By Randy Renner
Over the last few years the Thunder have gotten to know the Portland Trail Blazers pretty well, their roster had been fairly stable with plenty of familiar names and faces.
Even the players might have to double check the game program. Longtime Blazers leader and star LaMarcus Aldridge is wearing black and silver in San Antonio instead of black and red in Portland. Wesley Matthews is gone via free agency, Nic Batum's address has changed too.
"They still got (Damian) Lillard," Thunder shooting guard Anthony Morrow pointed out after Tuesday's practice.
And Lillard is off to a hot start for the Trail Blazers as he assumes a more assertive role, averaging 24.7 points so far this season, about 3.5 more per game than last season when Aldridge was usually to go to guy.
"And (C.J.) McCollum has really stepped up this year too," again Morrow pointing out some of the weapons Portland still has. C.J. McCollum almost never saw action as a starter until this season. In his first three years with the Blazers he was in the starting lineup just twice but now days he's Lillard's sidekick in the backcourt averaging 19.7 points game.
Lillard scored 30 points and McCollum added 16 to help the Blazers beat New Orleans 105-101 on Monday to get to 11-15 on the season.
"I think for me and (McCollum), that's something that we got to do a lot of this year, make guys better and put guys in a position to be successful," Lillard said.
They did that with newcomers Gerald Henderson and Mason Plumlee against the Pelicans. Henderson going 4-for-5 from 3-point range to finish with 19 points off the bench, and Plumlee had 15, 13 rebounds and six assists.
"We've seen so many guys step up in different games," Lillard said. "(It) shows that down the line when we grow and kind of put this thing together a little bit more, we see what guys can do now so we see how it can payoff later."
The Thunder are playing much better over the last dozen games or so compared to what was happening in their first dozen. The defense has tightened up and so has the grip on the basketball.
"I think we've been taking care of the ball the last five or six games," superstar point guard Russell Westbrook said Wednesday. "We're just doing a much better job of being conscious to take care of the basketball and that's giving us more opportunities to score and obviously taken away more chances for teams to score on us."
Despite the improvement and the current five-game winning streak there has been a little "slippage" as head coach Billy Donovan refers to it. And perhaps that winning streak has a little something to do with it.
“Sometimes when you get fixated on the result, when you lose a basketball game, you want to go back and look at everything that went wrong,” Donovan explained. “Sometimes when you win you don’t want to do that and that everything is fine. That’s when the slippage happens.”
“It’s human nature. It’s not just our team. It’s people. It’s everybody,” Donovan continued. “We’re all a little bit susceptible and vulnerable when we’re having success or things are going well to maybe let our guard down or lose sight of the little things.”
That slippage has mostly come in the rebounding numbers which have fallen off a little bit lately and in the numbers of offensive rebounds opponents are getting which have increased lately.
After two days of fairly intense practices, Donovan is pretty happy with how his players have responded to try to shore up those areas before they become fatal flaws.
"When you present something to them that's an area where we need to get better, something that's gonna hold us back as a team, they're really good and really eager to get back to work and get better."
Cam Payne Update
The Thunder's number one draft pick, point guard Cameron Payne, hasn't had much of a chance to get floor time with the Thunder. Something that's fairly typical for rookies on a team with as much talent as OKC has.
Payne did see a lot of action Tuesday night though with the OKC Blue, the Thunder's D-League team. Payne played almost 33 minutes and scored 28 points while handing out seven assists and pulling down five rebounds.
I had a chance to chat with him one-on-one after the game.
Payne is expected to be back in a Thunder uniform tonight against the Trail Blazers.