- Tip-off: 8:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
PORTLAND – The thing about the modernization of the NBA is that teams are all striving to generate the same things – fast break points, layups, free throws and open three-pointers. And in a sense, the copycat nature of the league helps provide the Thunder a blueprint for what to deal with from game to game. While the personnel all changes, the core aspects of the game that are important from night to night stay the same, and that’ll certainly be the case when Head Coach Billy Donovan’s group clashes with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Thunder’s Northwest Division rival is led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a pair of sharpshooting, dynamic offensive guards who can score from every spot on the floor. The pickup points have to be so high on their pick and rolls because they can shoot it from deep, and that makes covering up the driving, passing and cutting lanes quite the chore.
The problems Portland can cause become even tougher when teams are cross-matched. Because of the Thunder’s versatility, it can simply switch out onto ballhandlers like Lillard and McCollum, but sometimes that plays right into their hands. When Steven Adams, who is more than capable of staying front of guards, switches out to the top of the key, it’s up to the four other Thunder defenders to adopt new roles in their helpside responsibilities.
“We just have to have to take on (Adams’) position. He does a great job already of guarding perimeter guys. Of course there are times he’s going to get beat,” forward Paul George said. “We have to be mindful that he’s up top and whoever is down low has to take his spot and act as the interior stopper, rotating and controlling that paint.”
“It’s something we saw and faced (against the Boston Celtics) and when that opportunity comes back I’m sure we’ll be prepared for that,” George added.
It won’t just be Lillard and McCollum that present problems for the Thunder. Jusuf Nurkic is a load in the lane, able to score in his bruising, physical fashion. Along the wings are Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh and Evan Turner, all of whom can slash to the rim and clean up misses.
The Thunder will need to be the aggressors and string stops together in order to diffuse Portland’s home crowd and the energy they create together, but it will also have to put the ball in the basket too. Both sides of the floor are connected, so the Thunder will need to push the pace in transition, run crisp offensive sets and make sure it’s forcing Portland to work on defense.
“When you miss shots, defense is a grind,” Donovan said. “Anytime you’re making shots you always feel good about yourself.”
Going out onto the road for three straight games, including in Portland where it’s always tough to play, will be another test of the Thunder’s mental stamina. That’s such an elusive quality, but one that is absolutely vital to being able to win on the road and sustain a level of focus through highs and lows of games. It’s something that teams can’t necessarily work on in a traditional sense, but they’re lessons the Thunder can learn from and deal with between games.
“It’s one of those weird things, you just have to be aware,” Adams explained. “It’s having confidence in that, knowing that they’re maybe going to make some sort of adjustments and staying locked in on that aspect. That, and then not taking advantage of the situation. We obviously had a lot of cushion.”
“It’s good to struggle now,” George opined. “This is a long run. We’ll be fine. We starting to shoot it well. We’re starting to find some rhythm. We’re starting to find out how to attack and be aggressive.
– Coming into the game on Friday night, the Thunder knew the Celtics were one of the best rebounding teams in the league. Now Donovan’s group must contend with the team that’s currently number one. The Blazers have a plus-7.4 differential so far this season and are second in offensive rebounds per game, where they’re snatching 27.1 percent of their misses, which is highest in the league. Against Boston, Anthony ripped down 14 rebounds, including three on the offensive end, but did most of his work sealing off defensive stops by ripping down missed shots. He’ll need to be that active again for the Thunder to give itself a chance to finish off possessions the right way.
- “My focus was to attack the glass on the defensive end, get the rebounds and get out going. That helped,” Anthony said.
– The Thunder cut down its fouls in general on Friday, but still went to the free throw line only 14 times compared to Boston’s 24 attempts. One of Donovan’s pet peeve’s sprung up in the third quarter, when the Thunder committed four fouls in the first 4:03 of the period and put the Celtics into the bonus with 6:52 left. That’s nearly seven minutes of having to play loose defense to avoid sending the opposition to the free throw line. In addition, Westbrook picked up five fouls on the night, making it harder for him to stay aggressive personally. That’s something the team wants to be mindful of moving forward.
- “Obviously you want to stay in the game. You have to figure out how to (play without fouling),” Westbrook said. “It takes you off your matchups and you have to maneuver around and do different things.”
– Anthony and George, two All-Star level veterans, provided some nice perspective after the Thunder’s loss to Boston. Both players understand that this is an 82-game pathway that they are walking with their teammates and the coaching staff. They’re working every day to get it all coordinated, but they saw what they know the team should play like every night in Boston’s first half. That’s not just a style they can replicate, it’s what they plan to put on the floor for the remaining 74 games.
- “If we put a full 48 minutes together like we did the first 24 minutes, we steer straight to home,” George said.
- “That’s who we are, that first half. That’s who we are and established ourselves to be,” Anthony added. “That second half, coming out into the third quarter, there were too many mental lapses. That’s not who we are. We know what type of team we are.”