Wednesday is the first time this season the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will clash for Northwest division supremacy. While the Thunder feature the NBA's leading scorer in Kevin Durant, the key matchup is between Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook.
The two have very similar averages this season:
|Russell Westbrook||20.6 PPG||5.6 APG||4.8 RPG||.393 FG%|
|Damian Lillard||20.6 PPG||5.7 APG||4.1 RPG||.396 FG%|
In this contest, however, the edge goes to Lillard.
That may come as a surprise as Lillard averaged just 14.8 points per game in four games against the Thunder last season. Westbrook on the other hand averaged 26.0 points per game in the same four games.
Things have changed.
One thing Lillard has worked to change is his poor perimeter defense.
"He took a lot of criticism about his defense," Terry Stotts said via Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com. "Obviously he had a great season as a rookie. Historical in some ways. But people kind of chipped away at his defense and he took that to heart."
Lillard is a year older and a year wiser, which has paid dividends on defense.
"Being a rookie, there's a lot you don't know coming into the league and it's easy for some offenses to take advantage of your lack of knowledge." Lillard said via Jordan White of Hardwood Paroxysm.
Excellent one-on-one defense by Damian Lillard results in a blocked 3-pointer. Lillard makes 2 FTs. Ballgame.— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) December 2, 2013
Knowledge is one thing, but Lillard should also be more confident.
Let's not understate the confidence that comes from earning Rookie of the Year honors. Not to mention, Lillard has Portland off to a 15-3 start and is coming off of a 106-102 statement win over the Pacers on Monday.
Confidence could not be higher for Lillard and the Blazers.
But confidence doesn't win ball games. What does win games is Portland's perimeter shooting. Lillard is shooting .403 from beyond the arc this season, which is up from his .368 mark last year.
More importantly for Wednesday, Lillard seems to be more comfortable in the Moda Center than he was in the Rose Garden. It's the same building, but for some reason the name change has Lillard shooting .442 from three-point land over .344 at home last season.
Lillard has struggled a bit from the field, shooting under 40 percent, but he makes up for that with great three-point and foul shooting. In his last 10 games he's 48-for-49 from the charity stripe.
With Nic Batum and Wes Matthews spreading the floor Lillard should have opportunities to drive, draw fouls and find open three-pointers.
Westbrook on the other hand shouldn't be salivating at Portland's defense. Last season, the Blazers had J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge defending the paint. While Aldridge is adequate, Hickson is, as Bleacher Report's Jay Wierenga puts it, "a terrible interior defender."
This year Portland has Robin Lopez replacing Hickson in the post.
Lopez provides a much-needed interior defender and that has stymied guards when they drive against Portland. Before he left with a torn meniscus, Derrick Rose was just 4-for-14 on two-point shots against Portland. Rose is pictured below driving against Lopez and Aldridge.
Westbrook should have a similar lack of success when he drives. Plus, the interior defense allows Lillard to play Westbrook closer in the mid-range, having the security of good help.
That will be crucial, because Westbrook has been thriving in the mid-range since his return. Check out his shot chart courtesy of Vorped.com:
Essentially, what's been asked of Lillard on the defensive end has changed from last season with Lopez patrolling the paint. Additionally, Westbrook has yet to find his stroke from beyond the arc. If Lillard is able to lock down the mid-range, then Westbrook will be forced to take shots he hasn't been hitting or drive against two solid interior defenders.
Also, with Lillard's confidence, maturity, three-point shooting ability and Portland's home-court advantage, the signs point to Lillard winning the point guard duel.
And for Portland to beat the Thunder for the first time since before Lillard was drafted.