Sizing up Blazers-Thunder series
Looking at all the angles of the best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup between the Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City, which begins Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Moda Center ...
• Portland is the No. 3 seed and Oklahoma City is No. 6, but that doesn't impress the oddsmakers or national pundits.
BetOnline and SportsbettingAG websites predict the Thunder will win the series.
BetOnline sets the Blazers' odds to win the Western Conference at 50/1 — only the L.A. Clippers have higher odds at 150/1 — and 100/1 to win the NBA championship. Only Orlando (150/1), Detroit (250/1) and the Clippers (250/1) are given less chance to win it all.
SportsbettingAG has Portland as a 40/1 shot to win the West — ahead of only the Clippers (50/1) and San Antonio (50/1) — and a 100/1 shot to claim the NBA title. Six teams are bigger underdogs to win it all than the Blazers.
Both sites list Oklahoma City and No. 5 seed Utah as having a better chance to win conference and NBA crowns than the Blazers.
A Thunder "upset" of the Blazers is a trendy pick among the national media, in no small part due to OKC's 4-0 sweep of Portland in the regular-season series and the season-ending injury to center Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers will likely go in with a collective chip on their shoulder, mindful that the concensus among media folks before the season was that Portland would finish anywhere from ninth to 11th in the West.
"They didn't even pick us to be a playoff team, period," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said after the Blazers' Friday practice sessions. "We didn't value their opinion then, and we don't value it now. They can pick whoever they want to pick, but you still have to go out there and play the games."
• After getting swept in four regular-season games the previous season, the Thunder turned the table on the Blazers this season. But all four were single-digit victories, the last one by a 129-121 count in overtime.
OKC small forward Paul George was sensational in the series, averaging 38.0 points (with games of 37, 36, 47 and 32) along with 10.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals.
"He has played very well against us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He can score in a lot of different ways. He has had good 3-point shooting games. He has gotten to the (foul) line in some games. He has played off the dribble in some games.
Portland forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless spent a good deal of time guarding George, who averaged 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals overall during the regular season.
"Any time we play anybody, we usually switch," Aminu said. "Any time Moe sends somebody my way or I send him his way, we can play back off each other. I think of it as a dual thing."
With George, Aminu said, "You try to throw different bodies at him to wear him down physically, but he's a great player. Making it difficult on him is going to be a key to be successful. He can shoot really good. He gets up a lot of 3's. He makes you play him close, but he can also get to the basket. His versatility makes it difficult."
Said Stotts of defending George: "Like with most great players, you try to make him work for it. You try to make him take tough shots, knowing that he's going to make some of them."
• George will play in Sunday's playoff opener but will be less than 100 percent due to a sore right shoulder that held him out of the Thunder's regular season-ending 127-116 win over Milwaukee on Wednesday.
"I couldn't do nothing with my right side," George told reporters about sitting out the game with the Bucks.
But George says he won't miss Sunday's game.
"It's playoff time," said George, who missed three games with pain in his left shoulder in late February and early March. "It's about being out there with my guys. So, as close as I can get it to 100 (percent) as possible, you (can) expect me out there Sunday."
• Lillard was outstanding against OKC during the regular season, posting his highest scoring average against a West opponent (34.8) and exploding for a season-high 51 points in the overtime loss on March 7. But Lillard shot poorly from 3-point range (.250) in the four games.
In last year's playoff sweep by New Orleans, the Pelicans blitzed pick-and-rolls, trapped and double-teamed Lillard and held him to well below his regular-season averages in scoring (18.5 points), rebounds (4.5) and assists (4.8). Lillard shot .352 from the field and .300 from 3-point range in the series.
This season, Lillard said, the Thunder "have trapped a few times. They're more aggressive sometimes in games than at other times."
Does Lillard expect the Thunder to borrow a page from the Pelicans' defensive playbook in the upcoming series?
"It's a possibility," he said. "You have to think it's something that could happen, but you never know. The good thing (about the playoffs), though, is you have time to prepare, both offensively and defensively.
"All season long, I've been challenging myself to be prepared for whatever, and for how I'll attack whatever comes. Once we get out there and see what's happening, I'll be ready to do whatever I need to do."
Lillard said he has put last year's playoff failures behind him.
