Fifty-one. That’s the number of wins the Oklahoma City Thunder have collected so far in 2012-13. Two. That’s the number of teams in the NBA with more wins than OKC. Those two teams, in case you haven’t paid attention to the league this season, are the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
Over the course of 33 wins, the Blazers have beaten the Spurs twice and the Heat once. Portland is currently 0-2 against the Thunder, having lost in OKC at the start of the season by six and then again in January at home by four.
When this season is officially over and done with, there are a few things about this Blazer team that will stand out. Of those things, the fact that Portland plays to the level of the competition might be the most confusing and probably the most frustrating. The Blazers looked like a mid-level playoff team when they beat Miami in Portland, they looked like a potential four or five seed when they beat the Spurs first at home and then by 30 in San Antonio.
But against teams like the Washington Wizards (who swept the Blazers this season), and the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets (two teams that have combined for fewer wins than OKC has had all season and have beaten the Blazers a combined four times in seven games), Portland has looked every bit the lottery team they probably are.
The Blazers have yet to play up to the level of the Oklahoma City Thunder. They have a chance to correct that Sunday.
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, PG Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins
Oklahoma City is about as tough as it gets for Portland, match-up wise. What Portland does well, OKC does better. What the Blazers don’t do well, the Thunder do well. Where Portland really struggles, Oklahoma City excels.
Russell Westbrook is arguably the most athletic guard in the league. Offensively, he’ll be a nightmare for Damian Lillard who has trouble with his on the ball defense. Defensively, Russ will make Damian work very hard to get buckets. Sunday is going to be a long night for Portland’s next Rookie of the Year. The best Dame came hope for is that Westbrook beats himself. That OKC’s point guard is one of the worst decision makers late in games helps, but it can’t be counted on.
Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. Nicolas Batum is on the short-list for Most Improved Player of the year award (or at least he is in my opinion), but he is no Kevin Durant.
Outside of Durant and Westbrook, one of three match-ups tilt in Portland’s favor, but that’s not really enough. LaMarcus Aldridge is better across the board than Serge Ibaka (expect at shot blocking). Unfortunately, the Blazers’ advantage at power forward is lessened some considering that LA is Portland’s first option on offense and Ibaka is OKC’s third or fourth. Ibaka gets a lot of open looks, considering most defenses focus their attention on Durant and Westbrook, that he’s been knocking down those open looks has turned him into a borderline All-Star.
The combined match-ups of Thabo Sefolosha versus Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson versus Kendrick Perkins is basically a push. Matthews has an advantage over Sefolosha, but the limitations of Hickson’s offensive game will be exposed by the kind of defense that will be played by Perkins.
What to Watch For
- Eric Maynor vs. Reggie Jackson. Portland’s newest acquisition makes his return to Oklahoma City on Sunday. Maynor wasn’t drafted by the Thunder, but it was in OKC (where he was traded during his rookie season) that he became one of the top back-ups in the league. It was also in Oklahoma where Maynor, after an injury, was replaced by Reggie Jackson. Oklahoma City’s current back-up point guard has developed in the image of the Thunder’s starter. Jackson has an athletic style of play that could be difficult for Maynor to keep up with. However, Maynor has an incentive to play well in front of his old home crowd that might be able to give him the head to head advantage.
- Can Portland keep somebody other than Durant or Westbrook from beating them. Conventional wisdom might say the Blazers should let everybody on the Thunder do whatever they want and focus their defense entirely on stopping Durant and Westbrook. I’m going to advise the opposite. KD and Russ are probably the best twosome in the West, but they aren’t going to win this game, or any game, all by themselves. They need help every night, and every night they get it. If Portland can keep OKC’s other guys from going off, they’ll give themselves a chance to win this game. Similarly, if Kevin Martin or Thabo Sefolosha or anybody not named Kevin or Russell score more than their average, the Blazers are toast.
- Bench play. Here is where this game is going to get interesting for Portland. When we talk about depth, real depth, we’re talking about teams like the Thunder. OKC goes 10 deep. In truth, they can go 15 deep if they have to. Kevin Martin and Nick Collison are the bench players that can make this game very difficult for the Blazers. Meyers Leonard has to continue his streak of strong play, but somebody else off Portland’s bench is going to have to do something. Will Barton is the only bench player other than Leonard and Maynor who have seen any minutes at all recently. Barton is capable of having a decent game, the Blazers need to hope he has one on Sunday. If it’s not Barton, it needs to be somebody. Portland needs a boost off their bench if they want to beat one of the best benches in the league.