While the Portland Trail Blazers are undoubtedly a talented team, it's unlikely many predicted the team to be tied with the San Antonio Spurs atop the Western Conference standings.
The Blazers are fresh off a big win over the Indiana Pacers but will face another tough team in the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. Suffice it to say this matchup will again test Portland, but the Thunder can have the upper hand. Here's how:
Guard the Three-Point Line at All Costs
The Trail Blazers have some terrific shooters in Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. All three are knocking down over 40 percent of their long-range shots, with Matthews leading the charge with an incredible 51 percent conversion rate.
Portland is the second-best three-point shooting team in the league, hitting 41.3 percent, which trails just the Golden State Warriors. The team makes 9.5 three-point baskets per game, which leans heavy on the aforementioned players. The trio makes 2.8, 2.8 and 2.1 threes per game respectively, so Oklahoma City must play smothering defense on the perimeter.
The Thunder allow just 34.2 percent shooting from long range on average, good for No. 7 in the NBA. Despite this, OKC allows opponents to make 8.9 three-point shots per game. While the team's defense percentage-wise is solid, the tempo of their play allows higher volume from opponents.
Oklahoma City cannot afford to continue this trend heading into their matchup with Portland. The latter team is scorching from deep thus far, and it's a big part of their offense. It spaces the floor for driving lanes for Lillard and Matthews, as well as creating room for LaMarcus Aldridge to operate in the low post.
Courtesy of Team Rankings, Portland ranks second-last for scoring in the paint at 33.8 points per game. Aside from Aldridge, the team doesn't have another low-post option or an inside presence at the very least. Robin Lopez is more of a defensive player, so any chance to push the ball away from the three-point line and into the paint should be taken by OKC.
If the Thunder can limit the Blazers' shooting production, the team will have a much easier night.
Get into the Paint and Draw Fouls, Force Portland's Bench to Contribute
Portland is just as potent defensively as it is offensively. The team is just 0.6 points away from having a top-10 defense in technicalities, according to ESPN.com. The Blazers also allow just 45 percent shooting by opponents, which fits alongside a dominant perimeter defense of 32.9 percent from long range.
Portland is also a very disciplined defensive team, committing 19.1 fouls per game, which ranks No. 5 according to Team Rankings. Teams shoot just 22.1 free-throw attempts per game versus the Trail Blazers, another top-10 statistic in terms of putting opponents on the line.
What the Thunder must do is get physical and draw fouls on key players.
As talented as Portland is, the roster is a top-heavy one, as the team has one of the worst bench productions in the league. According to HoopsStats.com, the Blazers bench averages 22.8 points per game, which is good for fourth-worst in the NBA.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal predicted Portland's poor bench production in his report from opening week, saying:
Portland had a fantastic offseason, acquiring a strong defensive center (Robin Lopez) and a lot of depth (C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Mo Williams). But the second unit—while not as weak as it was last year—still isn't a strength, and that will ultimately be the team's downfall.
If the Thunder can force some foul calls on the Blazers' starting players, Portland will be forced to turn to the bench for help. Mo Williams has been the only regular reserve at 25.1 minutes per game, followed by Joel Freeland, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson all averaging less than 15 minutes a night.
The Blazers' reserve unit isn't strong, and Oklahoma City can take advantage if the team's offense pushes the ball inside.
Play in the Mid-Range Area, Open up the Paint
The Blazers are great defensively, but they have a weakness. The team allows 43.9 points in the paint per game, courtesy of Team Rankings. It ranks them No. 25 in terms of opponent points in the paint, right near the bottom of the league.
Oklahoma City presently ranks No. 10 with 42.2 points in the paint per game. With the combination of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the perimeter and Serge Ibaka in the paint, the trio do most of the heavy lifting scoring-wise.
The Thunder's "Big Three" can lead the charge in opening up the paint for the team on Wednesday night. Portland's lack of size and interior defense will work in OKC's favor, and they must take full advantage.
Ibaka's mid-range shooting—45.6 percent, according to NBA.com/stats—can open up the floor for the rest of the team. Ibaka has 97.2 percent of his mid-range makes assisted on by teammates (once again from NBA.com), with Westbrook and Durant combining for 53 total assists across all of Ibaka's scoring.
If all three can be on the same page, it will prove too much for Portland to handle. The team will be forced to put Aldridge or Lopez out on Ibaka to guard the jump shot, thereby opening up the paint for driving lanes by Westbrook, Durant or any other of the Thunder's perimeter players.
If not, the Blazers can pack the painted area and allow the outside jumpers of the Big Three, either in pick-and-pop situations or coming off screens.
In any case, the Thunder should force the mid-range shooting and see how Portland reacts. Oklahoma City is an extremely versatile offensive team with a lot of options and will ultimately give the Blazers a ton of trouble defensively.
The Thunder can do the same with their smothering defense, which acts well both in individual situations and as a team defense. Portland has won over the likes of the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs, and could indeed do so against Oklahoma City.
But not if the Thunder can follow the game plan and take advantage of the Blazers' weaknesses.
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