Indiana and Miami. Golden State and the Clippers. Houston and Oklahoma City. These are rivalries that were firmly established last year, although the Indiana-Miami rivalry has likely dissipated with the departures of Lance Stephenson and LeBron James. The intensity of these games were always at a higher level than other contests. One growing rivalry has the chance to not only add to the great list of heated NBA match ups but also spell trouble for the perennial title contender that is the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are various reasons as to why the Blazers pose the Thunder a potential problem to get back to the Western Conference Finals but I will only focus on the 3 main points that will create problems for the Thunder this season and catapult this rivalry to the top of the NBA.
Big 3 Vs. Big 3
Oftentimes when opposing Big 3s play each other, they don’t play the same position. In other words, they aren’t guarding each other. This is most certainly not the case when Portland and Oklahoma City play. Nicolas Batum vs. Kevin Durant. LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Serge Ibaka. Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. These match ups are even enough that it makes every game interesting. Nic Batum always gets under Durant’s skin on defense and has the length to effectively give KD a harder time of being a prodigy scorer. Lillard’s speed, craftiness, and shooting ability make it tough for Westbrook to defend, while Westbrook’s sheer strength and athleticism can overpower Lillard at any time. Lastly, Ibaka’s constantly improving post defense and Aldridge’s already excellent post game top this off as one of the most even and exciting match ups to watch between any two team’s top three stars.
The skill set of the Blazers’ stars is the main reason why they cause the Thunder stars so much trouble. They are apt at shooting the 3 which the Thunder are not apt at defending. Their big man doesn’t play close to the basket which takes Ibaka’s rim protection out of the paint. The Thunder stars may have the talent card on their side, but the Blazers’ Big 3 match up perfectly against what the Thunder do well.
This one is pretty straightforward. To put it mildly, these teams don’t like each other. Kevin Durant made that much clear when in a post-game interview he told the media “We don’t like them and they don’t like us.” The feeling is mutual KD. After the same game Aldridge echoed Durant’s sentiment saying “We don’t care to like them.” It’s obvious when these teams face off there is more motivation to win than normal. Each side hates losing to the other and the 2-2 split last year makes the future intensity raise to an even higher level.
Now on to why this is a threat to the Thunder. Portland has maybe the best go to man in the clutch in the NBA. Damian Lillard knows how to close games and he’s only going to get better as he matures and gins experience. While Durant and Westbrook also have a history of making clutch shots, Lillard is on another level. I mean, just check out this shot. When the pressure and intensity is highest, the Blazers can count on Lillard to make something happen and the Thunder’s often stagnant offense doesn’t always give Durant the same looks Lillard will get. Considering these teams will often go down to the wire, this could end up being a big problem for the Thunder. Especially if the scenario I’m about to outline in the next section plays out.
Possible Playoff Series
Any way you slice it, the Western Conference is a tough one. It’s almost guaranteed that the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers will occupy the top 3 playoff seeds in some order. After that an improved Dallas team, a star-powered Houston team, and a gritty Grizzlies team are certainly going to be in the playoffs. My point being is the Blazers may not have a very high seed. They could end up being the 6th or 7th seed which means they potentially are a first-round match up with, you guessed it, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There aren’t many teams who can potentially knock the Thunder out in the first round but the Blazers are definitely one of them and that should give a slight scare to any Thunder fan. However, the point of this article is not to scare Thunder fans. It is just to make the point that if there is any one team that Oklahoma City should be aware of, it should be Portland for these reasons.
This is the first part in a series in which Thunderous Intentions will be analyzing Thunder Threats so keep checking back for more!