First Round Preview: Thunder vs. Trailblazers

thunder blazers

What have you done for me lately? If you are the Oklahoma City Thunder, you should go confidently into your first round match-up with the Portland Trailblazers. The Thunder just finished a regular season in which they swept the season series against division rival Portland, 4-0. But just as the slogan says about the postseason: it’s a new season.

The Portland team the Thunder will face in the playoffs will not be the same Portland team they faced in the regular season. The season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic late in the season wipes away a source of familiarity the Thunder are used to seeing from Portland. The entire dynamic of this series changed the minute Nurkic went down in the 73rd game of the season. Logic would have you think this benefits Oklahoma City. But in a weird way, that dynamic may be slanted more towards Portland.

The Thunder swept the season series against Portland in part because they matched up so well with them. Russell Westbrook can play Damian Lillard to, at worst, a draw. CJ McCollum has a bit of a feast or famine thing going when he faces the Thunder. And Nurkic is one of the few centers in the league that plays similar to Steven Adams.

With that personnel, the Thunder, as a whole, were able to stay static in their schemes. Now, the Thunder may have to change the way they play the Trailblazers. With Nurkic out, Portland will likely start former Thunder center Enes Kanter in his place. But with Kanter’s well-chronicled struggles on the defensive end, the Trailblazers may have to adjust in a different direction. The most logical scenario is for them to play a bit smaller with Meyers Leonard getting heavy minutes at the center position. And that is where the angst may begin for the Thunder.

Taking Adams out of the paint clears the lane for dribble-drives toward the basket. Those drives then tend to open up clear looks from deep, which the Trailblazers can hit with precision. As a team, the Trailblazers hit 36% from deep this season, which was good for 9th in the league.

Portland went 7-2 in the remaining nine games after Nurkic went down. Not a whole lot should be gleaned from that based on the level of competition the Trailblazers faced in that time-frame. They played six team that finished under .500, one team that finished .500, and Denver twice. And there was nothing that suggested their style of play had changed. They shot about one more three than normal and their pace of play actually slowed.

But honestly, none of those numbers matter. The only numbers that matter currently are 0 and 0. No, not Westbrook versus Lillard. But that the series is tied 0-0. A lot in sports is about psyche, and if the Thunder come into this series reflecting on the successes of their regular season past against Portland and acting like they are the favorites, they could find themselves punched in the mouth real quick on Sunday.

Schedule

Date Time (CST) Location
Game 1 Sunday, 14 April 2019 2:30 Moda Center, Portland, OR
Game 2 Tuesday, 16 April 2019 9:30 Moda Center, Portland, OR
Game 3 Friday, 19 April 2019 8:30 Chesapeake Energy Arena, OKC, OK
Game 4 Sunday, 21 April 2019 8:30 Chesapeake Energy Arena, OKC, OK
Game 5* Tuesday, 23 April 2019 TBD Moda Center, Portland, OR
Game 6* Thursday, 25 April 2019 TBD Chesapeake Energy Arena, OKC, OK
Game 7* Saturday, 27 April 2019 TBD Moda Center, Portland, OR
* – If necessary

 Three Big Things

1. Can Steven Adams be selfish?

It’s never been in Steven Adams’ nature to be selfish on the basketball court. But for the Thunder to win this series, Adams may need to be the best version of himself to take advantage of the absence of Nurkic. He and Kanter are going to battle for boards. But in those times that Portland coach Terry Stotts has someone else out there (Leonard, Zach Collins, or Skal Labissiere), Adams needs to make the pay on the boards and with interior scoring.

2. Paul George’s shoulder

It’s not a matter of if he’s going to play. It’s a matter of how he’ll play and how long before he re-injures the shoulder again. Here’s a video via Royce Young of Paul George after Friday’s practice.

3. Russell Westbrook’s Legacy

Westbrook’s legacy as a partner in crime was cemented by the eight seasons he and Kevin Durant shared in OKC. Four trips to the Western Conference Finals, one trip to the Finals, etc. But Westbrook’s legacy as the leading man hasn’t been quite as stellar. Two first round exits. For him to shake that narrative, he at least needs to get out of this round of the playoffs.

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