After a convincing 112-101 win over New Orleans to start this quick, two-game road trip, Portland (44-29) heads to the mid-west to battle Oklahoma City (44-27). If last Sunday's game against Phoenix was the biggest of the year, than this is the 2nd biggest to date. The Phoenix loss really put Portland in a hole in regards of climbing out to catch the Suns, which likely won't happen now after losing. While it won't be as hard to catch the Thunder if the Blazers drop one tonight, it may still be out of the question considering how consistent OKC has been this year, never losing more than three straight this year. Two things in Portland's favor tonight are the fact they have already won in OKC earlier this season, 83-74, and are an incredible 13-3 on the second half of back to backs. Back on November 1st, Portland was able to hold Kevin Durant to 16 points on 3-20 shooting. Now, I highly doubt he shoots that poorly again, but Batum was unavailable for action that night, meaning it was Webster's fingerprints all over the job that night done on Durant. Obviously, Batum vs. Durant is the matchup Trail Blazer fans everywhere want to see, but if Nico gets in foul trouble or just needs a breather, it'll be imperative for Marty to make defense priority #1 tonight. If the Blazers can keep Durant around his average of 30 points but force him into more than 20 shots in doing so as well as keeping him off the free throw line his third best 10.0 times a night, consider it a successful night on Durant. Nico needs to use his length to give Durant a little space, enticing him to shoot jump shots, rather than attack the middle. If he kills us with jumpers, so be it, but its better than him getting into the paint for cheap buckets all while getting our bigs in foul trouble at the same time. The game is going to be won or lost at the charity stripe tonight for the Trail Blazers. During their 89-77 loss on February 9th, the Thunder attempted twice as many free throws as the Blazers, 28 to 14. Granted, Portland was without Roy and had not yet acquired Marcus Camby, but in such a low scoring game with all other statistics comparable, it was their ability to get to the stripe which was the difference. OKC really possess only one legit big man in Kristic and he is further away from being a defensive nightmare than I am from being a member of Cirque Du Soleil. Andre needs to use his veteran craftiness to bait Westbrook into some fouls while Aldridge must use his size advantage in owning Green down on the blocks. I think Portland must get to the stripe at least 20 times tonight to have a chance, because you can't expect your starters to shoot over 75% from the floor once again, let alone on back to back nights. Although each Blazer stater has a Player Efficiency Rating above 17 and have carried the Trail Blazer load the previous two games, it's foolish to think they can perform at this level for the remainder of the season. All elite teams have benches they can rely upon and right now, ours is too sporadic to lean on in times of need. Tonight, that must change. Bayless has looked a little better, letting the game come to him rather than rushing each movement out there. Rudy has been more aggressive on defense, playing the passing lanes, but his patented three-point shooting has been off, a little too off. His percentage from beyond the arc is down from 39.9% lat season to 37.5% this year and has hit a recent cold streak, hitting only 3 of his last 14 over the course of the last three games. Marty has been down right chilly since his hot January, but I did like his play late in the game against New Orleans. He didn't settle for contested jumpers, rather he put the ball on the floor and got to the line or made a play for someone else. The bottom line is our core bench of Howard, Bayless, Webster, and Fernandez is on another level compared to the Thunder's Harden, Maynor, Ibaka, and Collison. I'm not asking for much, but the 2nd unit needs to account for at least 20 points and not only sustain the intensity left from the starters but increase it. Portland is on a roll right now, winning 12 of their last 15 games, but not until the prior two wins they hadn't beat anyone worthy of writing home about. Both wins lately had been complete team efforts with great ball movement and suffocating defense. I look for this trend to continue mainly due to our superb veterans. I don't see OKC getting many offensive rebounds or keeping Portland off the glass with Camby and Aldridge's length inside and while we can throw Webster and Batum at Durant, who is going to slow down B-Roy when he's dialed in? Thabo, Please! At home, I think Roy feels more comfortable getting his teammates off to a good start first, but on the road, Brandon loves to assert himself to get the team's engine running. He's been incredibly efficient lately, and if he scores anywhere in the 25 point range on less than 15 shots, there is no way Portland doesn't walk away victorious. Portland will come out of the gates like a bat out of hell and never relinquish the lead. Dre frustrates the young Westbrook, Aldridge abuses the smaller Green, and the legend of Batum will continue to grow tonight as he gives Durant fits all night long. Game 74 Prediction: Trail Blazers 104 Thunder 91 Post-Game Thoughts This game was a classic case of experience defeating youth. Portland was in the exact same position as