8:00 PM EST – Line: Thunder -6, Over/Under: 230.5
With the All-Star Break looming, a pair of western powers jockeying for position meet tonight in a key battle as the Portland Trail Blazers travel to Chesapeake Energy Arena to face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sitting in Fourth Place in the Western Conference and three games behind their opponent tonight in the standings, the Trail Blazers (33-22, 4th in Western Conference) look to get back on track after a disappointing loss on Sunday. Everything appeared to be in order for Portland, who began a difficult upcoming sleight of games featuring nine out of their next ten on the road, with a trip to Dallas. Or at least up until the point in which it didn’t in the disappointing 101-102 defeat. The visiting side caught fire in the Second Quarter, before eventually pushing the limits of their lead to 96-81 early in the final stanza, with All-Star Point Guard Damian Lillard (26.1 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, PER) exploding for scoring sixteen straight points, accounting for Twenty-One of his Thirty in the third frame alone. However, the proverbial well would dry up in the Fourth, with Terry Stotts’ charges going more than ten minute without a single field goal, including Lillard, who missed each of his last four attempts down the stretch. This coincided with a furious rally from the hosts, as Rookie Sensation Luka Doncic gave his side their first lead since the First Half with a finger-roll layup with 1:28 left to play. When it was all said and done, the Blazers shot well (48.8% from the field), but were far too sloppy with the basketball, committing Nineteen Turnovers, which often led to easy opportunities for the Mavs, who outscored them 21-13 in Fast Break Points. Jusuf Nurkic (15.2 PTS, 50.1% FG, 10.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.5 BLK, PER) chipped in with Eighteen Points on 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%), along with Ten Rebounds, and Assist and a Block before fouling out late in the Fourth Quarter, while C.J. McCollum (21.4 PTS, 46.4% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.8 STL, PER) struggled to finish with Fourteen Points on 6-of-17 shooting (35.3%), including 0-of-5 from downtown, breaking a personal best of at least Thirty Points in three consecutive outings.
Indeed, Sunday’s loss was nothing short of a letdown for the Trail Blazers, up until that point had built quite a bit of momentum for themselves over the past month, winning twelve of seventeen contests to begin the new year. Of course, that’s how they managed to ascend to their position in the Western Conference, but as recent history has shown us, those standings typically prove to be chaotic. Despite occupying Fourth Place out West, there is just one game separating Portland from Seventh Place. So with that said, the Front Office got to work before the Trade Deadline in an attempt to cement their position in the top half of the standings, acquiring Rodney Hood (12.2 PTS, 43.4% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 13.4) from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Skal Labissiere (2.8 PTS, 43.3% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 0.5 AST, 7.0 PER) from the Sacramento Kings in separate deals. Though the latter has yet to officially suit up for his new employers, Hood has participated in each of the past two games for the Blazers, averaging 11.0 Points on 64.3% shooting from the field, including 50.0% from beyond the arc, along with 2.0 Rebounds, 0.5 Assists, and 1.0 Steal in 24.5 Minutes per Game. The hope is that both players, particularly Hood, will provide a shot in the arm for the second unit, which is far from one of the more productive groups in the league. While he doesn’t bring much to the defensive end of the court (which each of his previous teams can attest to), Hood should fit in well in his new surroundings; a solid catch & shoot option on the wing (36.8% Career 3FG), whom you don’t want to cede too many minutes to, the fifth-year Shooting Guard seems a natural fit in Stotts’ isolation-heavy, perimeter-shooting offense. In the past, this team has struggled mightily when one of their dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum has an off-night, and as they continuously wait on the aforementioned Nurkic to develop into a consistently reliable third option, Hood should provide quality depth. It will be interesting just how often Stotts will be able to incorporate him into smaller lineups alongside Lillard and McCollum, provided it doesn’t compromise their typically stout effort on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, if there is indeed a team out West capable of providing a serious challenge to the reign of the Golden State Warriors, one would have to figure that the Thunder (36-19, 3rd in Western Conference) have worked their way into the discussion, having won ten out of their last eleven games in route to ascending to the Third Seed in the Western Conference. That’s not all, folks, for Billy Donovan’s charges have pulled within one lone game of the Northwest Division-leading Denver Nuggets for Second Place in the Conference, all the while putting some sorely-needed distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. This is very much the version of Oklahoma City that many thought would become of last year’s unit, particularly after acquiring the likes of Paul Geroge and Carmelo Anthony in the Offseason to flank reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. However, for a variety of reasons, that team never came close to reaching it’s full potential, culminating in a second successive exit in the First Round of the Playoffs, this time to the spirited Utah Jazz in six games. This, of course, led to the Front Office retooling the roster to a degree, parting ways with Anthony, whose presence in the rotation was particularly jarring, and resigning Geroge (4 years/$136.9 million) to a long-term deal, while filling out the rest of the roster with younger, hungrier, and most importantly cheaper players to boost their overall depth and stabilize their balance. Credit General Manager Sam Presti, for not only convincing George to put pen to paper, but also in acquiring the likes of spark-plug Point Guard Dennis Schroder (15.7 PTS, 42.6% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.7 PER) from the Atlanta Hawks in the Anthony Deal, and athletic big man Nerlens Noel (4.8 PTS, 57.6% FG, 4.5 REB, 0.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 19.5 PER) in Free Agent. Each player brings energy and tenacity to the rotation, with the new faces fitting in seamlessly with Donovan’s furious, swarming brand of defensive basketball and alongside Westbrook’s erstwhile, yet prolific presence.
Of course, while a great deal of their success can be attributed to the fact that Westbrook is averaging a Triple Double (21.2 PTS, 11.1 REB, 11.2 AST) for a ridiculous third consecutive term, the surprise has been just how good George (28.3 PTS, 45.2% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 4.0 AST, 2.3 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.3 PER) has been. Granted, we’re talking about a four-time All-NBA, six-time All-Star, and an Olympian here, but few expected him to raise his game to an MVP level playing alongside Westbrook, who let’s face it, can be just a little ball-dominant. The ninth-year veteran Shooting Guard has thus far logged career-highs in a slew of categories including Points (28.3), Effective Field Goal Percentage (45.2%), Rebounds (7.9), and Steals (2.3), which he leads the league in, along with PER (24.3). Both players were monumental when last we saw them, rallying back from a 26-point to defeat the Houston Rockets 117-112 on Saturday Night. Geroge posted Forty-Five Points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field (54.5%), including 6-of-14 from downtown (42.9%), with Eleven Rebounds, Three Assists, and a steal, while Westbrook matched Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA Record of nine straight Triple-Doubles (set in 1968), totaling Twenty-One Points, Eleven Rebounds, and Twelve Assists, despite also committing Ten Turnovers and shooting just 8-of-21 from the floor (38.1%), in route to the largest comeback victory in the history of the franchise. Trailing 48-70 at Halftime, the visitors emerged from Intermission scorching hot, nailing seven of eight of their first eight attempts from the field, in route to outscoring Houston 42-20 in the stanza, and squaring the score away at 90-90 heading into the Fourth Quarter. Later in the game’s waning moments, Westbrook drove to the rim and converted on a layup to give the Thunder a one-point lead with just 26.9 seconds remaining, followed by reigning MVP James Harden (42 Points) missing a go-ahead Three-Pointer before Geroge collected the Rebound and was fouled. Two Free-Throws later, Oklahoma City forced a Turnover on the inbound pass and sealed the deal.