Without their leader and superstar, Brandon Roy and coming off an emotional victory in Los Angeles, the Trail Blazers (49-31) take on the Thunder (49-31) in a game that decides who avoids the Lakers in round 1 of the playoffs. While the Trail Blazers are soaring high after knocking off the Lakers in Staples Center, the Thunder are feeling the polar opposite after blowing not only a 42 point first quarter but a 20 point lead in the Bay Area against the Warriors last night. Portland leads the season series to date, 2-1, with each team winning on the others home floor, including the most recent matchup on March 28th, a 92-87 Blazers win. Coincidentally enough, the only game Oklahoma City won occurred during Roy's rehabilitation of his hamstring, causing him to be miss the game and yet again tonight they are going to be the beneficiaries of another lucky break.
In their earlier loss to the Thunder on February 9th, 89-77, Portland actually held a two point lead head going into the final period, but with no Brandon Roy to turn to, the cold shooting Blazers only were able to muster up 16 4th quarter points. Defensively, Portland has their number, holding the Thunder to under 90 points during every game this year, compared to their 101.1 points per game average. Its doubtful the Blazers will be able to score over the century mark, but if they can find a way to score around 95 points tonight, it could be enough to hold off OKC. Luckily for Portland, Webster, Bayless, and Rudy appear to be in much more of a groove, looking to pick up the scoring slack from an absent Roy and anything they provide tonight has to be better than their combined 3-17 shooting last go-round, right?
One night it's Kobe Bryant, the next day it's scoring leader Kevin Durant. Being Portland's best perimeter defender doesn't allow for nights off and just one day after holding Bryant in check to the tune of 8-23 shooting, Nicolas Batum has to refocus and prepare for another scoring assassin. KD has got right near his scoring average, netting 31 a night in two head to head matchups with Batum, but not without challenge as he was contained to 19-43 shooting (44.2%). Like all elite scorers, Durant does his business at the foul line and does it often, getting to the line a league-leading 10.3 times a night, making 9.3 of those attempts. Both Marty and Batum kept Kobe quiet by forcing into a large quantity of contested jump shots combined with suffocating ball denial defense and doing so without fouling, as Kobe attempted only 3 free throws the entire night. A success for our wing defenders tonight would be to make Durant shoot under 45% from the floor and limit him to 8 or less free throw attempts.
One player who gets swept underneath the rug when it comes to the Thunder is jack-of-all-trades forward, Jeff Green. Reminiscent of Antwan Jamison is his ability to not only score inside but drift his game out as far as the three-point line, Green is their quintessential "glue-guy". Durant is bound and determined to get 30, no matter how many shots it takes, but if the Trail Blazers can score more than they did against Dallas when they let Dirk loose but held everyone else in check, they can win the game the same way. Green has been very consistent this year against Portland, keeping extremely close to his season averages in all three games, averaging 16.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.0 assists., so don't expect Green to not produce. To keep him from exploding for 25+, Aldridge must make sure most of his [Green's] energy is spent trying to keep him [Aldridge] off the blocks. A fiery Aldridge is something the Thunder are not equipped to handle, especially if Nenad Kristic isn't able to go after a bruised knee kept him out of last night's game against the Warriors.
Injuries have forced both squads to thin out their bench and put quality reserves into the starting lineup. It will be a test to see which 2nd units want it more. Although Portland won the last meeting, it wasn't in any part due to their bench, getting outscored 23-12 and losing the rebounding edge 14-2. One player Portland must keep an eye on at all times is young forward Serge Ibaka, who during the month of April is putting up season-highs in points, 9.5, rebounds, 7.3, and minutes, 20.3. One player who the Trail Blazers should call upon is rookie Dante Cunningham to ignite the offense and scrap for loose rebounds. In the last game against OKC in the Rose City, Cunningham was the only Blazer who was locked in from the field, shooting 7-12 for 14 points and grabbing 6 off the glass. Even though the reserves have only played well for the last two games, I see the trend continuing tonight. Marty's confidence has to be through the roof after his huge 4th quarter, Bayless, at one point, scored 7 straight for Portland yesterday in the 2nd half, Old Man River seemingly is there whenever we need a foul line jumper, and Dante always seems ready for the challenge. The Blazers bench outplays their counterparts, Durant gets his but others are negated, and the Aldridge/Camby front-line are just too much inside for the Thunder to handle.
