Blazers

Trail Blazers and Thunder Need Health to Win

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This year’s three-six first round matchup in the Western Conference sees one of the league’s best defenses trying to halt a high-powered offense. The Oklahoma City Thunder have relied on their defensive pressure as a team and individually to earn a 49-33 record in the competitive West. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers boast an efficient offense. It’s good enough for third in offensive rating. Portland, like Oklahoma, thrives on second chance points, making rebounding a point of interest throughout the remainder of this series.

Oklahoma City fell apart for a stint after the All-Star break, and for a while it even seemed plausible for them to drop out of the playoffs. But the squad found their groove again just in time, going on a five game win streak before the postseason. They weren’t able to keep that streak alive during day two of the NBA Playoffs, though. Portland had enough surges on offense and didn’t allow Paul George to get his offense going, which automatically eliminates a large portion of the Thunder’s scoring.

 

GAME 1

The first game in this series took place on April 14 inside the Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers came out on top 104-99. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum lit up the Thunder’s defense in the first quarter, where Portland scored 39 points and held a 14-point lead. Oklahoma City did exactly what everyone expected and tried exposing Enes Kanter on the defensive side of the court. At times, they force-fed Steven Adams the ball, allowing him to go to work in the paint. It was an effective style for the better part of the contest, and brought the Thunder to within one point late in the game. Even if it wasn’t Adams doing the scoring himself, he was forcing Portland to help and opening up other parts of his team’s offense.

Those other options are exactly what wound up dooming Oklahoma City, however. Paul George and the Thunder combined to shoot just 5-33 from downtown. George, still clearly not 100 percent healthy from a right shoulder injury, was confident he would be able to turn things around after having more time to recover.

“I thought we got great looks, great looks all night. For me, it’s just rhythm,” George said. “Four days ago, I couldn’t lift my shoulder. Then fast-forward to today, it’s the first day I shot the ball.”

The six-time All-Star leads his team with a career-high 28 points per game, and his health is imperative to taking down one of the best offensive teams in the league.

 

SEASON SERIES

The Trail Blazers and Thunder entered this season with their all-time regular season head-to-head outcomes knotted at 116 (per Land Of Basketball). The Thunder went on to sweep the season series 4-0. You can credit Paul George for a large portion of that success after averaging nearly 40 points this season in games against Portland. Even still, those losses for Portland were far from blowouts. They were all decided by nine points or less, with the final matchup on March 7 needing overtime.

But it’s already been proven time and time again that the playoffs are a different beast. This past Sunday offered further proof when Portland walked away victorious. Damian Lillard is one of the few players not phased by the stingy defense of Oklahoma City. He averaged just a hair under 35 points against his current playoff opponent. He continued that trend over the course of game one, leading all scorers with 30 points.

If those numbers tell you anything, it’s to expect even more explosive performances throughout this series. Names like Lillard, George, Westbrook, and more are fully equipped to dominate the court on any given night. That said, there are a couple names sidelined who’s absence could be the difference between advancing or going home.

 

HEALTH

First and foremost, Jusuf Nurkic is obviously going to be out for the remainder of the season. He broke his leg in a double-overtime game against the Nets on March 25. That blow didn’t hold back the Trail Blazers too much in the regular season, but Westbrook and Adams have already shown they know how to expose that missing piece through pick and rolls. Adams had a performance good for 17 points and nine rebounds Sunday.

CJ McCollum was somewhat of a question mark prior to game one. He only played two games in April for Portland, but that sample suggested he was still recovering from the popliteus strain in his left knee from mid-March. McCollum shot a combined 8-of-26 from the field in those outings, including an uncharacteristically low 2-for-11 from three. Those doubts were put to rest after game one, with McCollum contributing 24 points and six boards.

On the flip side of things, the Thunder still have some minor concerns. They are just about at full strength besides superstar Paul George. However, George should be good to go for game two and the foreseeable future.

SCHEDULE

Here is the schedule and where you can watch the remainder of this opening series; all start times are Eastern Standard Time:

  • Tuesday, April 16, 10:30 p.m. on TNT: Game 2  (at POR)
  • Friday, April 19, 9:30 p.m. on ESPN: Game 3 (at OKC)
  • Sunday, April 21, 9:30 p.m. on TNT: Game 4 (at OKC)
  • Tuesday, April 23, TBD —  TBD: Game 5* (at POR)
  • Thursday, April 25, TBD — TBD: Game 6* (at OKC)
  • Saturday, April 27, TBD — TBD: Game 7* (at POR)

* if necessary

PREDICTION

A multitude of factors could still swing this series. McCollum absolutely needs to continue being the player he was pre-injury, because Lillard won’t be able to carry the team by himself against Oklahoma’s defense in a seven-game series. Even if McCollum does, though, OKC is ready for the challenge. When it’s clicking — which is often — their defense is near-impenetrable.

Add that to the play of Russell Westbrook, who has now averaged a triple-double in three straight seasons, and Paul George, who is entering his prime and coming off the best year of his career. That doesn’t sound like a team set up to lose in the first round.

Even though they lost game one?

Yup, Thunder in six.

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