Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Trail Blazers vs. Thunder: Game 54

Tonight, Portland (30-23) plays their last home game before the All-Star break against rising Oklahoma City (29-21) in a game that game can keep the Blazers afloat in the West or send them into a free fall heading into All-Star weekend. Starting with the January 25th game against New Orleans and finishing tomorrow night at Phoenix, Portland embarked on the toughest 10-game stretch of the season. Currently, they haven't weathered the storm too well, going a sub-par 3-5, including a rare home loss to the Lakers on Saturday night and letting an eight point lead slip away with under four minutes to play against the Hornets.
Let's be realistic, tonight's game is the best chance of Portland achieving a win before the break, because we do not match up well with the high octane Suns, nor have we won in the Valley of the Sun since spring of 2004. Throw in the fact the Thunder are above us in the standings by two games in the loss column and are a surprisingly good road team given their youth and inexperience (14-11), they don't seem like a candidate to falter down the stretch like the Grizzlies, which makes this match one of great importance in the grand scheme of playoff positioning. Also, Portland defeated OKC in Oklahoma, 83-74, giving them a leg up in the tie-breaker scenario.
In that November win, Portland was able to dodge the Kevin Durant bullet. He shot a dismal 3-20 from the floor and was only able to score in double figures, 16, by getting to the line an amazing 14 times. Durant is #1 in the NBA in free throws made per game at 8.7 and 4th in the league in attempts at 9.9. The Blazers and their staff should definitely not bank on Durant shooting another 3-20 from the field, especially during his torrid pace of 24 consecutive games with scoring 25 or more points. On the plus side, Portland was without their best perimeter defender back on November 1st which makes it harder for Durant to prepare to be defend by Batum. I've been looking forward to this matchup since Nico returned. Just like any dangerous scorer, Batum must make sure to keep him in front of him, keeping him away from the paint, and taking away his free throws. If he's hot from the outside, there is absolutely nothing we can do about that, but at least make him work hard for his points.
Although a prolific scorer, I would argue KD is not a play-maker just yet. Durant is 2nd in the league in turning the ball over, 3.8 times a night, which hopefully Batum can use his length to force a few TO's. A lot of people are talking a lot of noise, saying how we screwed up by missing out on Kevin Durant, but I think Nico is the perfect championship caliber small forward, a defensive minded play maker. The bottom line is Durant is already an NBA superstar, one of the best pure scorers in the game and he would have been an awesome addition to this team, but we went with the championship formula of size and defense and it just hasn't paid off yet.
One player who always seems to give Portland fits is guard Russell Westbrook. In his short five-game career against the Blazers, Westbrook puts together an impressive stat line for such a young player, going for 15.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists a night. He was the lead scorer during the last meeting with 23 points and frustrated many Blazer fans with his ability to offensive rebound last season, but his Achilles has always been his ability to force the ball and create too many turnovers from the starting point guard position. He had nine the last go-round. His 159 turnovers this season are enough to put him 7th in the league. Batum looks like he will be a busy man tonight as it is being reported he will also start out the game on Westbrook, giving Webster the daunting task of defending Durantula. Westbrook's M.O. is to get to the goal, buy any means necessary. Batum needs to treat Westbrook like he is Rajon Rondo and force him to beat us with his 40.8% field goal percentage jump shot, before playing too tight on him.
On Portland's end, I expect huge nights from both Aldridge and Bayless. With the 6'9" Jeff Green more than likely to draw the task of defending LMA, he will have a good three inch height advantage which he should use to his advantage by shooting the jump hook or turning into Green, instead of settling for his too-often used turn around fade away. Given his advantage in height, the large wingspan, and the position at which the ball is placed above his head while shooting, there should be no way in hell for Green to even come near blocking his shot. We need the aggressive L-Train who ran wild on the Thunder at the tail end of last year, going off for 35 points and 18 rebounds.
