Game Details: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, OK. 5:00 PM. TV: KGW, ESPN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM).
Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6’3″, Utah), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6’8″, France), PF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7″, Alabama), C LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas)
Projected Oklahoma City Starting Lineup: PG Russell Westbrook (#0, 6’3″, UCLA), SG Thabo Sefolosha (#2, 6’7″, Switzerland), SF Kevin Durant (#35, 6’9″, Texas), PF Serge Ibaka (#9, 6’10”, Congo), C Kendrick Perkins (#5, 6’10”, Clifton J. Ozen High School)
There’s a decent chance that tonight’s game could serve as a preview of the first round of the playoffs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently sitting at fourth place in the Western Conference, while the Blazers are a game and a half out of fifth place. The Blazers matched up pretty well with the Thunder in November—if Portland had been capable of holding a fourth-quarter lead early in the season they would lead the season series 2-0. However, both teams made significant deals at the deadline. The Blazers, of course, acquired Gerald Wallace, while the Thunder traded forwards Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic to the Celtics for center Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robinson.
At their core, the Thunder are still centered around the same two players: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I don’t need to tell you how good Durant is. Having Gerald Wallace as well as Nicolas Batum to put on him will help, but ultimately the Blazers will consider tonight a success if they can hold him under 30. It’s Westbrook, though, that has been the difference-maker for Oklahoma City. The third-year point guard has forced his way into the Paul-Williams-Rondo discussion for tops at the position. Westbrook has been awesome for my fantasy team but not so awesome for the Blazers to play against. He scored 28 points the first time they played, and 36 in the rematch. The Blazers will have their work cut out for them containing both him and Durant. They may have to be happy with limiting one of them.
The rest of the Thunder roster is filled out with solid role players like Robinson, guard James Harden, forward Nick Collison, center Serge Ibaka, and swingman Thabo Sefolosha. None of these guys jump out on paper as players who can kill you, but when the lion’s share of defensive focus is placed on two players, any one of them is capable of making opponents pay. Luckily, the Blazers’ new lineup gives them greater defensive flexibility. It will take all of Batum’s and Wallace’s collective strengths to stop Durant, which will free up Wesley Matthews or Rudy Fernandez to take Westbrook. Everything else will depend on how well they do those jobs.
The Blazers are, of course, coming off their biggest home win of the season off Batum’s buzzer-beating tip-in against the Spurs. While that was one of the most thrilling finishes in Blazers history and likely will be the source of some momentum tonight, they have no room to coast against Oklahoma City. The Thunder are tough, especially at home, and there are ten games left in the season, which puts the Blazers under pressure not to drop games unnecessarily, lest they slip back to seventh or eighth place and a first-round matchup against the Lakers or Spurs.