The regular season has come to a close, and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round matchup has been set. The Thunder earned the 6-seed after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks last night, and the Blazers earned the 3-seed after a miraculous 28-point comeback against the Sacramento Kings and a Denver victory over Minnesota.
Portland is a solid matchup for the Thunder, and it appears to be an advantage for OKC. Let’s breakdown the different matchups and see where the Thunder’s chances lie.
Put the Thunder’s backcourt up against just about any team in the NBA, and OKC has a shot. Russell Westbrook and Paul George together are one of the league’s most dynamic duos, and with Terrance Ferguson finding his three-point shot while playing consistent defense against some of the NBA’s best guards, OKC has scary potential.
Their scoring capability hinges heavily on whether shots are dropping from deep or not. When Paul George is hot from three, there is no defensive answer for stopping him. When Terrance Ferguson is able to knock down shots from the corner or even drive baseline for an easy bucket, it spreads out the floor for other guys to get open.
The Thunder hit a franchise-record 23 threes last night. That’s a fantastic achievement in the final game of the regular season, but if OKC falls in love with the three-ball, and the shots aren’t going in, it could get ugly.
The Trail Blazers aren’t too shabby themselves when it comes to their backcourt. Damian Lillard is a star, and CJ McCollum is a three-point threat as good as they come. Even though he’s been dealing with injury late in the season, McCollum can get hot at a moment’s notice.
And don’t forget about Maurice Harkless. He’s a role player who does not even average double digits in scoring, but he hit a game-winner the other night against the Lakers, and it wasn’t his first.
The Blazers are a threat from the perimeter, and Lillard’s court vision allows him to find the open man whether he’s attacking the paint or not. This team runs through him.
Oklahoma City gets the advantage here because of defense. Paul George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Terrance Ferguson has been taking notes from George all season long. Russell Westbrook tends to sink off his man and forget about defense altogether as he chases rebounds, but overall, the Thunder has the athletic advantage to stop opponents while the Blazers backcourt is not able to defend at a high level.
Steven Adams has continued to make strides in his sixth year as an NBA player, and Jerami Grant has been the Thunder’s most improved player this season. While both Adams and Grant have the potential to be threats on offense, what makes them such a dynamic duo in the paint is their defensive capabilities.
Steven Adams has received criticism throughout the season for being more of a traditional big and being unable to defend quicker centers who can shoot around the perimeter. As the season has gone on, though, the Thunder has improved their strategy against teams with athletic bigs, and Adams has done a solid job at adjusting.
Jerami Grant leads the Thunder in blocks per game, and what he lacks in size, he makes up for in athletic ability. Grant is quick and can guard around the perimeter, but he can also jump through the roof, which makes him dangerous in the paint.
Steven Adams took a tumble in Wednesday night’s game against the Bucks, but a few days of rest will do him some good. As long as he can stay healthy, he and Grant are set to have a great first round.
Losing Jusuf Nurkic a couple of weeks ago was a devastating blow for the Blazers. Enes Kanter has taken Nurkic’s spot in the starting line up, and while Thunder fans love Kanter and remember him fondly, they also remember his inability to defend the pick-and-roll.
Then there’s Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu is a defensive-minded player who hits shots every now and then, but he’s not really a player to score a lot of points out of nowhere.
Oklahoma City once again gets the advantage here, and it’s pretty obvious why. As long as Steven Adams is remotely healthy, he should be able to work Enes Kanter over in the paint time and time again. If Russell Westbrook and Adams can get their two-man game going, the Thunder might just score all their points in the paint.
Dennis Schröder is the obvious name that comes to mind for the Thunder’s second unit, and with the way he’s been playing lately, that’s a good thing. Schröder averaged 15.5 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds in 29.3 minutes off the bench this season, and he scored at least 20 points in 21 games, including a season-high 32 points twice.
Aside from Schröder, the rest of OKC’s bench is a tossup. Markieff Morris played in 24 of the Thunder’s final 25 games, and though he only averaged 6.5 points in 16.1 minutes per game, he scored in double digits in seven those, including in three of the last 4 games of the season.