The only bigs which play for the Thunder are Kristic and Collison, both not noted for their defense nor shot blocking, which plays perfectly into the hands of Bayless, who loves to get to the rim first and ask questions later. They may play off of him at first, much as Portland should do against Westbrook, but if he gets the ball off of a screen or in transition, there should be no hesitation to get to the goal constantly.
Tonight likely will not define the Trail Blazers season, but it will be a test of their character. They played with a little self pity against the Lakers of all times last time out and it will be interesting to see if the fire from the 4th quarter of the San Antonio game is back or not. If the squad comes out revved up and ready to go, they will win. No statistical goals needed to win tonight. It all comes down to a want and will to succeed and I think the team will do so, knowing it is the last home game before the break and a feeling of embarrassment after the L.A. game.
Game 54 Prediction: Trail Blazers 103 Thunder 97
Post-Game Thoughts
Any time a team shoots 3-20 from downtown, commits 24 turnovers, and only gets to the foul line 14 times compared to Oklahoma City's 28 trips, it usually is a recipe for disaster and frankly, was amazing Portland held a two point lead heading into the 4th period in spite of it all. Once again without their superstar Brandon Roy, the Blazers went into a two lulls at the worst possible moments. Not unlike other recent home games, Portland got behind 2-15 before working their way back into the game. Heading into the 4th with a lead, another drought hit the Blazers and their lead turned into an 11 point deficit. Especially without Roy, but even with him in the lineup, a team that lives by the jump shot will die by the jump shot. Portland did outscore the Thunder 40-30 in the paint, but when the going got tough, all we settled for were jumpers. It just seemed like every move wasn't made with a purpose and the decision making was poor to be honest. I have no idea what is up with these guys lately, but the passing has been lacking in common sense and fundamentals.
Durant ended up with 33 points but it took him 25 shots to do so and grabbed 11 rebounds as well. Batum played pretty good defense on KD, but when he is hitting his jumper, as he was in the 4th, there isn't much you can do about it. He doesn't attack the hoop as much as I would want my superstar to do, but when he did, he showed much more maturity from the last time I saw him play by drawing an additional defender and dropping it off for his big man to get either a dunk or foul shots. He definitely is an assassin on offense, but I still don't think he would have pushed this group over the top as his defense leaves a lot to be desired and do we really want another jump shooter?
On the plus side, Dante Cunningham added a new career-high to his belt last night, going off for 14 points (7-12) and grabbing 6 boards in only 21 minutes of action. Dante was really the only Trail Blazer hitting from the outside, yet he played zero minutes in the 4th quarter when we were desperate for points. I can understand playing Howard if we were using him for his entry passes, because none of our guards were handling the ball well at all and the high-low was working to perfection in the 3rd, because they were front Aldridge all game long. But, we went away from the high-low, so why not bring in Cunningham to spread the floor? Role players like DC are exactly what this team will need for future deep playoff pushes and I hope he is a Trail Blazer for a very long time. Everything he does, from his hustle to his mid-range game, impresses me. He has an extremely high basketball IQ and sticks to his strengths and doesn't try to be someone he isn't out on the court.
Portland is very lucky that CP3 went down for New Orleans and Memphis and Houston are struggling just as bad as we are right now, otherwise there would be no way we would even be in the playoff hunt right now. I urge all Blazer fans to not get too down on the team, even though they are in a funk. Once Brandon comes back, he will take over and be the leader/superstar that he is and lead us into the playoff chase, because he makes everyone's job on the court that much easier. I mean, don't give the team a pass for playing poorly, because there have been games over this 10 game stretch which we should have won, but it is tough to play without your best player for nearly a month.
Official Game Photos
Box Score


  1. It was amazing how quickly the Blazers offense fell apart when OKC took away our FIRST OPTION by fronting LA. Nate had absolutely no answer for that. It was like he was stunned- "Why can't we get the ball to LA???? Keep trying!" Sad. When your entire offensive philosophy revolves around getting one player hot (LA at the start, Roy at the end), you become very easy to defend.

  2. Agreed! It worked in the 3rd when Juwan worked the high post and threw it up top to LA for two easy buckets. Where was the over the top pass all game long? There's no way Green or Ibaka will get to the ball as long as you through it up high enough.