Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook come to Portland after disposing of Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers. Credit: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (20-16) Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (28-8)

Motivation is a hard thing to pin down, especially when applied to professional basketball players. Some are motivated by money; those guys tend to come on strong and fade away once that big contract comes is inked. Some are motivated by making history, or more specifically not being denied their place in history; those guys, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and even LeBron James, will take pay cuts and withstand massive criticism to do their best to guarantee things like Championships. Some are motivated by vanquishing any and all comers all by themselves; those  guys (specifically that one guy named Kobe Bryant) will do anything in his power to ensure he is the most talked about player in the league even as his team continues to fail him on an epic scale.

The Blazers are lucky. They’re a team of guys all basically motivated by the same thing. Damian Lillard talks incessantly about being overlooked at every stage of his career. When Wesley Matthews came to Portland, his intention was to try and earn the big contract he’d be given after being un-drafted as a rookie and having only one season under his belt. Nicolas Batum is Wesley Matthews 2.0 with the added weight of having to deal with almost leaving the Blazers for a division rival. LaMarcus Aldridge plays to prove that he’s just as valuable to his organization as his now departed co-draftee Brandon Roy. And J.J. Hickson is playing to prove be waived by the Sacramento Kings was an indication of that’s organization’s dysfunction and not his lack of professional talent.

From top to bottom, the Blazers are motivated by trying to prove to the league that they belong. That goes nicely with the way they’ve played this season, considering that almost 40 games into 2012-13, their team motivation is now to keep playing into the post season.

Unfortunately, Portland’s Sunday opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is arguably the most motivated team in the NBA. Their motivation isn’t to belong; their motivation is prove that they are the best team in the league. So far, it’s hard to argue against them.

OKC comes into the Rose Garden with the best record in the NBA, coming off a blowout victory of the floundering Lakers in front of a Staples Center crowd that is salivating for the 2016-17 season when LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kevin Durant are all free agents and AT LEAST one of them is heading to Los Angeles.

The Blazers return home after a remarkable showing in Golden State Friday. Considering Portland’s first game of the Heat/Warriors back-to-back was their biggest and most emotional win of the season, that they didn’t roll over in the face of a very good Golden State team should speak volumes.

So the question for Sunday is, which team is going to be more motivated. The Blazers are hot, looking like a seven or eight finisher. The Thunder are number one. The best team doesn’t want to lose to the new hot team. The new hot team doesn’t want to be made a fool of by the biggest dog on the block.

Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson

Thunder Starting 5: PG Russell Westbrook, SG Thabo Sefolosha, SF Kevin Durant, PF Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins

Oklahoma City is basically a match-up nightmare for Portland. Not because OKC thrives in the places Portland is weak, but because the Blazers’ strengths are the Thunder’s strengths only the Thunder’s strengths are stronger. Does that make sense?

OK here’s what I mean. Portland’s best offensive options in the last two contests have been Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, the point guard and the small forward positions. On Sunday, their opponents at those positions? Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

Say what you will about Russ and his ability/inability to play smart or make clutch decisions, he is one of the most athletic players in the league. He’s a top 10 player, a top five point guard, and he improves every single season. As for Kevin Durant, he’s the second best player in the league, and only because LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet.

What about at the power forward position? Do I think LaMarcus Aldridge is better than Serge Ibaka? Of course I do. However, LA is option number one for Portland, even in Nic and Dame are playing the best offense for the Blazers right now. Ibaka is option number three for the Thunder. Serge is also a better defender than LaMarcus. He’s going to hound LA when LaMarcus has the ball on offense. When the ball switches directions, he’s going to pull LaMarcus away from the basket with his much improved jump shooting, and punish the Blazers as a team when they double KD or Russ.

The center position is very much the same deal. J.J. Hickson is a worker. He crashes the glass, and scores all of his points by cleaning up his teammates’ misses. You know who else that describes? Kendrick Perkins. Perkins is like J.J. Hickson, just a little bit better, and on a better team.

Portland’s only advantage in the starting five is at the shooting guard position. Wesley Matthews is a better shooter and more important offensive player than Thabo Sefolosha. That being said, Sefolosha is a decent spot-up shooter. If Wes guards Thabo instead of Durant or Westbrook, there’s a chance Thabo stays out by the three-point line, making it basically impossible for Wesley to play the second double-team defender. The solution isn’t to put Wesley on Westbrook though and let Lillard check Sefolosha as a way to hide arguably Portland’s weakest on the ball defender on OKC’s least important offensive weapon. Thabo will have no problem shooting over Dame all night long.

What to Watch For

  • Can Damian take his offensive game to the next level. Dame played the best game of his career in his hometown return. His 37-point seven-three pointer outing basically locked up his third straight Rookie of the Month award. He proved he can effectively take over Portland’s offense. Now he needs to prove that he can do be the Blazers’ best weapon on a regular basis. The Thunder are going to double team LaMarcus Aldridge when he catches the ball. If Dame can make OKC turn their defensive focus to him, he can help facilitate a big offensive night for LA. Lillard took 25 shots against the Warriors. Look for him to get up to around 20 field goal attempts against the Thunder
  • Will Portland’s bench be able to survive. I broke down only the staring five match-ups for a reason, nobody wants to read about Portland’s bench versus Oklahoma City’s. The Thunder will roll out Kevin Martin (a scoring machine), Nick Collison (one of the best rebounding/inside scoring big men off the bench in the NBA), and Reggie Jackson (Russell Westbrook Junior). The Blazers bench is the Blazers bench. Eight points from Portland’s reserves beat the Miami Heat. Twenty points from the Blazers’ bench wasn’t enough to beat the Warriors. There’s no telling what kind of impact Portland’s reserves can have on a game. If the Blazers’ second unit gets absolutely torched by OKC’s, Portland has no chance.
  • Kevin Durant versus Nicolas Batum. KD is the best small forward in the Western Conference (again only second in the league to LeBron James). Nicolas Batum is pretty close to being the second-best small forward in the West. Batum probably won’t make this season’s All-Star Game, even though he probably should. Kevin Durant could be this season’s MVP. Sunday, they go head-to-head. Nic takes a lot of pride in playing well against the best. Expect him to to take it upon himself to stop Kevin Durant as much as humanly possible. Whether or not that means anything remains to be seen.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Tags: Blazers Damian Lillard Kevin Durant Nicolas Batum Russell Westbrook Thunder

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