Nerlens Noel also had some impressive games throughout the season as the backup center, and if Adams is not completely healthy, he could see some extended run.
Beyond these key bench pieces, it will be interesting to see who Billy Donovan rolls with in the playoffs. Raymond Felton has seen some play time lately, and Abdel Nader was a consistent rotational guy for a while, but I’m sure it will really come down to situational matchups.
The Blazers are in a very similar situation to the Thunder when it comes to backups. As a team, Portland averages 36.0 points from the bench, but now that Enes Kanter is a starter, no backup averages double digits.
Rodney Hood is probably the most notable bench player for Portland, but he has averaged just 9.6 per game with the Blazers since being traded from Cleveland. In his two matchups against the Thunder, he scored only 9 and 10 points, but he is the type of guy that could come out and drop 20.
Seth Curry could also be a guy to worry about. At 45.0%, Curry ranks 3rd in the NBA in three-point percentage, but he only averages 3.4 attempts in 18.9 minutes per game.
As weak as the Thunder’s bench has been at times this season, Portland’s has not been much better, and with the current state of the each team’s roster, OKC’s backups have a better chance of impacting the series than the Blazers do.
I have to take Oklahoma City here as I expect Dennis Schröder to continue with his strong play of lately, and if OKC wants to go deep in the playoffs, he will be a key part of that run.
Billy Donovan is in his 4th season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Donovan came in at a crucial time in Thunder history, and despite just narrowly missing a trip to the NBA Finals in his first season ever as an NBA coach, he has received plenty of criticism in his tenure. Kevin Durant decided to leave following Donovan’s first year, and it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride ever since.
Billy Donovan has taken heat over the last couple of seasons, and a lot of it deservedly so. Many of the Thunder faithful thought that he would be gone after the first round meltdown last season, but Sam Presti decided to bring him back. Then in December, Presti went ahead and picked up the option on the final year of Donovan’s contract.
Fast forward four months later, and many consider Donovan to be on the hot seat. Some think he’s gone altogether unless the Thunder go on to the win the NBA Finals.
While the coach should never be completely blamed for a team’s lack of success, Donovan has to take some of the blame. At the same time, he should be given credit when the Thunder does well. Donovan has done a good job at times at putting guys in the right role and letting them grow to new levels. He’s also pretty consistent with drawing up good plays out of timeouts, and while he only gets the blame when shots don’t get in, he’s been good in clutch situations as well.
Terry Stotts is in his 7th year as head coach for the Portland Trail Blazers. This is the 6th year that Stotts has led the Blazers to the playoffs, but only twice have they made it out of the first round, and they have been swept the last two seasons.
Stotts has been a player’s coach for years in that the locker room is typically harmonious, and his players love him. Even still, he is in the final year of his contract after Portland did not offer him an extension at the beginning of the season. Should the Blazers suffer another first-round exit, he will undoubtedly be done in Portland.
This is a tough one. Both Donovan and Stotts are solid coaches who probably receive plenty of criticism when they do wrong and not enough praise when they do right.
Billy Donovan has an advantage because he has a healthy-ish team and a better overall roster, whereas Terry Stotts has the edge of coaching for another contract. In the end, this has to be labeled a toss-up.
Both OKC and Portland are coming into the playoffs with momentum. The Thunder won their last 5 games of the regular season, and the Blazers won 14 of their final 17.
With that being said, the Thunder is the clear favorite in this matchup. Even with all of the post-All-Star Break issues, OKC has advantages from top to bottom, and Portland was the perfect first-round matchup.
If Jusuf Nurkic was healthy, this might be a completely different series because of what he brings to the table for the Blazers, and I will never forget watching Damian Lillard hit clutch shot after clutch shot against a number of teams—including the Thunder—over the last several years, but when it comes down to it, OKC just might run away with this one.
I’m taking the Thunder in 5.
(All photos from Loud City Photography. Be sure to follow @LoudCityPhotos on Twitter.)
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