Game: Oklahoma City Thunder @ Portland Trail Blazers
Time: 9:30PM CST
Location: Moda Center, Portland
Counterpart: Blazers Edge
1. Can PG Get it together?
The Thunder are 1-5 over their last 6 games, and it’s not hard to see why; when Paul George plays, or when he plays but is not himself, the Thunder perform like a lottery team. Per Cleaning the glass, the Thunder have a net rating of -8.7 when PG sits; only the Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers have a worse net rating on the season.
Since the Thunder’s win against the Jazz post All-Star break, George has played in 3 games and shot 28% from the field in those contests. The only thing worse for OKC’s offense than George shooting that poorly is him not playing at all; the Thunder have a offensive rating of 108 in the 3 losses George has played in (against Sacramento, Denver and Minnesota), compared to only a 99 offensive rating in the 3 games he missed. Two of the 3 games he missed came against bad defensive teams: the Spurs, who have a bottom 10 defense, and the 76ers, who were without Joel Embiid (Philadelphia has the defensive rating of a lottery team in minutes played without Embiid).
Yet the PG-less Thunder’s offense was the equivalent of throwing rocks at a tank (although if Russell westbrook was throwing the rocks with the force he’s been chucking basketballs into backboard lately, he might be able to do some damage to the tank).
The Thunder need George at his best to win against the league’s best. The good news- George has had his way with Portland this season, averaging over 40 points in the prior two matchups between these teams. The Blazers do not have a defender who consistently can hang with George racing around screens or bother him when he releases his jumper, and their rim protectors are not especially fearsome if George chooses to go attack inside. It takes a while to fully come back from an injury, but the conditions are perfect tonight for George to have a big showing even if he’s still not at 100%.
2. Fresh, Grass-Fed, Grade- A Beef
“I’ve been busting that ass for years” Russell Westbrook sneered at Damian Lillard in the closing moments of the Thunder’s victory over Portland on January 23rd. Russ has certainly put up big boy numbers against Lillard- per basketball-reference, Russ has averaged 30 points on 43% shooting in his 22 career matchups against Lillard, to go with 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Yet that ass-busting has not led to dominant team performance- those 22 matchups have resulted in a perfectly even split of 11 wins for Westbrook and the Thunder and 11 wins for Lillard and the Trailblazers. And Dame Dolla has done damage was well, averaging 23 points on more efficient shooting than Russ in those games, with a healthy dose of assists to boot.
The battle between these two will once again be a focal point tonight. Westbrook put up one of his best games of the year in the aforementioned “busting that ass” game, putting up a 29 point triple-double, but was far less efficient in OKC’s other 2 victories: 31 points on 28 FGA on January 4th, 21 points on 19 FGA on February 11th. Westbrook has been shooting much better since the all star break- 46% from the field & 35% from deep on 23 shots per game. But his improved totals have not led to winning- the Thunder’s only wins since the break were a double OT squeaker against the Jazz and a narrow triumph over the lowly Grizzlies. The challenge for Russ as PG rounds into form is to continue to shoot efficiently even as he returns to being a playmaker and secondary scorer, rather than the primary option he was during PG’s absence.
Lillard, meanwhile, will face a similar challenge to Paul George- while the Blazers have been hot since the all-star break, Lillard has not, shooting under 33% from 3. His backcourt mate CJ McCollum has more than picked up the slack, hitting 47% of his threes over that stretch. Lillard and McCollum both struggled in the first game between these teams in January, but Lillard had two excellent performances against OKC since, while McCollum was great in the second match and terrible in the third, despite getting open for some quality looks. The Blazers need Lillard at his best to succeed in the playoffs, and probably need strong games from him and McCollum to pull this one out.
3. Can Play Kanter?
OKC will face beloved former teammate Enes Kanter for the first time as a Trailblazer tonight. While Kanter’s defensive struggles make him a liability for many teams, the Trailblazers have given him a pretty big role since he joined up. Kanter has played 19 minutes a night since joining up and averages 12 points a game and nearly 7 rebounds- good numbers, as always. He also has the worst net rating of any regular rotation player during that time, at an ugly -7.0.
Kanter’s old OKC teammates love him. They also know better than anyone what a liability he is on defense. The Thunder should run pick and rolls targeting him every possession he’s on the floor.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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