Game 81 Prediction: Trail Blazers 94 Thunder 90Post-Game Thoughts
This team, this town, and these fans never cease to amaze me. Literally 45 minutes before tip-off, the inevitable bad news regarding Roy's injury about his knee leaks out, delivering a gut check for everyone with Blazer ties. I can't lie, for a moment I had my "woe is me" moment, but quickly refocused my energy towards the guys who will be suiting up tonight. In a game that both teams desperately needed, the Trail Blazers and fans worldwide wanted it so much more. The term playoff atmosphere gets thrown around way to lightly, mostly without any merit being held behind it, but tonight was the exception. Portland used a 10-0 run to start the 3rd, taking a 2 point lead after seeing the Thunder control the entire first half aided by Aldridge's 3 fouls. What was so magical about the Garden last night occurred during the 21-4 Portland run over the span of six minutes in the 4th quarter. At around the four minute mark, the Rose Garden faithful all rose as one and stood and cheered deafening chants for the rest of the game, including one of the best synchronized and loud ones of all-time. As he checked out of the game, Camby was serenaded with chants of "Mar-cus Cam-bee, Mar-cus Cam-Bee."
"Haven't heard anything like that since I was in the (Madison Square) Garden," said Camby, who played his home games there for New York from 1998-2002. "Felt good to be appreciated, but they should have been cheering the whole team."
"We weathered the storm without B-Roy. Being down by eight points at halftime and pulling out this game in a back-to-back situation shows a lot of character and heart by our whole team."
We were cheering for the whole team Marcus, but you deserved a little extra recognition for a simply sensational performance with the stakes stacked so high. Every single time Portland needed a bucket to stay alive, especially in the first half with LA out with 3 fouls and a hobbled Roy, Camby was always around the ball either tipping in numerous shots or grabbing offensive rebounds to prolong possessions. He stepped up, taking his game to new heights by doing things not many of us new he had in his arsenal, such as putting the ball on the floor in order to get to the line and even running the fast break. When it was all said and done, Camby tallied 30 points (12-16 fg, 6-8 ft), 13 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block in 36 clutch minutes. Portland fans are very sly as well as I believe there could have been an ulterior motive behind the praise. While the chants were much deserving, the showering of affection towards Marcus from the fans will linger in his mind this summer when deciding where to finish up his career up. If he didn't know he was wanted before, I think the point is loud and clear now.
In the first half it seemed like Durant was going to put on a performance of Biblical proportions, scoring 21 points, getting to the line 9 times, and doing so on only 7 field goal attempts. Coach Nate showed his troops some first half game film and changes were made coming out of the locker room which really flustered KD. Martell and Nico both denied him the ball much better, if he got it at all, it was three feet beyond the three-point line. Different looks were thrown at him, including a trap out top and just putting the paint on lock for him, only giving up one free throw attempt in the 2nd half, which came off of a Nate McMillan technical. When it was all said and done, Webster and Batum held him to just 3-13 shooting and 9 points in the 2nd half and it wasn't just Durant missing makeable shots. Both defenders were up in his grill the entire half, forcing deep, contested jump shots throughout the final 24 minutes. Durant ended the night with his average of 30 and 10 trips to the charity stripe, but on only 8-20 shooting, 5 rebounds, and 3 turnovers.
"We weren't playing our roles at the defensive end of the floor in the first half," McMillan said. "In the second half, if there was an opportunity to switch out and deny, we did it. We wanted to body him and wear him down, and we wanted to double-team him in isolation on certain parts of the floor. And we kept him off the free throw line the second half. That was a key."
With the win, Portland avoids the Lakers, giving that unenviable task to the young Thunder, but maybe more important than all of these playoff scenarios was the way the Trail Blazers responded to adversity for the umpteenth time this year. Knowing the fate of their superstar's knee and the realistic possibility he won't even be 75% for the playoffs, if there at all, instead of choosing to sulk, they rose above everything and played with heart, passion, and intensity. They have realized how hard it has been to simply be in the position the team is at right now and don't want to waste seven months of hard work. It wouldn't be their style. Call me naive, but with the veteran presence of Camby and Miller, Aldridge looking more and more like an All-Star forward, and a coach who is impressing the hell out of me with each passing game, I can see Portland wreaking a lot of havoc this post-season, similar to the Rockets last year without Tracey and Yao. Also, on a final note, 60 point in the paint from the Trail Blazers last night. If there is one way to win in the playoffs, its forcing the issue down low.
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