Earlier in the season, it appeared that the Oklahoma City Thunder were heading for home court advantage – perhaps this very matchup, but with the Thunder as the third seed. But a sluggish run of results after the All-Star break saw Oklahoma City slide down the standings, just as the Portland Trail Blazers were cementing their place as a top four seed. We take a closer look at this key first round series.
The central storylines
The Blazers, eager to put last year’s playoff misery behind them, suffered two late season injury setbacks in quick succession when C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic both went down. While McCollum’s knee injury was ultimately minor, Nurkic’s broken leg leaves a big hole to fill in Portland’s starting line-up. Can they still put together a deep playoff run without the big Bosnian, who was having an excellent season?
With Nurkic sidelined, look for Steven Adams to dominate the glass. Oklahoma City know all about Enes Kanter, Nurkic’s replacement and a former Thunder backup. Look for them to exploit his defensive flaws and force switches onto Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
George’s shoulder is another big talking point. There is still a little mystery around the severity of the injury but he has not looked right since deciding to play through the pain. With the Thunder’s lack of perimeter shooting, they cannot afford an inefficient series from George.
The key matchup – Damian Lillard vs. Westbrook
This should be fun. Lillard’s outstanding play and rock solid leadership made him a fringe MVP candidate this season, but the playoffs bring more relentless defense and he will have to do a better job of navigating the pressure than he did last year. With McCollum only recently back in the line-up, the onus is on Lillard to be the primary scorer.
Westbrook will probably be the main defender on Lillard and has the length to bother the Portland star. On the other end, the Thunder man’s woeful shooting numbers have been well documented, but he impacts the game in so many other ways. If these two end up guarding each other for extended minutes, keep an eye on foul trouble. Neither team can afford to sit their point guard for a long spell.
Regular season clashes
The Thunder won all four games this season against the Blazers, who had no answer for George, in particular (38 points a game). It will be worth watching what adjustments Portland make to give Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless a better shot at slowing George down.
Thunder in 6. It is tough to pick against Portland given their motivation to get rid of the scars from last year’s abrupt playoff exit, but Oklahoma City are built for the postseason and the George-Westbrook duo will do just enough.