OKC last season, full of young, exciting talent that has never been tested in playoff-type environments. What a difference our three veteran players can make as Camby, Andre, and Juwan always had an answer when the Thunder came calling. Only twice did Portland trail in the game and each time only by one point. Every single time Portland upped the lead to 6-10 points, OKC would storm back but could never fully grasp the momentum, thanks in large part to said veterans. In particular, Andre had at least three one man fast breaks, Camby hits a foul line jumper off the dribble late in the 3rd to thwart OKC's run, and Juwan floated in the last Blazer field goal to put us up five with under two minutes to play. In a game that saw Portland get outplayed statistically, the added experience is an intangible asset not seen in box scores. "It was a gut check for our guys," said Blazer coach Nate McMillan. "We have been talking about winning back-to-back games. Just a lot of things we threw out as challenges for our guys. The fact that Oklahoma City was right in front of us (in the standings), we had an opportunity to close the gap on them." Speaking of being dominated by the box score, I don't think getting out-blocked 10-3, out-shot from the foul line 25-17, and getting out-rebounded 41-34 are long-term recipes for success. Don't blame the starters though, as each had a +/- rating of at least three. Our bench nearly gave away the game on several occasions, blowing each lead the first unit built. Rudy didn't even attempt a shot, Jerryd's shining moments included a three minute span where he hit a long-jumper and successfully operated the fast-break but for the most part looked out of sync all night, and Juwan, outside of a couple jump shots, got absolutely annihilated on the glass by Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka. All in the all, the Thunder bench tallied 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks compared to Portland's 12 points, 2 rebounds, and zero blocks. Yes, the team has won 13 of their last 16, but our starters can not simply continue to shoulder this much of the load. Juwan, I'll give a pass, because he has surpassed all expectations and shouldn't be expected to manhandle the boards on a nightly basis at his age. Bayless needs to just play under control and have a plan when he attacks. Help-side defenses just salivate every time he drives the ball, because he doesn't find the open man enough, instead throws up a shot which gets sent into the 5th row. Rudy may be hurting, but he needs to find his stroke and give this team the boost he gave us early on his rookie year while Marty needs to know he's getting 10 minutes of run a night and just go all out with confidence. Have no fear of getting pulled and just have fun out there. People can talk about Durant being in the MVP talk or the next Jordan or whatever, and he is a very good player, not great, I need to wait and see what he does come playoff time before dubbing him "greatness", but I still see more McGrady in his game than Jordan. Make no mistake about it, he is an athletic freak: 6'10" with quickness, handles, range to boot. But I've yet to see him hit clutch shots. Last night was a perfect example. He was the reason his team was even in the game at all with his 13-15 effort at the charity stripes, but he missed every single field goal attempt in the 4th quarter and his shot selection was sketchy at best, pulling up for threes well beyond the arc. Until he can find that "it" factor in crunch time that players such as Roy, Bryant, and Wade obtain, he'll just be another fun scorer to watch. Maybe a lot of you out there think I am being too harsh on the third year, 22-year old player, and I probably am. But when he is being anointed as the second coming by all media outlets, its time to bring his game back down to earth. I felt Batum did a tremendous job getting physical with him and, for the most part, keeping him out of the paint, forcing him into jump shots. Roy had 22 points and 7 assists, but it wasn't a typical Roy night as it took him 22 shots to do his damage and Aldridge had his moments, but 14 points and 6 rebounds weren't the deciding factors last night. Rather it was Marcus Camby and Andre Miller leading the charge once again. Early on the the game, as Portland built their nine point first quarter lead, Kristic was active, getting his hands on every rebound, but who was there to always have the last tap and guide it to a teammate? Marcus Camby. Without him, we lose this game and many others and he gives the team a presence inside and as much as we love Joel and Greg, Marcus is capable of making a shot outside of five feet every now and then. He just always makes the right play. Re-signing him should be priority #1 this summer. On to Andre, what more can I say that already hasn't? He fully exposed Russell Westbrook for the young pup that he is and took every advantage to get the Trail Blazers easy buckets. With the way our entire starting 5 is gelling and if we can get any consistency from the bench, 50+ wins is a lock. "Tonight felt like a playoff game with their crowd," said Blazers center Marcus Camby, who had 11 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. "They have a great fan base here. It definitely felt like a playoff game." Official Game Photos Box Score
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