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Oklahoma City’s Blueprint for a Series Swing

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Setting the tone early is key to winning NBA playoff games. Doing it against the Portland Trail Blazers seems to be the only way the Oklahoma City Thunder can win. OKC imposed their game plan early in Game 3, turning over Portland three times in the first two minutes of the contest. In order to advance to the next round, the Thunder need to come up with a more comprehensive blueprint for success.

These two teams have a history with each other — they faced off four times in the regular season, all resulting in Thunder wins. The Thunder have played Blazers at their best (January), worst (March), and ugliest (February), and came out on top.

The Blazers have won 12 of their last 15 games, emboldening them with confidence. There is no team in the West you want to see less when they’re confident, especially with a healthy Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Even without Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers are a dangerous first round matchup.

As the Thunder try to win a lopsided 2-1 series, let’s look at the blueprint they used to beat Portland in the regular season.

Keep Portland Under 110 points 

Portland comes into the playoffs with the third-best offense in the league. Slowing them down is a task few can do, but one that is necessary to beating them in a seven-game series.

In 18 of their 29 losses, Portland scored 110 points or fewer. Many of those losses start at the three-point line. When the Blazers aren’t shooting it well from three, their offense sputters. Per Basketball Reference, in 13 of those 18 losses, Portland made less than ten shots from beyond the arc, shooting a collective 22.4% from deep.

Closing out hard on Portland’s shooters will be key for Russell Westbrook and company. Pushing them off the perimeter and into the teeth of a top-ten paint defense is a major key for OKC.

Be a Threat from Beyond the Arc

In their single win this series, the Thunder shot 51.7% from downtown. It wasn’t just Westbrook and George who shot the long ball well. The Thunder trio of Dennis Schroder, Jermai Grant, and Terrance Ferguson combined for 9/12 shooting. When the Thunder are shooting the ball efficiently, they’re a top-five team. They don’t need to light it up from beyond the arc, but shooting at a 16% rate like they have in Portland won’t earn another win.

In OKC’s four-game regular season series against the Blazers they shot 39% from beyond the arc on 104 attempts. Those numbers were the best against all Western Conference opponents, signaling that the Thunder have the ability to step up their shooting.

Over the last five games, OKC has mirrored the elite three-point shooting team they were in January. When the team is clicking from three, it’s hard to stop their offense. Four of Oklahoma City’s five most-played lineups shoot better than 35% from three. This helps create space for the Thunder’s incredible pick-and-roll combinations.

Protect the Ball

In Game 1, OKC’s turnover struggles drowned them, and in Game 2, the points they allowed off turnovers scrubbed their +4 turnover differential. For the first time in this series, the Thunder won both the turnover and points-off-turnover battles. Protecting the ball for a potential seven-game series is paramount to OKC making it to the second round for the first time since 2016.

In the three of the four regular season matchups, OKC posted a negative turnover differential. The sole game they didn’t, Damian Lillard erupted for 51 points and dragged the game to overtime.

In that too-close-for-comfort victory, the Blazers had one fewer turnover which changed the fate of the game. Portland (excluding Lillard) didn’t shoot well that night, but still pushed the Thunder thanks to ball pressure and excellent defense.

If the Thunder want to turn this playoff series around, they cannot afford to give Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers more scoring chances.

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