Running back my James Harden picture from the Rip City Basketball Classic to remind those who have forgotten who has the best beard in basketball.

Game 5 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant has done more for the popularity of backpacks than any one person in recent history. Photo courtesy of Bull City State of Mind.

Blazers: 3-1 (2nd Northwest Division)

Thunder: 5-0 (1st Northwest Division)

Game Details: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK. 5:00 PM. TV: CSNW Radio: KXTG (750 AM)

Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1”, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7″, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11″, UMass)

Projected Oklahoma City Starting Lineup: PG Russell Westbrook (#0, 6’3”, UCLA), SG Thabo Sefolosha (#2, 6’7”, Vevey, Switzerland), SF Kevin Durant (#35, 6’9”, Texas), PF Serge Ibaka (#9, 6’10”, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo) C Kendrick Perkins (#5, 6’10”, Clifton J. Ozen High School, Texas)

OK, here we go. Starting 3-0 was awesome. The Rose Garden crowds were rocking, basketball was back in Bridge Town, the Blazers were the dark horse world beaters. Hidden by the third win at home was some sloppy play, a tell-tale sign that there is still work to be done. More sloppy play, bad execution combined with bad luck, and the inability to get bailed out by a home crowd, and Portland is now 3-1. Not the end of the world.

I don’t believe the hype about the Clippers. Yes Chris Paul is a no-doubter for the Hall of Fame, Blake Griffin probably is too. But relying on guys like Caron Butler and Randy Foye to carry heavy offensive loads is suspect, and let’s be honest when the Playoffs start DeAndre Jordan is going to be camping on the free throw line. The Clips are a five seed or a four seed at the very very best. Not bad for a team that hasn’t been relevant for more than one season in its existence, but they aren’t the NBA Champs this year.

Oklahoma City, on the other hand, could be. It’s hard to talk about the Thunder without getting a little emotional. Kevin Durant could have been a Blazer. OKC has followed the trajectory that was expected of the Blazers circa 2008-09. They’re a division rival, meaning Portland will probably be looking up at the Thunder all season long. But let’s try to move beyond all that. The Oden/Durant conversation is a non-starter, nobody would take GO over KD now, and they all would have done what the Blazers did when they did what they did. End of discussion. As far as what became of those 54-28, fourth seeded, Northwest Division C0-Champion Blazers? That’s finished too. Of that roster, the only guys left are LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Again, end of discussion. This is a new team, let’s let them write a new story that has nothing to do with what could have been.

There will be no better way to begin that story than by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in their own house. It’s going to be a tough task, but not an impossible one. To begin, the Blazers are going to have to take care of the ball. If they can keep their turnovers at or around 10 that would be fantastic. It would indicate higher efficiency on offense, along with better decision making by primary ball handlers. It would also show that Portland’s coaching staff has addressed this issue–the main flaw thus far in Portland’s very good offense–and that the team has responded.

Scoring inside would also be nice. OKC has a good defensive core in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s not one that can’t be beaten. LaMarcus Aldridge needs to establish his low-post game early, and Gerald Wallace needs to get the ball and be given the chance to attack the rim. Again, Wallace is going to be a nightmare match-up for the Thunder. He is quick enough to blow-by Ibaka at will, and way to strong to be effectively contained by either Thabo Sefelosha or Kevin Durant.

As far as the defensive end goes, the Blazers will have to do their best to limit Durant. KD is currently averaging 27 points a night, and in five nights (as of this writing the Thunder have yet to take on the Dallas Mavericks, a game that will happen Monday evening in in Texas) he has gone for 30 or more four times, the outlier being Saturday’s systematic beating of the Phoenix Suns in which he played 26 minutes, basically none by his standards of court time.

Wesley Matthews will probably get the assignment early, and that’s good. Wesley likes to be challenged on defense, and he’s the kind of player that will back down from nobody. Nicolas Batum will also get a chance to guard the reigning scoring champ, as will Gerald Wallace, throwing a bunch of different looks at him is a good idea. It might keep him from establishing a rhythm. But the real issue is that nobody can stop him. Portland can’t let KD shoot uncontested shots are get to the rim without ending up on his backside, but they also can’t put blinders on to the rest of the Thunder. Russell Westbrook thinks he’s the best player in the universe, and he shows it by trying to do everything all at once, Ibaka has developed into a scorer, and OKC has a formidable bench. If Portland doesn’t pay attention to those guys, expending all of their efforts on Durant, they will lose.

Kevin Durant is good enough to beat a lot of teams on his own. He’s not good enough to beat Portland without the help of his teammates. The Blazers need to keep KD’s scoring to at or near his average, and not let Westbrook, James Harden, or any other Thunder player go off. It’s a tall order to be sure, but it can be done. Oklahoma City, after-all, hasn’t won anything yet.

Speaking of Harden, he is the anchor of one of the league’s better bench units. Eric Maynor is as good as it gets when it comes to back-up point guards. Daequan Cook is lights out all the time from deep. Nick Collison looks a little like a CPA but will break your face. The Blazers have a strong bench too, and to win on Tuesday they need to win, or at the very least break even, in the battle of the benches.

Tuesday is going to be the first of many big games this season. If Portland wants to be added to the conversation of potential contenders, and I think they should be included and more than that I think this team thinks they should be included, a positive result against Oklahoma City is the place to start.

Here’s some things to look out for:

  • Turnovers: I said it before in this preview, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate. Portland will lose if they can’t get their turnovers under control. Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford especially. They will handle the ball more than anybody else. They need to play smart, and keep OKC from getting easy scores. One of the downsides to Portland getting a bit of national recognition is that players like Felton and Crawford, guys with a reputation for getting a little loose with the ball, might start getting called out. Nipping this problem in the bud will be a good form of damage control. Not that pro basketball players ever listen to what’s being said about them in the news and change their games accordingly. That never happens.
  • Who gets hot on offense: Each night, Portland has had a different leading scorer. I have no problem with that, and the rest of Blazer nation shouldn’t have a problem with it either. Tuesday I’m betting on Gerald Wallace to be the offensive leader; he put up a goose egg in the loss to the Clippers. It would be nice, though, if all of Portland’s scorers got hot at the same time.
  • How will the team respond: Sunday was Portland’s first loss.  One loss can easily become two or three on the road. In this crazy season long skids need to be avoided. The Blazers are a better team than they appeared to be in LA. Hopefully the New Year’s  flatness has subsided, and Portland can get down to business and collect that important first road victory.
  • James Harden: James Harden is my ex-factor. He’s one of my favorite non-Blazer players. He’s fun to watch, and plays a lot like one Brandon Roy. KD will be the guy that throws the body blow that gets you on the ropes; James Harden can be the one to deliver the knockout punch.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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Tags: Blazers Northwest Divison Regular Season Thunder

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