Game 1 Preview: Thunder @ Trail Blazers
Time: 2:30 PM CST
After 82 games of inconsistent flashes of brilliance, the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in an almost hilariously enviable position – taking on the 3-seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, with no Golden State or Houston to contend with until at least the conference finals. Nothing is guaranteed – but you can’t really ask for much more if you’re the Thunder. The path to where many thought OKC would end up before the season is right there for the taking.
Vegas has the Thunder advancing due to the good fortune, and OKC is suddenly a trendy pick to face the Warriors with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. But all of that starts with Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers on Sunday afternoon in Portland. Even without Jusuf Nurkic, who’s out due to injury, the first round is not to be taken for granted. Led by Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and our old pal Enes, the Blazers went 7-2 after Nurkic went down — rallying to earn the 3-seed with solid play down the stretch.
Tip off is at 2:30 PM CST and will be nationally televised on ABC. The Thunder are 3.5-point road underdogs according to Odd Shark.
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- Paul George: Questionable — Shoulder
- George didn’t play in the Thunder’s regular season finale — again missing time due to shoulder soreness. He was listed as “questionable” in yesterdays injury report, but all signs point to him being in the lineup today, don’t worry. That shoulder is something to keep an eye on, though.
- Andre Roberson: Out — Knee
- ‘Dre did some running yesterday. No reason to believe we see him this postseason.
- CJ McCollum: Active — Knee
- McCollum recently returned from a 10-game absence, logging two regular season appearances before being shut down for the regular season finale. He struggled in his two games back (30% FG, 18% 3P), so that’s something to watch.
- Jusuf Nurkic: Out — Leg
- Nurkic is a major thorn in the Thunder’s side, so his absence is a major blow for Portland’s chances. In his place, Enes Kanter will be opposite Steven Adams at the center position. Pick-n-Rolls are coming.
The Thunder swept the regular season series 4-0. It’s enough to inspire some confidence, but I doubt the first four matter much here in the playoffs. Every game was close — and honestly, somebody might fight somebody given how well the teams get along. Each game of this series will be its own thing.
Jan. 4: OKC 111, POR 109 [BOX SCORE]
Jan. 22: OKC 123, POR 114 [BOX SCORE]
Feb. 11: OKC 120, POR 111 [BOX SCORE]
March 7: OKC 129, POR 121 (OT) [BOX SCORE]
What to Watch For
Dame vs Russ: The marquee matchup of the series is at point guard, as Russell Westbrook and Damian will renew their rivalry with their seasons on the line. The two share a mutual respect for one another, but tend to get contentious on the floor. A lot of that has to do with Westbrook going full-speed and stirring the pot, but what happens between them may decide the series.
The challenge for Westbrook in these playoffs is to continue his pass-first, do-everything-because-I-can role that has brought the Thunder success at various points of the season. In a postseason setting, and against one of his many rivals, however, he may need to fight his inner urge to go win the ball game. He’ll set the tone like he always does, and it’s better when everyone is involved.
PG vs Everybody (+his shoulder): George brought his A-Game against the Blazers this season, averaging 38 PPG (and scoring 40+ twice) in the four games between the teams. His post-All-Star performance didn’t live up to the #MVPG hysteria from early-2019, but he was solid down the stretch nonetheless. That shoulder is certainly a concern, but the Thunder need him to at least be as good as he was during the 5-game winning streak to close the regular season. Going 4-0 against Portland this season was built on PG getting buckets.
Best Supporting Actors: Along with Adams, Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson are two players the Thunder need to get the most out of here in the playoffs. They’ve both been feeling lately, routinely coming up big during the 5-game winning streak to close the regular season. If one, or both, of them is able to knock down their shots from long range, the Thunder offense can operate closer to its full capacity. The role players are the key to those low-scoring, high-assist Westbrook triple-doubles that usually result in wins.
The Bench: Both teams were in the bottom half on the league in terms of bench plus/minus in the regular season, so whoever can get the most out of their second unit will give themselves a big advantage in the series. Though he’s a tad difficult to predict, that begins with Dennis Schroder for OKC — who averaged 12.3 points on 8 percent shooting from long range against Portland this season (seriously). Random production from Markieff Morris, Nerlens Noel, and Raymond Felton, yes, Raymond Felton, would also be nice. Felton is hated in Oregon, so maybe he’ll have himself a revenge tour in the pacific northwest.
The Other Guys: Portland had the third-best offensive rating in the NBA this season at 113.6, and their attack is spearheaded by point guard Damian Lillard. The All-Star averaged 25.8 PPG this season, handing out 6.9 assists and shooting 37% from three in the process. He put up 34.8 PPG against the Thunder this season — including a season-high 51 on March 7 — so he’s the obvious focal point of what the Blazers do offensively.
Lillard is joined in double-figures scoring by McCollum’s 21 PPG on 37.5% from long range, and Kanter’s 13.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG in his 23 games with the Blazers (8 starts). They’ll also look to get production from Rodney Hood (9.6 PPG in 27 games in Portland) and Seth Curry (45% 3P) off the bench, as well as whatever random player decides to step up on a game-by-game basis. You know how it works.
Can’t Play Kanter: With Nurkic out of the picture due to his horrific leg injury (get well soon), Kanter will be in the starting lineup opposite Steven Adams. He’s going to get his on the offensive end — as we know, he’s a walking double-double when given the minutes. The question with Kanter, as per always, is if he can be kept on the floor due to his defensive inefficiencies. The Thunder will likely attack him early and often in the PnR, and I reckon it’ll yield success. Could be a big series for Adams incoming.
Gallo’s game day report: