Tonight, to begin an imperative home-stand, the backpedaling Oklahoma City Thunder seek atonement vs. a rested Portland Trail Blazers squad.
Following a wave of post trade-deadline enthusiasm, Thunder Nation’s hopeful tenor has unraveled amid Oklahoma City’s current three-game road losing streak vs. sub .500 competition.
And, naturally so, as in one flitting moment it seemed Westbrook’s long-sought aid had arrived only to vanish while the Thunder fell to Portland, Phoenix, and Dallas.
Consequently, some have labled this latest road sojourn as OKC’s least-productive since its 2008 relocation.
However, tonight, Billy Donovan’s discordant crew will attempt to upend the very team against which its downturn began.
On March 2, initial visions of promise went asunder for Oklahoma City’s new-look roster during a 114-109 collapse vs. Portland.
That evening, though he finished with 45 points, Russell Westbrook assumed too much offensive burden, and unleashed a counterproductive 16 3PA’s. This deluge of forced shots coincided with Russ’ 12-36 FGA’s, scant four assists, and final period meltdown (2-of-11).
Subsequently, as Russ flailed, Oklahoma City’s other starters attempted just 11 FG’s.
In brief hindsight, OKC’s third meeting with Portland represented the beginning of a deeper chemistry crisis.
Case in point: Oklahoma City has dropped successive contests to a pair of groupings (Phoenix, Dallas) which sport a combined 47 wins against 78 losses —as Westbrook attempted 54 shots, and launched 5-22 3PM in said defeats.
The most recent of these setbacks came vs. Dallas, 104-89. On that trying night, Westbrook shot just 8-of-24 from the field amid his team’s overall (2-of-22 3PM, 21-30 FTM) poor performance.
Meanwhile, Portland has won two consecutive while receiving an unexpected three-day rest due to inclement conditions at Minnesota’s Target Center.
Prior to defeating Brooklyn 130-116 on March 4, vs. Oklahoma City, the Trail Blazers boasted six double-figure scorers, 19 assists on 39 made FG’s, and a decisive 33-24 fourth-quarter run to claim victory.
Although I’ve been reticent to hit the panic button during OKC’s winless drought, a fourth-consecutive defeat to sub .500 competition would be enough for me to do so.
Another concern is Doug McDermott’s post-trade shooting woes. McDermott’s field-goal/three-point split of 36/23 since his Thunder debut has left many observers scratching their heads.
Further, throughout OKC’s losing streak, McDermott is 1-of-12 from deep while playing 30+ mpg.
Though, on a larger scale, Oklahoma City’s offensive execution has regressed, as the team’s once effective pick-and-roll game has been replaced by isolation post ups and myriad three-point heaves.
Equally vexing is OKC’s lack of defensive cohesion —especially against PnR sets.
Nonetheless, in tonight’s pivotal tilt, the Thunder (23-8 home record) has a prime opportunity to reclaim a semblance of momentum from Chesapeake Energy Arena vs. Portland.
However, if Damian Lillard (33 pts, last contest vs. OKC) and company again dash Oklahoma City’s competitive hopes, expect further appropriate outcries to boom within Thunder Nation.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (35-28 #7 west) vs. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (26-35 #9 west)
- Time: 8 PM ET
- Venue: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- TV: NBA TV, FSOK
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER KEYS TO VICTORY
- Run the high pick-and-roll: This is Oklahoma City’s most effective half-court set. When ran properly, OKC’s overall half-court offense functions best.
- Return to the mid-range, Russ: Pick-and-rolls, cotton-shots, mid-range fades and drives to the hoop are all good for both Westbrook and the Thunder.
- Billy, establish some line-up consistency: What is the point of having Norris Cole if he is playing alongside Westbrook? Yes, Oladipo has been injured, but Coach Donovan can put together more effective lineups. To paraphrase Russ, this is winning time, not experimenting time.
- Place Andre Roberson on Portland’s hot hand: If Oladipo misses tonight’s seasonal finale between OKC and POR, a wise strategy would be to place one of the NBA’s top perimeter defenders on whichever Blazer player is performing best from outside.
- Better shot selection: The Thunder need avoid falling into the trap of too many consecutive three-point attempts or post-ups. Variety is the key.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Tonight, to begin a three-game homestand, an Oklahoma City Thunder win goes a long way toward mollifying its exasperated supporters.
However, a home-win vs. Portland is expected from OKC. Outside of immediate chemistry obstacles, the team’s larger bugaboo is a conspicuous lack of road success (10-22 road record).
With 19 games remaining, the Thunder must hold serve at home, while showing fight through its final nine away outings.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
In a tight race for the west’s final playoff slot, Portland currently sits two games back of eighth-seed Denver with 21 games remaining.
Both Lillard (33) and CJ McCollum (31) have paced the Blazers in their two-game unbeaten run. Most likely, one of these two potent scorers will need to emerge tonight to ensure a 3-1 seasonal upset of division-rival Oklahoma City.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS/INJURY REPORTS
The Oklahoma City Thunder list Alex Abrines (Eye) and Victor Oladipo (Back) as day-to-day, though each participated in a limited capacity during OKC’s Monday practice. The Portland Trail Blazers list Evan Turner (Hand) and Festus Ezeli (Knee) as out. Allen Crabbe (leg) remains day-to-day.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
- Shooting Guard: Alex Abrines/Oladipo/McDermott
- Small Forward: Andre Roberson
- Power Forward: Domantas Sabonis
- Center: Steven Adams
Portland Trail Blazers
- Point Guard: Damian Lillard
- Shooting Guard: CJ McCollum
- Small Forward: Maurice Harkless
- Power Forward: Noah Vonleh
- Center: Jusuf Nurkic
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: -6.5
Due to OKC’s strong home record, the Vegas books favor Oklahoma City to end a three-game losing streak tonight vs. Portland.
Tonight’s key matchup will be Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard. If the Thunder remain close throughout, a redemptive Westbrook fourth-quarter performance may be needed for OKC to prevail.
This evening’s affair will shed more light on the Thunder’s personnel situation, though the team has yet to enjoy a fully healthy roster since Jan 26.