In his post game remarks following Wednesday’s unfortunate loss to the Lakers, Damian Lillard said playing Los Angeles was like the Superbowl. Wednesday’s game was meaningless for the Blazers, but for the Lakers it had make or break playoff potential. Because of the implications for their opponent, Portland had the chance to play the part of spoiler. Even if a win couldn’t resurrect the Blazers’ season, there was something important on the line for the home team.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are not in the same position as the Los Angeles Lakers. OKC is holding off the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference and a date with either the aforementioned Lakers or the Jazz, two teams with just a win apiece over the Thunder in 2012-13, but fighting for the number one seed isn’t exactly the same as win-or-go-home.
The Blazers might be able to drop OKC from first to second in the West, but they can’t spoil the Thunder’s whole season. Wednesday was the Superbowl; Friday is a mid-level bowl game (or more accurately a 12/5 NCAA Tournament game between a mid-major conference champion and a top-tier team from one of the power conferences).
There’s something to be gained by Portland beating the Thunder, even if that something is mostly symbolic, but the odds are not in the home team’s favor.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Will Barton, SF Victor Claver, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C Meyers Leonard
Thunder Starting 5: PG Russell Westbrook, SG Thabo Sefolosha, SF Kevin Durant, PF Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins
I’ve penciled in Portland’s four-rookie starting lineup because that’s what the Blazers used last game and injury-wise it seems unlikely things have changed. Portland’s four-rookie squad flexed some serious offensive muscle in the first quarter of Wednesday’s game against the Lakers. Some of that can be chalked up to four young guys playing against a relatively older squad and taking advantage of what was certainly mass amounts of adrenaline and written off.
However, the combination of a deep threat at point guard, a confident slasher at the two, a big athletic three with range, and a monster seven-footer who can run the floor and consistently knock down 10 to 12 foot jumpers gave the Blazers a strong and efficient offensive team. Throw in LaMarcus Aldridge, whose shoot has looked better and better with each passing game, and there’s a reason Portland hung 41 on the Lakers in Wednesday’s opening frame.
Friday, though, is going to be a different story. Steve Blake and Russell Westbrook are nothing alike, expect they both play the same position in the same league, Thabo Sefolosha is a defensive specialist who will be a nightmare match-up on both ends for Will Barton (especially if Barton decides to help on Kevin Durant and Thabo nails a couple of open threes), and Ibaka and Perkins are a potent front court tandem that (for my money) has more potential than Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
And then, there’s Kevin Durant. Kobe Bryant flirted with half a C in Portland on Wednesday (to the very obvious delight of a large number of transplanted Laker fans), and LA needed every single one of those 47 points. The Thunder won’t need KD to reach Kobe levels of scoring (or at least won’t need Durant to carry such a large percentage of the offense), but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to score a lot. Like A LOT. Victor Claver has shown some potential, especially around the rim on defense (he’s had a couple very nice blocks), but he probably won’t be able to do much to slow down Durant.
Every Blazer is going to have to pitch in to keep KD from going absolutely supernova, though, and that’s where the problems are going to come up. OKC is just too deep for Portland to even contend with. The Blazers might be able to slow down Durant every third or fourth possession, they might even be able to keep one of the Thunder’s “other guys” from having a huge night. But the likelihood that the Blazers (as they stand right now) will be able to stop enough guys on OKC’s roster for long enough to make Wednesday interesting is slim, angling on none.
What to Watch For
- Damian Lillard. Wednesday, Lillard scored 38, had probably his best first half as a professional, and finished the evening with a very rapidly re-tweeted social media endorsement from Kobe. He also was on the losing team, a place he’s found himself at the end of every game since the middle of March. Lillard probably doesn’t want to finish his Rookie of the Year season with 13 straight losses. He’s going to do whatever it takes to get the Blazers one last win in 2012-13. Dame will have his hands full with Russell Westbrook. What Lillard can try to do is score a lot, considering he probably won’t be able to stop Russ. However, the downside of trying to score a lot is playing out of control, taking bad shots, and ignoring your teammates. Lillard needs to find the right balance between calling his own number and getting his fellow Blazers involved. If Dame can have an efficient night on offense, without letting Russell Westbrook score 50, Portland should be able to keep this game relatively close.
- Oklahoma City’s bench. According to one thing I found after 30 seconds of online research, the Miami Heat are 2/1 favorites to win the NBA Championship in 2012-13. The Thunder are a close second at 15/4 (take these odds breakdowns with a grain of salt considering the site I found lists the Clippers as third most likely to win it all this season and lists the Lakers as fifth, ahead of both the Spurs and the Knicks, the number two team in the east). Smart money says bet on the Heat. They’ve been basically unbeatable all season, LeBron James is the best player on the planet, and defensively they’ll be able to stop any offense the Western Conference can throw at them. Oklahoma City has a chance, probably the very best chance of anybody on the left side of the Mississippi. Much of that chance will come because of the Thunder’s bench. Sure they surrendered James Harden, but Kevin Martin has been good in a more limited role than Harden ever needed (or wanted). Reggie Jackson is Russell Westbrook lite, which is not even close to a bad thing. Nick Collison is about as a good as a blue-collar guy in the NBA can be. Hasheem Thabeet and Derrick Fisher aren’t going to lead any bench to the promised land by themselves, but they only have to not mess up all that much in fewer than 20 minutes a night to be effective with OKC. As for the Blazers, Portland’s bench is as thin as it’s ever been at this point. Second-unit scoring differential is going to be a strong indicator in this one. That’s a lot of pressure to put on Sasha Pavlovic.
- Who shows. The Rose Garden looked like Staples Center North Wednesday night. The Lakers are a draw, that’s for sure. The Thunder are becoming a draw, thanks to their recent appearance in the NBA Finals. I’m betting Friday’s not as bad as Wednesday, visiting jersey-wise, but there is going to be a lot of teal in the building. Hopefully that won’t have a negative impact on the game.