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Thursday Bolts: 3.7.19

Nick Gallo (okcthunder.com) previews tonight’s game in Portland: “While Nurkic is not a three-point shooter, he is a handful in pick-and-rolls with his skill level, ability to put the ball on the floor and passing, so the task will be similarly difficult. The rest of the Thunder roster can help Adams out with the job by being quick on their feet, physical off the ball and mentally tough enough to keep Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner out of the lane. The Blazers are one of the best teams in the league at attacking the paint for kick out three-pointers or to force rotations that leave opponents vulnerable for offensive rebounds. “With good offensive players you’re going to get beat. The dribbles that hurt us are the straight-line drives where it’s just a catch and it’s straight to the basket,” Donovan explained. “If a guy is driving and he’s gotta change direction and he’s gotta cut back, go between his legs and behind is back, it gives your back side help a chance to rotate, come over and provide help. When it’s just a straight-line drive right to the rim, it’s really hard to provide a lot of help there.”

Miles Custis (Blazers Edge) previews the game from the other side: “The Portland Trail Blazers return home after a very successful seven-game road trip that was marred somewhat by a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday. Still, Portland went 5-2 on the trip with impressive wins over five Eastern Conference playoff teams. The Blazers won a variety of ways on the trip. Nurkic dominated some games inside, Lillard and McCollum each carried the team in different games, and Rodney Hood exploded for 27 points off the bench in Charlotte. The Thunder have struggled since the All-Star break. They have only won two of their last eight games (a double OT victory over Utah, and a 99-95 home win against Memphis). Their struggles have dropped them into a tie with Portland for the third playoff seed. Unfortunately, for both Blazer and Thunder fans, Houston’s six-game winning streak has made it a three-team tie. The bottleneck makes this game crucial for both teams.”

DJ Foster (Ringer) on the team-first sacrifice of Steven Adams: “Next time an opponent misses a free throw against the Thunder, take a look at who gets the rebound—it’s almost always Westbrook. The difference between, say, eight rebounds a game and 10 rebounds a game could literally cost a big man millions of dollars on his next contract, but Adams clearly isn’t bothered, despite being plenty capable of putting up bigger numbers himself. There have been 141 occurrences of a player averaging at least four offensive rebounds per game, but only Adams has averaged more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds, as he did last season. The reason? Offensive rebounds can’t really be gifted away. The question isn’t whether or not Adams is sacrificing his own rebounding numbers to Westbrook and George (who has a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game this year). He is. The question is, what else is he sacrificing?”

Zach Harper (Athletic) has Paul George third in MVP voting and second in DPOY: “What caused George to fall from first in the DPOY rankings the last two weeks to number two? The Thunder are not quite the same defense as they were to start the season. We saw a similar drop-off last year when they lost Andre Roberson. This year, there hasn’t been an absence of a great perimeter defender, by any means. The Thunder just can’t seem to defend the same way they did in the first half of the season. We’re going to use January 9 as the cut-off here because that coincides with the surge of the Utah Jazz (that will matter in a bit). Since January 9, the Thunder are 19th in the NBA in defensive rating. They give up 108.0 points per 100 possessions with George on the floor during this time. Prior to that, they were first in the NBA, allowing 102.2 per 100 possessions. That number sat at 99.9 when PG13 was on the floor. George has still been excellent defensively for the most part, but he’s not keeping things together like he did in the first 40 games. That’s enough of a lull to me that he loses his top spot this week.”

Jon Krawczynski (Athletic) on Russell Westbrook’s harsh words for Karl-Anthony Towns on Tuesday in Minnesota: “The​ Timberwolves were rolling toward another win over Oklahoma City​ and​ Karl-Anthony​ Towns​ was throwing​ everything he had at the​​ Thunder. That included a few choice words for Russell Westbrook, who was yapping at both Towns and Dario Saric in the third quarter of a game that was starting to slip away from him. Ryan Saunders has only been a head coach in the NBA for 24 games, but even he knew that was a bad idea. The fire inside Westbrook is always burning, and the last thing anyone wants to do is turn up the temperature on a maniacal competitor who can turn a game around by himself, so Saunders pleaded with Towns and Saric to turn it down a notch, even as Westbrook berated them both. “Get to the fucking playoffs before you speak to me,” Westbrook barked. It was classic, razor-tongued Westbrook, trying to manufacture a conflict and break an opponent’s will. Towns was already showing signs of getting side-tracked by some questionable officiating, a weakness of his that has lingered since he first set foot in the league.”

Grant Hughes (B/R) predicts the Thunder to end up in the West’s 6-seed: “Oklahoma City slips here because it has the toughest remaining schedule in the West based on opponent winning percentage. Utah has the easiest by far, which explains its climb from its current No. 6 spot.”

Chris Bengel (CBS Sports) thinks the Thunder will miraculously rise into the 2-seed: “The top of the Western Conference has been a neck-and-neck race between the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder could be one of the most improved teams from a season ago based on the year that they’ve had. When healthy, Paul George is a legit MVP candidate and has been in the midst of having a career year playing alongside Russell Westbrook for the second consecutive season. Oklahoma City’s second unit of Dennis Schroder, Markieff Morris and Nerlens Noel is among the more talented groups around and gives the team a huge lift. As long as this group gets completely healthy over the next few games, expect them to steal the second seed in the West.”

Nicholas Crain (Forbes) on Jerami Grant being the best value player on the Thunder roster: “His impact this season has not gone unnoticed, as Grant found himself 18th in the fan vote and 19th in the player vote for western conference forwards. Considering the caliber of forwards in the loaded western conference, it is impressive how much fans and players around the league are taking notice of Grant’s spectacular play. Grant is averaging career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game, three-point percentage, and minutes per game. His game continues to expand, and he improves drastically every year. He could have demanded more money last summer but took a team-friendly deal in order to keep the core together. When it comes to performance relative to average annual salary, Jerami Grant is near the top of the list in the NBA. With how much Grant improves every year, what kind of player will he be at the end of his contract? The final year of Grant’s contract being a player option could become a big deal for the organization as he will more than likely be nearing his prime and signing his last big contract.”

Dan Favale (B/R) lists Markieff Morris as OKC’s biggest free agent flight risk: “Markieff Morris doesn’t have to be a rental for Oklahoma City. The taxpayer’s MLE ($5.7 million) will be right up his alley. If that falls short, it won’t be by much. But the Thunder must be open to tapping into their MLE to secure Morris’ stay. They barely did that this year and will likely be less inclined to do so next season after paying the repeater tax. In the event they do, they need a sweet-shooting 2-3 more than a combo big. Morris only takes priority if they cannot find a cheap replacement for Nerlens Noel (who should opt out of his $1.9 million option), who is also a non-Bird free agent.”

Ricky O’Donnell (SB Nation) has the Thunder taking Tennessee’s Grant Williams at number 23 in the upcoming NBA Draft: “Williams has established himself as one of the top players in the country for a Tennessee team fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. He’s a physical 6’7, 240-pound forward with a sterling 65 percent true shooting percentage who has built an efficient two-way game by being a smart and competitive player. NBA teams will hope his perimeter jump shot (34 percent on 35 attempts) can continue to grow.”

Around the League: LeBron passed MJ on the All-Time scoring list…. LeBron ranks the feat up there with his NBA titles…. Why Jordan will always be the GOAT…. Draymond Green doesn’t blame Boogie for Golden State’s defensive issues…. The Pistons are rising in the East…. What keeps Adam Silver awake at night…. Is a KD/Kyrie partnership possible in Boston?…. The Knicks prove yet again they are the worst team in the NBA…. Do NBA players watch their own highlights?….