Dec 31, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) handles the ball while being defended by Portland Trail Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum (88) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Portland Trail Blazers are the toughest competition for the OKC Thunder

One of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season has been the Portland Trail Blazers. Before the start of the season, not many people had them slotted as a top three team in the loaded Western Conference.

LaMarcus Aldridge has entered many MVP discussions, Damian Lillard continues to improve in his second season in the NBA and offensively, there hasn’t been any team better than the Blazers this season.

In two meetings this year, the Thunder have lost to the Blazers each time. The first came on the second night of a back-to-back in Portland back on Dec. 4 and then the Thunder blew a big lead at home on New Year’s Eve to lose 98-94.

Now that we’re at the halfway point in the season, it’s the Blazers who look to be the toughest competition for the Thunder in the Western Conference.

When healthy this season, the Thunder have looked better than just about any team in the league. With Russell Westbrook in the lineup, the Thunder were 22-4. They went 5-5 in the first 10 games without him after Christmas, but have since won their last three games.

The Western Conference is deep and every night presents a team with a challenging game, but when it comes to analyzing playoff matchups, not many teams look like they will be able to take the Thunder down in a seven-game series.

To beat the Thunder, you really need to be able to play good defense. You need to make the Thunder offense look stagnant like it did against Dallas in 2011, Miami in 2012 and Memphis last season. If the Thunder can get whatever they want and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can impose their will on a defense, no team is beating them four out of seven times.

Memphis is not going to be that hard-nosed defensive team this season to stand in the way of the Thunder in the playoffs. I don’t think San Antonio can be that team either, although the Spurs are surely good enough offensively to beat the Thunder in a series. Houston, Golden State and the Clippers just don’t play good enough defense.

That leaves Portland.

Like I mentioned earlier, the Blazers are scoring more than any team in the league this season. Defensively, they are actually in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency. But it’s the pieces they have that make you believe they could become a much better defensive team in the playoffs, in particular if matched up against the Thunder in a series.

Nicolas Batum is on the short list of players in this league who can somewhat contain Durant. He’s not going to shut him down, no one is, but he can make things difficult for KD. Batum has length, he’s smart and athletic enough to keep up with Durant better than most defenders.

Portland also has a great deal of size. Aldridge and Robin Lopez are as big as any 4-5 combo in the league. And Aldridge has the Thunder’s number this season and in the past. He is averaging 31.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game vs. OKC this season. Aldridge isn’t on the level Dirk was at in 2011, but he can kind of be that type of player, one that consistently fools Serge Ibaka and can take him out of the game.

In the backcourt, Portland has the hard-nosed Wes Matthews, the fearless Lillard and a great option in Mo Williams coming off the bench.

It’s one thing to have the great regular season that Portland is having so far, and another to keep it up in the playoffs. They certainly aren’t proven in that arena yet. Drawing a three seed or worse will guarantee a tough series from round one on.

If Portland can continue this pace and have the poise and confidence needed when the playoffs come around, I think they will be the toughest out for the Thunder, should the two teams meet.

We’ll get another look at the matchup tonight at 7 p.m. CST.

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