I’M BACK! Maybe I should’ve taken a few more weeks off seeing as the Oklahoma City Thunder have gone 7-1 in their last eight games. But there’s no turning back now! Hopefully the time away will improve my work as an educated guesser going forward.
This year’s Thunder team has been frustratingly fun. For all of the greatness that comes with Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double, this team far too often finds itself in tight contests nightly. While watching Russ be Russ is one of the most polarizing things in all of professional sports, he still has moments that make you want to rip the hair off your scalp.
Almost 25 games into the season the Thunder currently sit comfortably in the playoff race, however one extended losing streak could once again have OKC battling and clawing to keep themselves alive for the postseason. This week kicks off with a tough back-to-back, but then finishes off with a very winnable home game following two days rest.
THUNDER RECORD: 15-9 BRANDON RECORD: 8-5
*EDITOR’S NOTE: "On The Doppler Radar section is undergoing a change. For this season it will be an allusion to the player on the opposing team to watch out for.*
12/13 AT Portland Trail Blazers
FORECAST: Cold. Rain. Dame.
The Thunder look to begin a new win streak by following up their final-seconds victory over the Boston Celtics with another win over a potential playoff team. The Trail Blazers come into tonight’s game having lost two straight close games (against the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers) of their own.
Everyone will have their eyes on the Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard matchup, but it’s CJ McCollum that I think could potentially be the biggest danger to the Thunder tonight. Andre Roberson can only guard one of Portland’s dynamic backcourt duo and it’s more likely that he’s slotted onto Lillard for the better part of the game. Westbrook isn’t a bad defender by any stretch of the means (he currently leads the NBA in Defensive Box Plus-Minus), but I also wouldn’t say he’s a shutdown defender either.
If I’m Donovan I start Roberson on Lillard and hope to keep him quiet long enough that he doesn’t have the chance to explode at any point in this game. The only downside is envisioning Westbrook tiring himself out and not being able to hit another triple-double -- after following McCollum around off-ball screens all night.
PREDICTION: Thunder 108, Trail Blazers 112
ON THE DOPPLER RADAR: Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard is one of the best players in the NBA. I say that because even though we’ve seen him perform at a high-level since entering the league and come up big in clutch situation after clutch situation, it always seems like he’s underappreciated in the bigger picture of the basketball world. Lillard’s play and leadership have helped to keep the Portland Trail Blazers as a perennial playoff team in the Western Conference. Lillard against Westbrook is going to be a treat for all of us to witness and it’ll most likely end with the world being swallowed into a black hole because of sheer awesomeness. Lillard began the year as a potential candidate for the Most Valuable Player award this season, but the Trail Blazers have failed to build on their surprising success of a year ago. Lillard is capable of getting hot at any time and if OKC can’t keep him in check early then this game could get away from them quickly. The same could be said for late in the game as well as Lillard could just as easily spark a 10-0 run or greater to close out the game. Lillard is what makes this team go and if Westbrook accepts the challenge of defending him then that will have the biggest impact on this game’s outcome no matter if he’s able to add on another triple-double or not.
12/14 AT Utah Jazz
FORECAST: Snow With Gusting Winds
The Utah Jazz have assembled a deep and talented roster. The Utah Jazz are one of the better teams in the entire league. However, thanks to the genius of Westbrook, the Thunder -- despite having less talent -- have been the better team so far.
The Jazz ability to attack and play in waves without sacrificing talent for rest is what gives them a shot to hang around against any team. And though Salt Lake City is no Mile High, a second night of a back-to-back in the mountains of Utah is not going to be doing the Thunder any favors. If Westbrook is able to double up on triple-doubles in these games and OKC at least splits the games, they should FedEx the MVP trophy to his house (next-day shipping if the Thunder win both games).
PREDICTION: Thunder 98, Jazz 88
ON THE DOPPLER RADAR: Gordon Hayward
Gordon Hayward would be a perfect fit for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The six-foot-eight forward is a year away from entering the free agent market and his name should be watched closely as he would be a homerun addition for Sam Presti and the Thunder. However, it doesn’t look at this time that the Utah Jazz are looking to get rid of their rising stud. Hayward’s game doesn’t really knock you off your feet in any one area, but he’s better than solid as an all-around player. He can play with or without the ball. He can score at all three levels. He’s a sound defender. Just about anything you can ask of him he can do. On a team like the Jazz that has depth at every position, his jack-of-all-trades skill makes him even deadlier. If you focus all of your defensive schemes on him then he has no problem letting his teammates pick the opponent apart. If Victor Oladipo is forced to miss any action after his spill then it will be interesting to see which of their defensive wings (Andre Roberson or Jerami Grant) OKC chooses to defend him with.
12/17 vs Phoenix Suns
FORECAST: Fire And Westbrook-stone
Russell Westbrook WILL get a triple-double in this game. Write it in sharpie, take it to the bank, etc. and all those cliches. The Phoenix Suns are not a good team this year. The Thunder are better than expected and if they want to be seen as contenders these are the games they need to win and win decidedly.
Devin Booker could of course make a victory in this game more difficult to attain if he gets hot shooting the ball. Booker is surely going to be a great player in this league and OKC will need to keep him in check as best as they can.
The Thunder need to get as many easy wins as they can. This way when the final push for one of the eight (realistically three: Golden State, San Antonio and Los Angeles Clippers all but have their places locked up) comes along they aren’t scrambling to pick up wins thanks to a cushion given to them by winning the games that they should win.
PREDICTION: Thunder 124, Suns 112
ON THE DOPPLER RADAR: Eric Bledsoe
Devin Booker took this space the last time the Thunder faced off against the Phoenix Suns and while he’s still the team’s best player and the franchise’s future, I want to devote this section to one Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is actually a former Thunder (for less than 24 hours due to his pick being sent to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a draft day deal) and in a year where the whole basketball world is anticipating the return of a former Oklahoman this is a nice tie-in if I may say so myself. Bledsoe had been dubbed as Mini-LeBron when he first started getting regular rotation minutes with the Clippers. Since then not much has changed about Bledsoe’s game. He’s a beast -- stronger than just about any other point guard in the league, Westbrook included -- that can get into and finish in the paint as he pleases. His jump shot was really the main hindrance for him coming into the NBA and early in his career, but since then he’s turned himself into a respectable three-point shooter (he hasn’t shot under 32 percent since joining the Suns). Defensively is where he really stood out. His strength and athleticism made it so he could go toe-to-toe with any player despite being one of the shorter guards in the NBA. Bledsoe brings his game to another level when facing other great players. Expect nothing short of his best when these two teams face off on Saturday evening.