Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City, 5 p.m.
After dispatching one elite Western Conference team, the Portland Trail Blazers have an even more difficult task tonight in trying to take down another, the reigning WC champs Oklahoma City Thunder.
Just like the Blazers’ first opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder are fresh off a season-opening loss. But this feels different. The Thunder lost theirs at the buzzer and Russell Westbrook woke up this morning (as he has many mornings) as the most scrutinized player in the league for his 6-for-21 shooting night and for inexcusably spectating while the Spurs’ Tony Parker did this.
Tonight, Westbrook will have 18,000 friends behind him inside the ridiculously rowdy Chesapeake Energy Arena frothing at the mouth. (side note: The three loudest NBA arenas I’ve personally experienced are the Rose Garden*, the old Arco Arena and Chesapeake. OKC loves ’em some Thunder. Been there four times and I remember the place being so loud that I felt it in my chest and I couldn’t hear the person next to me talking.)
Now, let’s get to the 5 things to watch for tonight.
1. Blazers must capitalize on Thunder turnovers
As fluid as the Thunder can look on the court, they can also resemble a sloppy bunch playing Saturday morning pickup basketball. Last season, OKC ranked last in the league with 16.9 turnovers a game. Clearly, the team has not cleaned up the problem just yet as the Thunder committed 18 turnovers in last night’s loss in San Antonio.
The Blazers did a good job in getting into the passing lanes against the Lakers and scored 19 fastbreak points. Wesley Matthews should get his sticky fingers ready – he had four steals on Wednesday night – because there will be plenty of loose balls to be swiped.
2. Batum v Durant
Against the Lakers, Nicolas Batum showed himself as a complete basketball player. He could be both a playmaker and lead the team in scoring with 26 points, as well as an active defender and rebounder. Batum ripped down four offensive rebounds and also had three steals. Of course, Kevin Durant is a different animal than Metta World Peace, and the last time these two matched up, it was the Summer Olympics when Durant scored 22 points mostly on run outs… but not on this one! I like how that Kawhi Leonard kid never gave up while defending Durant last night. Batum has the length to match up similarly and will need to have another complete game (score like the team’s No. 2 option and defend like the Spurs’ Leonard) for the Blazers to stay in this one.
More Durant… It’s also important to watch how the Blazers react when KD brings the ball up. When this happens, Batum needs to brace himself for one of Kendrick Perkins’ offensive fouls – er, I mean – high screens, so that he doesn’t completely get cleared out of the way. If he does, KD goes off. Durant will either pop out for the good-as-gold open jumper or take one dribble to the hole and finish. That leaves either J.J. Hickson, LaMarcus Aldridge or one of the other Blazer bigs alone. And that’s nothing but trouble.
3. Don’t sleep, Damian
The rookie made the Steves of L.A. (Nash and Blake) work as he scorched them for 23 points and 11 assists but Damian Lillard now has an angry and considerably more athletic Westbrook to worry about. Westbrook is one of the finest rebounding guards in the league, so Lillard must match this action. Not just with his eyes, but Lillard needs to move and keep a body on or near Westbrook.
I absolutely adore watching Russell Westbrook, and I’m not even a huge fan of him per se, but rather a fan of the crazy that’s inside of him. The way he can score at will. The way he crashes to the floor but won’t respond to a teammate’s extended hand if he’s pouting about a bad game. The way he plays angry and doesn’t care about dropping F-bombs near the rich folk in the court side seats (Skip to the 3:24 mark for the best part)
He’s electric, a live wire snapping around the court but often times he’s even more fun when he’s unpredictable and pretending that he’s not sharing the floor with the best scorer in the league. Oh, what joy it was watching the final three minutes of the San Antonio game when Westbrook started an offensive set by throwing a wild alley oop that Durant fell to the baseline trying to catch. You could almost see the thought bubble appearing over Westbrook’s head: “Well, I passed. Happy, Coach?! Now, it’s my turn!” After that errant missile lob, OKC got the ball back and instead of reseting the offense, Westbrook activated the “Leave it to Russ” playbook, dribbled through a double team (TWICE!) and tossed up some junk that the Spurs rebounded and cleared out.
With about 90 seconds remaining in the game, the Thunder had another offensive rebound and reset but while KD clapped three times on the wing for the ball, Westbrook didn’t even look his way. It was fantastic and frustrating and genius all in one. The kid is sheer entertainment. Lillard has already shown he can be the next RoboPoint Guard like Westbrook. But to me, the laid-back Lillard is a more composed Westbrook. Not better, just more stable.
4. Blazers could see more Perry Jones, III. Less Thabeet
I heard good things about the rookie Perry Jones, III during this preseason, but he didn’t get a sniff of action last night. Thunder coach Scott Brooks rather sent in the 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet for those reserve big-man minutes. Lumbering and a half-step slow, Thabeet knocked over his own teammate during one particular defensive rotation last night. I would suspect that with the Blazers’ athletic bigs (Hickson and Meyers Leonard), OKC may give the more lithe PJIII some run.
5. Ibaka’s block party would help in long run
The Blazers shouldn’t mind it in Serge Ibaka gets his four or five blocks. He’s best while working as the help defender, so that means he would be roaming away from Aldridge. If Ibaka wants to leave L.A. and swap everything in sight, let him. Blazers surely wouldn’t mind a repeat of Aldridge’s Feb. 6, 2012 game against OKC … 39 points, 14 of 28 from the floor, 11 for 11 at the FT line.
If you’ll be tuning in tonight for the game, be sure to join us right here for a live chat. Till then!
*OK, so you’re thinking, “Of course, you have that say that, Candace! We’re a passionate, if not certifiably crazy, fan base. We’d harm you and yours if you didn’t add Rose Garden to this list!” But nay, my friend, I’m not pandering. I’ve been to the RG once before just as an NBA fan, and now as a working member of the media, I can see why it has the reputation as one of the best arenas in the Association.