"Nothing I can do about it, because (last year) is over," he said. "But this os an opportunity to rise to the occasion, to show that sometimes when you struggle, when you go through a hard time, you can come back even harder. The next time the opportunity presents itself, you gotta be ready for it.
"I've done everything all the way from that moment that we lost that series to prepare myself to be ready for it this time. And I'm ready to go."
• Lillard has a formidable foe in OKC point guard Russell Westbrook, who had excellent numbers in the regular season against the Blazers — 29.5 points (shooting .432 from the field, .350 from 3-point range and .784 from the foul line), 10.0 rebounds and 8.8 assists.
Westbrook is one of the more volatile players in the league, with a mercurial temperament that he'll show fairly often with referees and, on occasion, with opponents.
The Thunder's floor leader does his share of trash-talking, and he has launched some of it in the heat of the moment in the direction of Lillard.
"Sometimes I don't even pay attention," Lillard said. "It'll be like I don't know what's happening when it's happening, and when I do hear it, I'll say something, but that ain't really my style.
"I'm not moved by it whether I say something or I don't. It's not going to affect me in any way. Why engage more than I would any other time? If it was off the court, I wouldn't engage, either."
But Lillard respects Westbrook as a player and bears no ill feelings toward him as a person.
"It's weird," Lillard said. "We're real cool once we get off the court. When I see him in public, we speak. You know: 'How's the family? How are the kids?'
"But then there's something about it when you get on the court. He's one of the top point guards in the league, and so am I. When you get out there, you know your team is going to go as you go. He has to outplay me, and I have to outplay him if I want my team to win. That's what it turns into.
"But off the court, we're cool. I know Russ. I know (George). But once you get out there, this is our job. We're out there to win, and we're on opposite sides."
Portland center Enes Kanter, who spent 2 1/2 seasons with the Thunder, vouches for Westbrook.
"People talk about him (being) crazy, but he's a chill guy outside of basketball," Kanter said. "He makes jokes, and he's actually a very good teammate. All the charity work he does shows his character. He has been doing an unbelievable job, not just on the court, but off the court, too."
• One of the more intriguing matchups in the series is Kanter against OKC's Steven Adams, who manned the post together for Kanter's 2 1/2 seasons with the Thunder — Adams as the starter, Kanter as his backup.
Kanter said Adams was his "best friend" with the Thunder, "like my brother."
"He's one of the best teammates I had in OKC," Kanter said of Adams. "He's definitely one of the best post defenders I've seen. He's their backbone (on defense). We used to go against each other a lot in practice. It wasn't basketball; it was like wrestling. You could almost hear the bones cracking.
"I know his game; he knows mine. He taught me a lot about defense; I taught him a lot about offense."
Kanter arrived in Portland after being waived by the lowly New York Knicks in February.
"They thought I was too old," said Kanter with a wry grin. He turns 27 on Feb. 20.
The 6-11 center was pursued by several teams, narrowing his choice to Portland and the L.A. Lakers.
"I'm so lucky I didn't choose the Lakers," he said. "I didn't know. It was 50-50. Then I got a text from Damian and a text from Neal (Olshey, the general manager). That showed that this team wanted me. I made the right choice.
"With the Knicks, we didn't plan for anything (in the playoffs). It's amazing. I feel blessed. I could be going on vacation yesterday. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, 'Man, I feel blessed to be here with this team, with this organization.' It's one of the classiest and best organizations I've been a part of. If I went to L.A., I probably would have gone nuts."
• CJ McCollum said he is "ready" to play after seeing action in the final two regular-season games following a 10-game absence with a strained knee. Portland's starting shooting guard, who averaged 21.0 points in 70 games, said he will have no minutes restrictions in the playoffs.
If there is a position at which the Blazers would appear to have an advantage over the Thunder, it's at shooting guard. OKC's Terrance Ferguson, who turns 21 on May 17, averaged 6.9 points for the season along with 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists. In the season series between Portland and OKC, McCollum averaged 19.8 points (though on only .354 shooting). Ferguson averaged 7.8 points, making 12 of 17 shots from the field and 5 of 10 from 3-point range in the four games. His presence is felt mostly at the defensive end.
"II always feel like I have an advantage at the 2," McCollum said. "That's how you have to be. You have to be confident in your abilities and understand who you are as a player.
"They're a good team. They have a lot of different dimensions. But I like their chances, and I like my chances every night."
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