March 3, 2018, 2:41 pm
OPPONENT: Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 37-27 (16-17 on road, 7-3 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 107.1 offensive rating (11th), 104.4 defensive rating (eighth), +2.7 net rating
INJURIES: Andre Roberson (out – knee surgery)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:00 EST, Moda Center (Portland), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Oklahoma
The Oklahoma City Thunder have won three straight games. Russell Westbrook is averaging 27.0 points, 12.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists on 48.4 percent shooting over that stretch, and had the go-ahead and-1 with 38 seconds left in overtime against the Dallas Mavericks that gave his team a one-point victory. That’s the problem behind the Thunder’s recent play, though – they’re beating bad teams by narrow deficits in high-scoring affairs.
Westbrook doesn’t seem too concerned by his team’s penchant for squeaking out wins against league bottom-feeders like the Orlando Magic, Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, who Oklahoma City has beaten in successive games over the last week.
“What’s our record against the best teams in the league?” the reigning MVP replied when asked by ESPN about the Thunder playing down to competition. “We not worried. I’m not worried. Sometimes it happens like that. We know we’re going to get teams’ best shot. We got another team’s best shot, but as long as we continue to get a win, that’s all I care about.”
Indeed, Oklahoma City is 4-1 against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors this season. But even that impressive record ignores crucial context of a problem that will plague the Thunder until next year. Only one of those wins, that contentious 125-105 victory over the Warriors at Oracle Arena on February 6, has come since Andre Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon, a season-ending injury that’s left Billy Donovan searching for answers in the starting lineup and Oklahoma City absent of the dogged defensive identity it built over the first three and-a-half months of 2017-18.
The Thunder ranked fifth with a 102.9 defensive rating when Roberson went down on January 27. They’ve allowed 108.4 points per 100 possessions in the interim, according to NBA.com/stats, a mark that would tie the Chicago Bulls for 26th in the league over the full season. Perhaps more discouraging, Oklahoma City hasn’t offset that major defensive downturn with a similar offensive uptick that would be expected from the absence of a liability like Roberson.
Why? Donovan just hasn’t been able to find a replacement who brings a positive impact to the table on either end of the floor consistently. Josh Huestis, a starter the past five games, is an even worse shooter than Roberson, and hasn’t found the comfort as a cutter he gradually has over the past few seasons. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, the defensive-oriented Huestis doesn’t have the quickness to defend elite playmaking guards, either, a task that previously fell to Roberson and has since been assigned to Paul George, who wreaked havoc earlier this season as a help defender.
Alex Abrines is a deadeye shooter, but can be exploited with both size and speed on the other end of the floor. Rookie Terrence Ferguson just isn’t ready for a big role on a good team, and Raymond Felton, bless him, is overstretched playing significant minutes – and his presence doesn’t allow Westbrook to “hide” defensively.
Oklahoma City is 8-7 since Roberson’s injury. If not for Westbrook’s singularly spectacular efforts of late against inferior foes, this team would be on the verge of falling out of the Western Conference playoff field. But like the Portland Trail Blazers, who are now third place in the standings, believe it or not, the Thunder are only two and-a-half games up on the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers.
Obviously, Saturday’s game at Moda Center has considerable playoff implications. For Portland, a win over Oklahoma City would give it a chance to own a tiebreaker after losing a pair of games to Westbrook and company earlier this season with another left to play. Terry Stotts’ team currently has a better divisional record than Donovan’s, too. This game seems like a bigger one for the Thunder, though, who need a win against a good team to prove to themselves – despite Westbrook’s confidence – that they would still be a tough in the the postseason absent Roberson.
Portland has another huge game, and should win it given circumstances of time and place; Oklahoma City barely beat the Suns in Phoenix last night. Star power isn’t necessarily on the Thunder’s side, either, not with the way Damian Lillard is playing.
Tipoff is at 10:00 EST. Buckle up yet again.