With the Thunder locked into their seed, they have absolutely no incentive to win the next four games. A week ago, the Thunder were virtually locked into their seed. As a result, coach Billy Donovan sat Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka for an away back to back against the Pistons. Tonight, I'd expect Donovan to sit at least one big name. Big names who play may not see any time in crunch time.
The Portland Trail Blazers are in the opposite position. With just three games left in their schedule, the Blazers could finish as high as fifth or as low as out of the playoffs. Tonight's game will be incredibly important for Portland, and they're guaranteed to bring a full strength squad.
Here's the funny thing, though. The last time these two teams played, the Thunder romped to a 34 point victory. Portland simply didn't have the bigs to match up, and the Thunder had some ace shooting off of the bench. It would take a lot of luck for the Thunder to repeat such a dominant performance, even if their starters did play. But these next few games will be a nice opportunity for role players to see how they can do with a larger role. Dion Waiters will have to guard a significant offensive option in McCollum, while also doing a bit of game management on offense. Anthony Morrow will get time, and can prove his worth to coach Donovan heading into the playoffs.
Playoff Opponent Watch
As it stands, the Thunder's opponents could be the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Jazz, and Rockets. There's thousands of possible scenarios at this point. But this matchup specifically will be of great interest to Thunder fans:
Houston at Dallas, 8:30 CDT, ESPN
The winner has a much more likely chance of getting into the playoffs and facing the Thunder in the first round.
Who should the Thunder face? That depends on who you ask. The Thunder have a winning record against all of the teams listed, though a loss to Portland today would lower that to 2-2. But each team seems to have an advantage and disadvantage. Big-time pundits like to point to the Grizzlies as the injured team, but their roster is stocked with playoff veterans who play for each other. Dallas is kind of in that same "playoff veteran" boat, with lots of grit but not a lot of star power. Portland and Houston are teams centered around big stars. Both the Blazers and Rockets rise and fall with how well they can score on a particular night. Lastly, there's the young Jazz. That defense-first squad could be a bugaboo for any higher seeded West team. Not a lot of depth there, but a very solid and harmonious 5 man lineup. (EDIT: Houston is 2-2 against OKC as well, my bad.)
How tonight's game will go
I'd expect the Thunder, if stripped of their stars, will become a slowly paced team. Without Durant and Westbrook there to create the offense, the Thunder will likely pass the ball around for open shots. The Thunder will also become a lot more reliant on their defense to carry them. I expect OKC to clog the paint with their bigs and fall back around screens. But once Portland is able to get the pace going, they'll probably light OKC up in transition.
Against the Kings last night, the Blazers were able to grind out a victory despite giving up 53% from the field. According to Dave Deckard of Blazers Edge, Portland was able to gain the advantage with their 17 offensive rebounds and 19 forced turnovers. Those are two areas where the Thunder really struggle, and can only become more pronounced as the team plays bigger and with less stars.
Then again, the Thunder are coming with a lot of momentum, having won by 22 in Denver yesterday.
Prediction: Portland Trail Blazers 118, Oklahoma City Thunder 92.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2015-16 NBA Season Game 78|
|April 6th, 2016|
|The Moda Center, Portland, Oregon|
|9:00 PM Central Daylight Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Keep Growing Wiser TV-9|
|Injury Report: Chris Kaman (Questionable), Meyers Leonard (Out)|
|This Season's Matchups: Dec 16 (W 106-90), Jan 10 (L 110-115), Mar 14 (W 118-94)|
|Russell Westbrook||PG||Damian Lillard|
|Andre Roberson||SG||C.J. McCollum|
|Kevin Durant||SF||Al Farouq Aminu|
|Serge Ibaka||PF||Maurice Harkless|
|Steven Adams||C||Mason Plumlee|