Portland vs. OKC Playoff Preview
By Alberto Bodei, Staff Writer
With the win in Milwaukee against the Bucks, the 49th of the season, Oklahoma City clinched the sixth seed in the Western Conference, meaning, the Thunder will face the Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the upcoming playoff.
On paper, this looks like the best matchup for Oklahoma City: not only they swept Portland during the regular season, but the Blazers will be without one of their best players, Jusuf Nurkić. Plus, if the Thunder should advance to the second round, they won't meet the Golden State Warriors, which are on the other side of the bracket.
Now, it indeed looks good, but Oklahoma City still has to show up and play hard. Portland isn't going away that easy. In fact, each matchup this season was fought well from both sides. On four games played, the average margin of win for the Thunder is seven points. That's really close. Every possession will count, on both ends of the floor. If Oklahoma City underestimates the Blazers, then they might put themselves in a bad position.
Defensive focus will be the main task for the Thunder. When Oklahoma City plays hard defense, they are able to run in transition and to take advantage of their strengths. Lillard and McCollum are the main threats, but Enes Kanter will play important minutes. Enes might be a liability on defense, but as Thunder fans know, he can be a problem on offense. Another player to watch is Seth Curry who is averaging career-highs in three points made (1.5 per game) and in three points percentage, 45%.
Portland is a team that can score, they are third in the league in offensive rating at 113.6, and they are tight at 8th in three points percentage at 35.9 (11 made on 30.7 attempts per game). Boxing out will be also crucial for OKC: the Blazers rank 3rd in offensive rebounds with 11.8 per game, which translates in fifteen second-chances points.
Don't fall in love with the three-pointers but look for the best shot available. Simple as that. The Thunder ranked 22nd in the league in three points percentage at 34.8. However, in the last five games of the regular season, all wins, they shot an excellent, and probably unsustainable, 38.6%. With Kanter on the floor for Portland, the Thunder should put him in the pick and roll as much as possible. Attack the defense, and if the Blazers over-help, then move the ball and look for the best shot possible.
If Portland decides that Enes is too big of a problem on defense and try to go small, then the Thunder should go in the post to Steven Adams. Bigs have problems while guarding him, against a smaller player Adams needs to attack the basket all the times. Also, Donovan could put Morris at the five, this can open the floor even more and create open lanes to attack the basket for Westbrook and George.
Free-throws will be crucial as well. Portland sent the Thunder to the line a lot during their regular season meeting. Oklahoma City averaged thirty attempts against the Blazers, scoring at a high percentage, 80%. Nevertheless, the Thunder finished the regular season with a 71.3% from the free-throw line, good only for the 28th place. This must improve.
As always, during the playoff, the main players are going to play big minutes. If the last five games were any indication, then the players that will see the court, besides the usual starting five, are Morris, Schröder, and Noel. Felton might play some minutes here and there, but unless fouls problems, or change of strategy down the line, I don't see any other player getting minutes.
However, it will be interesting to see with which player Donovan will close games (Ferguson or Schröder) and how many minutes, if at all, Morris will play at the center position (it worked well so far). One thing is certain: this eight men rotation is the best the Thunder had in the playoff since the 2015-16 campaign.
Despite winning fifty-three games during the regular season, the absence of Nurkic seems to be too heavy for the Blazers in a seven games series. Plus, on the other end, the Thunder are entering the playoffs on a five-game winning streak and full of confidence. I'll pick the Thunder to advance, 4-2.