Preview 41 of 82: Trail Blazers @ Thunder

Time: 7:00 PM CT

TV: NBA TV / Fox Sports Oklahoma

Radio: WWLS (98.1 FM OKC / 97.1 FM Tulsa)

Game Notes: Thunder / Blazers

We have officially made it to the halfway point of the regular season. After a 7-8 start I wasn’t sure if I’d make it, but I’m proud to say I survived and only threw the remote at the TV once. Looking ahead at the remainder of the season, I don’t think this team has hit its ceiling just yet. After solid performances in December, the Thunder could find its way to the third seed in the West by playoff time but it won’t be easy.

Take a look at the current Western Conference standings courtesy of ESPN.com:

The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are 3-7 and 6-4 in their last 10 games, respectively, indicating that they (especially the Rockets) might not be holding on to the two and three seeds for long. Meanwhile, both the Timberwolves and Thunder are 7-3 in the last 10 games.

If the Thunder (22-18) want to make its way to the third seed by April, a win tonight against the Trail Blazers (21-18) is a crucial first step for a couple reasons. First, the Thunder has a difficult January schedule, so wins against the teams below them in the rankings are a necessity. The Thunder will face Minnesota, Cleveland, and Washington on the road this month and play four games between today and Monday (including playing Minnesota tomorrow night on a back-to-back).

Second, the Trail Blazers are only one win behind the Thunder, tied in the loss colum. A Thunder loss tonight would drop the team to sixth place and possibly even tied for seventh with Denver. (Note: Denver plays the 10-30 Hawks at home tonight).

If the Thunder can continue building on a successful December by finishing at least 9-5 in January, the team will be in a good spot heading into the All-Star break. OKC has already won two this month with win number three hopefully coming tonight.

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Injury Report

Thunder

  •  Andre Roberson: Out – Knee

Blazers

  •  Damian LillardOut – Calf

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Probable Starters

Blazers: Shabazz Napier, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic

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Notes

Revenge. The Thunder lost the first meeting with Portland on November 5, after Portland shot 50 percent from the field and Damian Lillard dropped 36 points and 13 assists. The Blazers also outrebounded the Thunder 44-32 in that game. But that was the old the Thunder, and the new Thunder defense shouldn’t allow for that type of efficiency. The Blazers will be without Lillard tonight, which means more McCollum and more threes than the Blazers typically shoot. With Ferguson stepping in for Roberson, the Thunder’s perimeter defense has slacked (the Suns hit 17 threes on Sunday). It’s imperative that Ferguson exercises restraint and doesn’t foul a three-point shooter tonight.

Reason for the Season. Uniting behind the OK3 was the reason for this season and it finally seems like that decision is paying off. It appears that each member of the OK3 has found his respective role in the Thunder offense and it is so fun to watch. Russ has emerged has the clear leader of this team alongside his trusty sidekick, Paul George. Carmelo has taken a backseat role but has flourished none the less. Carmelo has attempted no more than 15 shots per game in the last five games but with near or over 50 percent accuracy every night. Not to mention the man can stroke it from distance. In the Thunder’s back-to-back wins in LA last week, the OK3 combined for 147 points, 36 rebounds, and 32 assists. They shot 60.8 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from three.

Ferguson In. Abrines Out. The three-game road trip is over and Abrines is back from injury (right groin strain), but Donovan will likely still opt for Ferguson to start. Abrines’ defensive struggles and inconsistent shooting may have cost him the back up shooting guard position. Ferguson has some rookie tendencies about him, but his ceiling seems higher then Abrines’ who has been more or less the same over the past two years. In his three games at starting SG, Ferguson has averaged 12.3 points per game, three made threes, and two steals. Ferguson had a pretty abysmal night Sunday, but I think his true potential is somewhere in between that and his spectacular starting debut against the Lakers last week. In tonight’s game, I’d like to see Ferguson attempt fewer threes (Melo and PG are handling that just fine) and drive to the basket more.

PG Rising. Lately, Paul George has been unstoppable on both ends of the floor. He leads the league in steals per game. Since December 1st he’s shooting 48 percent from three and in seven games, has made no fewer than three long-balls in every game. He’s on pace to become just the second player in the last decade to average at least 20 points and 2.4 steals per game on the season.

Offensive Rebounding. ICYMI, the owner of the NBA’s leading offensive rebound rate is none other than the pride of New Zealand and Loud City, Steven “Big Kiwi” Adams at 16.7 percent. This is awesome for many reasons. First, offensive rebounds lead to second-chance points which means even if the OK3 is having an off shooting night, Steven Adams can save the day as he so often does. Second, it means Adams is out-rebounding top rebounders like Joel Embiid and Demarcus Cousins, who many people are saying are better centers than Adams. Third, the second leading offensive rebound rate belongs to Enes Kanter (16.6 percent) and I feel like that’s not just a coincidence. #StacheBrosForLife

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