Five things that play to the Blazers' advantage vs. the Thunder
The Portland Trail Blazers have their first round playoff opponent. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the rival at hand, and indeed something has bubbled between these two teams over the course of the season.
While Portland was swept by the Thunder over the course of the regular season, every game was a close one and perhaps the most memorable was an overtime loss where the referees certainly played their, ahem, part.
OKC is no cakewalk. Russell Westbrook, for all his inefficiency, is still a former MVP. Meanwhile Paul George was a legitimate MVP candidate this season before gradually tapering off at the end of the year.
There is much to look forward to even if some are doubtful the Blazers can beat Oklahoma City as the higher-seeded team. With that, let's take a look at some of the advantages Portland might have in the first round.
The Blazers are a better 3-point shooting team than Oklahoma City. We know that already. Portland is a top-third team in terms of 3-point shooting percentage, and the Thunder are a bottom-third team. Still, in their regular season matchups this year the Blazers didn't exactly rain down from deep. Portland shot better than 30% from beyond the arc only once. But there is some hope yet. The Blazers were able to get their shots off, and had a positive 3-point attempt disparity in all but one game.
Guys like Rodney Hood and Maurice Harkless seem more comfortable as of late, and if they can help stretch the floor and initiate against some of OKC’s weaker defenders, we know the shots will be there for the Blazers. Now they just have to knock them down.
Russell Westbrook's points per shot attempt have plummeted and his 3-point shooting is in the 7th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. If there's a weak point to dial in on, it'll be forcing Westbrook to take more 3-pointers, of which he doesn't actually jack up all that many.
Make no bones about it — Westbrook is still a high-caliber player and although he has petered off in reputation, that doesn't mean he isn't still effective in getting the ball out to his teammates. The Blazers will need to make sure he doesn't go off on an assist streak, and keeping the ball in his hands might be most beneficial. I’d bet dollars to donuts Zach Collins and Enes Kanter are watching tape of Westbrook right now so they can learn how to contest him at the rim without fouling.
Paul George's shoulder
George has been nonchalant about his apparent left shoulder injury. But he's had to leave games due to soreness, and he didn't play in the Thunder's final regular season matchup on Wednesday. George has been seen with tape all over his shoulder, and the slow decline in his numbers from have been largely contributed to whatever mystery ailment has plagued him.
You are never rooting for someone that to be injured, but the Blazers have gotten lucky in the postseason while battling banged-up squads before. George's shoulder will at least be a storyline either way, and although Portland can't target him specifically they can certainly cross their fingers for the Thunder forward not to be at peak performance.
Always and forever, this will be Damian Lillard's team. Without any hometown bias, I can tell you that Lillard deserves to be in the top five conversation for the MVP this year. He's just been that important, particularly in a season where the Blazers’ talent was not only not up to snuff on paper, but decimated by injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
Lillard was once again one of the ironmen of the NBA, playing in 80 regular season games this year. He's also been able to adapt in a new role, sharing the ball with McCollum strapped to him in the first unit. I don't think Lillard is the kind of player who can win a series all by himself — last-second shots notwithstanding — but as we've seen in postseasons past, how Lillard goes the Blazers will follow.
Hot play from wings
Al-Farouq Aminu had a career game against the Denver Nuggets on April 7th. Maurice Harkless had a game-winner against the Los Angeles Lakers. Jake Layman has been extremely productive at times this year. Rodney Hood is starting to feel himself ever since he went off on the Charlotte Hornets in early March.
There's no doubt that these Portland wings can get hot, but the question in the postseason is whether that will be something they can add to their scoring total or if they will need to rely on one of their rotation guys to come up big as the Thunder focus in on Lillard and McCollum. With the way the season has ended, I tend to think that chemistry and flow play a big part, and that's what Portland has in spades. With Nurkic out, the big story from the rest of the team will be about the wing play and how they come through for Portland on both sides of the ball.