It’s pretty easy to draw the 2009 Blazers-2010 Thunder parallels. Both young teams that exceeded expectations, with writers in the preseason thinking they were making sleeper picks for the last few spots in the Western Conference playoffs, only to have those teams compete for home-court advantage.
But for some reason, you aren’t hearing as much of the “They’re too young to win a playoff series” talk as Portland heard around this time last season. Maybe we will as we get deeper into April, but at the moment everyone seems so smitten with Kevin Durant (rightfully so) that they throw the youth thing out the window — OKC destroying the Lakers a couple days ago certainly helps their cause. Strangely, I tend to agree more with the way the Thunder are handled this season than the Blazers were handled last season. It will just come down to matchups.
The Thunder have dropped off some, statistically, since the middle portion of the season. They sit at 14th with 107.3 points per 100 possessions and have dropped to sixth in defensive efficiency — 103.4 points per 100 — after being in the top three for a good slice of the year. There’s only 1.2 points per game separating them from the No. 1 Boston Celtics, though, so I wouldn’t come close to saying they’ve become a more average defensive squad.
They’re also great at not turning the ball over while getting to the free-throw line more than any team in the league not named the Denver Nuggets. If the Blazers are playing defense like they have the last two games, rotating early to cut off dribblers, then they’ll be OK. But if they are late on those rotations at all, the Thunder will gladly draw contact as defenders try to recover.
Another point of worry is Oklahoma City’s fantastic offensive rebounding percentages. With Marcus Camby around and LaMarcus Aldridge asserting himself well since early February, the defensive rebounding hasn’t been an issue. But if Nate McMillan goes to the zone defense at all as he has quite often recently, it will be tough to prevent losing a couple possessions.
In the playoff picture, OKC is one game ahead of Portland in the sixth spot, with Portland and San Antonio tied for the seventh (though the Spurs lead by percentage points). With the Spurs playing a rejuvenated Celtics team in Boston tonight, a win could very well mean Portland sitting in a tie for sixth place. Problem is, any one of Denver, Dallas, Utah or Phoenix could wind up in the three hole, and I want no part whatsoever of Utah in the playoffs.
(Programming Note: We haven’t forgotten about the New Orleans non-game. More on that tomorrow.)