the battle of the boards. Still, if the Thunder aren't careful Leonard, could seriously burn Adams.

Truth is, we haven't seen the Blazers with Aldridge in the lineup and Afflalo out of the lineup. Afflalo was healthy until going down in Thursday's game against the Warriors. But Aldridge missed Sunday's game, which was the only game that Afflalo has also missed so far. Still, it goes without saying that Portland faced serious problems containing penetration against the Jazz on Saturday. From Dave Deckard's recap over at Blazer's Edge:

"He'd have pulled it off too if it weren't for those meddling kids in the form of Jeremy Evans, Rodney Hood, and Bryce Cotton. If you're saying, "Who?!?" that's kind of the point.

It wasn't so much that these guys were brilliant. The Blazers just didn't support Lillard's offense by doing the little things on defense: closing off penetration, getting hands up, and especially securing rebounds. Utah's offense wasn't that complex. Mostly they drove into traffic and put up a shot. But they got deep enough that many of those shots resulted in free throws. The Jazz scored 14 in the fourth from the foul line, another 10 within 10 feet of the hoop. No amount of hero ball from Lillard was going to outpace that kind of easy production."

Thus, it will be prudent for the Thunder to look to Dion Waiters as their primary source of points. Aside from him, if Lamb happens to get any time, he should definitely be looked to for offense as well. It's hard to think of another Thunder player who can penetrate well from the perimeter. Singler and Morrow can shoot around screens or make weak side drives sometimes, but it's hard to see them seriously pushing the needle in the Thunder's direction. EDIT: Russell Westbrook.

How Suspensions affect the Thunder

I'm assuming that Russell Westbrook will be suspended by the league for acquiring 16 technical fouls. With Westbrook out, the Thunder will look to D.J. Augustin. Augustin is a capable offensive leader, and has averaged 3.2 assists to 0.6 turnovers over the past 5 games. However, D.J. has also shot 28% from the field over the same stretch. Given that Westbrook is normally such a big source of offense, it likely means that the Thunder will constantly have to look to their bigs to generate points.

Augustin could certainly make a difference on the defensive end, though. Damian Lillard has been an offensive firestorm in his last two meetings with Westbrook. Lillard scored 40 during December 23rds overtime victory, and put in 29 on 45% shooting on February 27th. Lillard's season seems to follow a rough four game pattern where he plays great in one game, plays terrible in another, and plays to his averages over another two. Lillard already had a bad performance against Westbrook during the season opener, shooting 30%. Perhaps Lillard is simply in for a good, if not great, game if that pattern holds true.

UPDATE: Given that Westbrook will be playing tonight, expect him to get involved in an extremely high scoring battle with Damian Lillard. Here's the career head-to-head between the two, for reference. Westbrook usually gets well over his averages, and with how OKC's perimeter D has been recently, Lillard will probably do the same.:

Who matches up with Aldridge?

Steven Adams has started at power forward as of late. But it's become increasingly apparent that Adams is just a bit too slow to cover that position defensively. Markieff Morris really exploited him during a recent Suns game, and David West got a lot of free points in last night's game against the Pacers.

Nick Collison will certainly see time at power forward and guarding Aldridge, and it's entirely possible that Collison takes the floor in the clutch in place of Adams. That's how Brooks finished out against Indiana, anyway. Adams got the call in the clutch two games ago, against Sacramento. Hopefully, we'll all be spared any sight of McGary on Aldridge. Mitch certainly has the athleticism to compete, but is likely too green to effectively deal with Aldridge's array of moves.

Hit the threes, crash the boards

From Dave Deckard's recap of the Blazers-Warriors game on Thursday:

"You saw the difference between a team that has to make compromises to reach its highest level of play and one that, at least right now, has to make none. The Blazers prospered inside with their big lineup but couldn't cover perimeter screens, leaving Golden State shooters wide open. Nor could they rotate out to shooters after penetration. So they went small and upped the octane on offense but they lost their rebounding edge and their ability to body Golden State's wings. They had to choose their advantage. Though the Blazers benefited, the Warriors exploited the weaknesses of either approach."

OKC and Golden State are similar in that they have big men who are good at setting screens, and three point shooters who can score off the dribble. That's a good sign, and the presence of Westbrook as a penetrator would certainly help get Thunder shooters open as well. (But, again, he probably won't play.) In any case, should the Blazers go small, the Thunder would certainly have a huge advantage on the boards. OKC is second in the NBA when it comes to rebound differential.

C.J. McCollum is no slouch

You might think that the Blazers' third option for a starting shooting guard has some flaws, but McCollum is actually putting in starter-quality performances. Over the last 7 games, McCollum has averaged 17.3 points on 55% shooting. Add in 44% from three point land and 1.4 steals per game, and you've got a seriously effective player. He's a bit small alongside Lillard, but can hit threes much more effectively than Afflalo.

Playoff Implications

OKC must finish with a better record than New Orleans over the next two games. OKC and Portland both have virtually guaranteed wins against an incredibly depleted Minnesota team. That likely means the Thunder's ability to get into the playoffs will rest on their ability to beat Portland tonight, as well as San Antonio's need to win their regular season finale against New Orleans. For now, it's probably just best to think about tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 99, Portland Trail Blazers 95.

What do you think will happen tonight? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 81
(Lost 2)

(Lost 1)
April 13th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Net Northwest
Injury Report: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Afflalo, Dorell Wright, Wesley Matthews (Out), LaMarcus Aldridge (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 29 (L 89-106), Dec 23 (L 111-115 OT), Feb 27 (L 112-115)
Probable Starters
Damian Lillard PG D.J. Augustin
C.J. McCollum SG Andre Roberson
Nicholas Batum SF Dion Waiters
Meyers Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge PF Enes Kanter
Robin Lopez C Steven Adams

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