The Blazers were counted out by many this year, initially. But after the rise of C.J. McCollum as a clear second option, Portland has been able to tear their way to a respectable record. Most recently, the Blazers have slowed down a bit, going 2-4 over their last six. But from January 10th to March 1st, Portland was a red hot 18-4. If you're looking for the secret to the Blazers success, look no further than their superstar guards. Damian Lillard, long known as a defensive sieve, has actually upped his game this season. From a defensive profile by Dan Marang at Blazers' Edge:
At this point in his career, the question is no longer, "Can Lillard play defense?" He's shown that he's capable. ...
Strong enough to absorb the contact, he can body up against bigger players, and even push a player off his spot. Lillard is adept at forcing faster players where he wants them to go in isolation - often making them take a contested fadeaway or stepback jumper. It can be hard to contrast that level of defense and dedication to some of the mental lapses that seem to perk up from time to time. For someone who prides himself in being the underdog and a tireless worker, it can produce somewhat of a negative reaction with Blazers fans when he bounces between such extreme sides of the spectrum.
Where fans can take solace is here - Lillard is no longer learning the ropes night-in and night-out. He's instead picking up on the minutiae and honing a craft. This is a sign of growth. It's no longer trying to learn the X's and O's - instead it's about execution and dedication of effort.
Lillard showcased some of his newfound defense the last time he played against Russell Westbrook, on Jan 10th. Westbrook shot just 7 of 19 that night, or 36%. Lillard kept Westbrook from getting to the rim, and Westbrook bricked a lot of post up turnarounds. Don't forget about Lillard's offense, either. From Thomas Zhou's recap of the January 10th loss:
Just when you (or at least I) thought the Thunder would have the game in the pocket, Lillard happened. After a three-pointer from Andre Roberson gave the Thunder an eight-point cushion with 3:06 left, Lillard sank in five straight threes.
Nobody could handle that and it certainly did not help when Ibaka got rejected in the paint by Mason Plumlee while the Thunder trailed by three with 30 seconds to go. That sealed the deal on a narrow game, and frustrating loss.
The Thunder bench didn't really pull their weight in that game. Kanter was just 1 of 3, struggling to get possession. Waiters was 2 of 2, but hardly got a chance to score in his 23 minutes. Payne jacked up 5 shots in 9 minutes, hitting a respectable 2. And Morrow was an ice cold 0 of 3. With OKC's bench currently relying on Kevin Durant at point guard, January's game is a really bad sign. In 10 games since becoming full time backup point guard, KD is averaging 6 assists to 5 turnovers. The Blazers quick backcourt guards will eat KD's possessions for dinner.
There is precedent for a Thunder victory, though. Here's how the Thunder were able to handle Lillard back on December 10th, courtesy of me:
Meanwhile, the Blazers couldn't get any production out of their star, Damian Lillard. Lillard finished the game shooting just 6 of 20 from the floor. Part of that is due to the defense of Russell Westbrook. It was an impressive game for Westbrook defensively, aside from a slight lapse on concentration that allowed three consecutive threes at the end of the second quarter. Anyway, Lillard also struggled because he couldn't get anything inside. The Thunder were committed to defending the first shot, resulting in Portland's attacking guards getting nothing in the paint. Lillard was 1 of 5 from the paint, while McCollum was 1 of 3. Of course, the downside was that Portland got a ton of offensive rebounds (17) and went to the free throw line a a lot (18 times). But the Thunder played big for the vast majority of the game, and never wavered from their commitment to the rim.
Looking at both games together, it's apparent that the Thunder struggle in two areas. As I mentioned before, turnovers are one of those areas. OKC had 23 assists to 19 turnovers on January 10th, and 13 assists to 18 turnovers on December 18th. On the year, Portland's opponents average 21 assists and 13 turnovers. The other area where OKC struggles is giving up offensive rebounds. Portland had 17 offensive rebounds on December 18th, and 20 offensive rebounds on January 10th. On the year, Portland averages only 11 offensive rebounds a game. Clearly, these two problems are unique to the Thunder.
What can OKC do? Match up. If the Thunder go big, the Blazers will be able to steal the ball, hustle for all of the loose offensive boards, and stretch the floor for easy shots. That's just how Portland makes a living. But if the Thunder put more shooters/ball handlers on the floor, they might stand a chance. Give Adams, Ibaka, and Kanter time at center. Play Payne, along with all of the wings. OKC's superior rim protection and athleticism on the perimeter will really shine when put on the same level as Portland.
Then again, I'm delusional. The Thunder can't hit threes, and Billy Donovan's rotation gets more quizzical every consecutive game. It will be another turnover laden game with lots of missed open perimeter shots. And predictable Thunder plays that are predictably broken up in the final moments.
Prediction: Portland Trail Blazers 113, Oklahoma City Thunder 108.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2015-16 NBA Season Game 67|
|March 14th, 2016|
|Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma|
|7:00 PM Central Standard Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Northwest|
|Injury Report: Dion Waiters (Questionable)|
|This Season's Matchups: Dec 16 (W 106-90), Jan 10 (L 110-115)|
|Damian Lillard||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|C.J. McCollum||SG||Randy Foye|
|Al-Farouq Aminu||SF||Kevin Durant|
|Noah Vonleh||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Mason Plumlee||C||Steven Adams|