• OPPONENT: Oklahoma City Thunder

    RECORD: 44-30 (26-11 at home, 7-3 last 10 games)

    MEASUREABLES: 107.4 offensive rating (ninth), 104.4 defensive rating (eighth), +3.0 net rating (eighth)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Corey Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams

    INJURIES: Andre Roberson (knee surgery – out for season)

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 7:00 EST, Chesapeake Energy Arena (Oklahoma City), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Oklahoma.

    Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was always going to be significant for the Portland Trail Blazers. After two consecutive losses in the wake of a 13-game winning streak, though, Terry Stotts’ team needs a win at Chesapeake Energy Arena to maintain its tenuous grasp on the third seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder, at 44-30, are now just a game behind the Blazers in the standings.

    Three weeks ago, Portland beat Oklahoma City 108-100 for its sixth consecutive victory. Russell Westbrook took 31 shots to get 30 points, and Paul George needed 19 – including misfires on all seven of his 3-point attempts – to score 21. Despite the yeoman’s work of Portland’s primary and help defenders to keep the Thunder’s All-Stars in check on March 3, it can’t count on similar struggles from Westbrook and George on Saturday. Westbrook is a 48 percent shooter at home compared to 42.4 percent on the road, and the presence of Carmelo Anthony, who missed the last matchup between these teams, adds a threatening dimension to the Thunder offense that should make life easier on the reigning MVP and George. Corey Brewer, signed off the waiver wire 48 hours before making his Oklahoma City debut against the Blazers, has been far better than even Billy Donovan could have anticipated, too, averaging 10.9 points and 2.2 steals in 28.4 minutes per game while shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range on relatively high volume.

    The Thunder are a better team now than they were back then, basically. More recent play nothwithstanding, the same could be said for for Portland.

    Its win over Oklahoma City earlier this month was one of the most impressive victories of the season in which Damian Lillard struggled. He had 20 points and seven assists, but shot just 5-of-18 from the field and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc, frustrated by the Thunder’s aggressive pick-and-roll coverage. They’ll no doubt choose to get the ball out of Lillard and C.J. McCollum‘s hands in ball-screen action again, daring Portland’s supporting cast to beat them behind the initial point of attack. As Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and more have made abundantly clear over the last few weeks, and especially in that streak-busting loss to Houston, they’re more than capable of taking advantage of attention paid to Lillard and McCollum. The biggest question for Saturday’s game is whether or not the many open shots stemming from that defensive focus will drop; it’s almost a foregone conclusion by now that Stotts’ team will find them.

    They may need to fall for Portland to steal a win in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are 7-1 in their previous eight games, a stretch that directly coincides with them nearly falling out of playoff positioning altogether following consecutive losses to the Blazers and Rockets. That’s no accident. Westbrook has saved his most efficient basketball of the season for its most important time; the surprisingly strong play of Brewer has mitigated the previously devastating impact of losing Andre Roberson for the season; and Chesapeake Energy Arena is an even more difficult place to play as we get deeper and deeper into spring.

    A third straight loss by the Blazers wouldn’t be a complete disaster. They already hold the tiebreaker over Oklahoma City, and the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans, fifth and sixth in the West, respectively, have a more difficult remaining schedule than Portland. The Thunder do, too. It’s also not like dropping from third to fourth would be a death-knell; the Blazers match up far better with Houston than the Golden State Warriors.

    Still, stopping the bleeding before it gets worse is always better than the alternative. Let’s see if Portland can do it under the intense scrutiny of a road game with major playoff implications.

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