Portland Trail Blazers, OKC Thunder Still Have a Lot to Prove

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 31, 2013

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

For the first time all season, the Portland Trail Blazers have a losing streak to snap.

Relinquishing their two-game skid will require them to knock off the only team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. Again.

But this time, the Blazers will take their high-powered perimeter attack on the road for Tuesday night's showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder (8 p.m. ET on NBA TV). Portland held serve at home the first time these teams met, something the Thunder have done in 14 of 15 games at Chesapeake Energy Arena this season.

While this contest features two of the Northwest Division's best, it should draw interest from all angles of the basketball world. Both teams have championship-caliber resumes, but there's something holding each team back from full-fledged contention.


A Superstar Absence

The Thunder (25-5) have managed to pass both of their tests since losing Russell Westbrook to his third knee surgery of the calendar year. 

OKC, already a top-shelf defense, has grown even stingier without its floor general. The Thunder have allowed just 85.5 points over their last two games, holding both opponents (the Charlotte Bobcats and Houston Rockets) under 38 percent shooting from the field.

The offense has looked understandably disjointed at times. But Kevin Durant has proven why he belongs in the MVP discussion, averaging 33.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists since losing his fellow superstar.

OKC's challenge is finding a way to make it so that heroic efforts aren't needed from KD. The three-time scoring champ can light it up at will, but it will take more than a one-man show to keep pace with this Blazers attack (league-best 110.4 points per 100 possessions).

That means the Thunder's young guns can't afford to act their ages.

It's been a predictably mixed bag for Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, the two players most affected by Westbrook's loss.

During Friday's four-point win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Jackson and Lamb did more harm than good. The pair combined for 20 points, but they shot just 8-of-29 from the field and 2-of-9 from distance. While KD found a way to carry the team to victory, this is not a pattern OKC should follow for the long term.

"I need Reggie Jackson. I need Serge Ibaka. I need Kendrick Perkins," Durant said, via NBA.com's Steve Reed. "I need to lean on those guys, just like we need to lean on each other. That is what team is about."

That message was received for Sunday's meeting with the Houston Rockets.

The defense shined again as Houston's star-studded offense couldn't get off the ground. James Harden, Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin combined for 23 points on 8-of-31 shooting.

"Overall we're playing well on the defensive end, trusting each other, having each other's back," Kendrick Perkins said, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "I think we're just putting the focus on defense."

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 29 :  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Chesapeake Arena on December 29, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Even if it wasn't the focus, the offense looked equally dominant in OKC's 117-86 blowout win. Durant dazzled again, but this time OKC was bolstered by strong nights from both Jackson (16 points, 7-of-12 shooting, eight assists) and Lamb (22 points, 8-of-10, five rebounds and five assists).

Barring the birth of a third superstar between now and then, this is how the Thunder figure to look until Westbrook returns. OKC has the tools to maintain defensive dominance, but the offense will have good and bad nights.

KD can work magic on the hardwood, but he'll need help to keep OKC at or near the top of the Western Conference standings. That help may never be needed more than on Tuesday night, when OKC squares off against the NBA's best offense.


One-Way Greatness

Even when the Blazers struggle, they do it in a way that's nearly impossible to stop.

Although Portland enters this game riding consecutive losses for the first time this season, its triple-digit streak remains intact: They've hit the century mark in each of their last 18 games, averaging a mind-numbing 112.4 points over that stretch.

Coach Terry Stotts has found an incredibly potent mix of perimeter proficiency, brilliant ball movement and superstar scorers.

MVP candidate LaMarcus Aldridge (23.5 points, 10.8 rebounds) powers this offense from the post, bullying opposing bigs near the basket or stepping away from it for silky-smooth mid-range bombs. Damian Lillard (21.4 points, 5.8 assists) drives this multilayered machine, doing damage from downtown (43.8 three-point percentage), driving toward the basket or finding his teammates anywhere in between.

Portland's game from long distance shines in both quantity and quality. The Blazers are averaging a league-leading 10.3 triples a night, shooting a league-best 40.3 percent from deep and getting multiple makes per game from three different starters: Lillard, 3.2; Wesley Matthews, 2.7; and Nicolas Batum, 2.1.

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 23: Portland Trail Blazers players, from left, Wesley Matthews #2, Nicolas Batum #88 and Damian Lillard #0 look on from the bench during a game against the Indiana Pacers on January 23, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Ore
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

But even an attack as strong as this can be undone at the opposite end of the floor.

Besides the punchless Utah Jazz, the Blazers haven't held an opponent under 100 points since Nov. 25. This defense has been burned for 111.4 points over its last five games, a stretch that's yielded just two Portland wins.

Tuesday is the second night of a back-to-back for Portland, a road trip that began with Monday's 110-108 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite getting nothing from their three-point shooters (2-of-11), the Pelicans kept the scoreboard moving with a commanding 68-32 advantage on points in the paint.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 30: Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 30, 2013 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Stotts tried to explain what's behind his team's defensive breakdowns after the loss, but unfortunately he couldn't limit his answer to just one thing.

"There are a lot of causes," Terry Stotts said, via NBA.com's Guerry Smith. "It's penetration, it's not helping out one another, it's transition."

In other words, there are plenty of problems that Portland needs to fix to solidify itself as a sure-fire contender.

The West is too good for weaknesses to remain hidden. Not only does the conference own eight of the NBA's top 10 winning percentages, it also employs 10 of the league's 12 most efficient offenses.

The Blazers have enough firepower to keep them in games, but this team needs to get crucial stops. If Tuesday's game comes down to the wire, Portland will have ample opportunity to get a stop against one of the league's best closers in Durant and prove themselves as a capable defensive team. 


Statement To Be Made?

Both of these teams have used the season's first two months to compile their cases as championship contenders. Each has walked away with the kind of proven production to put them in that discussion.

But both have opened themselves up to some criticisms, too.

OKC's youth was a question mark even before Westbrook went back on the shelf. This team has the pieces to get a championship, but there are still so many unproven parts. 

Westbrook's injury puts a glaring spotlight on the young guns. Either these will players grow up in the middle of a title race and rise to the occasion, or they'll fall apart and bring down OKC's championship hopes with them.

Portland's offense is loaded to the brim. This team hits from all angles and performs at any tempo.

But basketball has never been a one-way sport. The Blazers need a defensive identity to complement their offensive strength if they want to be anything more than an exciting regular-season show.

Both teams are going to play hard on Tuesday night and probably aim at their opponent's weakest spots. Neither team will rid itself of all concerns in one game, but both could show how well they respond to adversity.

The chance to make another positive stride is there for both franchises. Each club is heading in the right direction, but there are still many more steps to be taken in their paths to the podium.


*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.



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