Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George and Jerami Grant, along with coach Billy Donovan, identify the keys to victory in their playoff clash with the Portland Trail Blazers.
All year long, the Thunder ground out results to get to this point. The journey of the season is an integral part of the story of each year, and head coach Billy Donovan’s club can look back with pride at navigating through incredible surges and rocky waters throughout the 2018-19 campaign.
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From the MVP-level performances of Paul George, to missing a pair of shooting guards for nearly the entire season, the Thunder had much to rally around as they made a push towards clinching a playoff berth. With five straight victories to end the season, the Thunder started getting the results they wanted on the scoreboard and secured the sixth seed in a competitive Western Conference.
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That means a first-round date with the Northwest division rival Portland Trail Blazers, a series that starts in Portland with Game 1 on Sunday night. The Thunder like how they are playing heading from Game 82 into the start of the first round.
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“We stayed consistent with what we were doing. We got back to doing the same things throughout the season and we’re on a roll now,” forward Jerami Grant said. “We’re on the right track. Right now I think we’ve got to keep the momentum going.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Portland Trail Blazers in game one of their first-round playoff series on NBA Primetime – watch live on Sky Sports Arena on Sunday at 8:30pm
“We had to grind out some games and got some good wins,” Donovan said. “Hopefully the season starts off zero-zero right now and we can build off of that and can carry that into the next part of the season.”
While the Thunder are encouraged by the finish to the season and the 4-0 record against the Blazers, they know that the slate is wiped clean starting Sunday and they must execute at a high level for 48 minutes, possibly for seven games
Finding the winning window
From the very beginning of the season, there was a clear winning window that the Thunder had to fit into each night.
Donovan’s team had to capitalise on some key aspects within the game in order to give themselves a chance to win. Those factors are listed below, along with the way they shook out in the Thunder’s regular-season sweep of the Blazer
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As the first part of the defense, the Thunder got back and walled off the Blazers during the season series, allowing just 10.5 fast-break points per game while scoring 21.3 fast-break points of their own.
The NBA Gametime crew analyse the first-round playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers
“They like to get out in transition. They like to shoot a lot of threes out of it,” Grant said. “Us taking good shots, getting back on defense, is going to be big for us.”
The Thunder defense forced the Blazers into just 28.5 per cent three-point shooting on 34.3 attempts in the season series, despite Portland shooting 35.9 per cent on 30.7 attempts overall during the season. “We gotta get back to defending the three better,” Donovan said. “Certainly that’ll be a factor in the game against Portland.”
Thunder guard Jerami Grant handles the ball against the Houston Rockets
Prevent second chances
During the season series, the Thunder allowed 13.8 offensive rebounds per game, which led to, coincidentally, 13.8 second-chance points for the Blazers. “We’ve just got to gang rebound. Everybody’s pretty much got to crash the boards and make sure we secure the rebound,” Grant explained. “A lot of tip outs, loose balls, stuff like that, we’ve got to grab. They’re shooting threes so everybody’s got to come into the elbow, things like that.”
The Blazers attempted 32.0 free throws per game in the season series, including 47 in the most recent meeting on March 8.
Paul George and Russell Westbrook celebrate the Thunder's regular-season victory over the Portland Trail Blazers
The Thunder turned the ball over just 12.5 times per game against the Blazers in their four regular-season meetings, while forcing Portland into 14.8 per game.
Get efficient shots
While the Thunder were only able to manage 6.0 corner three-point attempts per game against the Blazers, below league average, Donovan’s club did get 32.3 shot attempts in the restricted area per game, which is well above the mean. “Our team has done a really good job of moving and passing the ball,” Donovan said.
Field goal attempts
All season long the Thunder led the NBA in field goal attempts per game with 94.0, but in the four-game season series, the Blazers attempted 0.3 more shots than OKC.
Sunday's Playoff games
- Indiana Pacers @ Boston Celtics, 6pm, live on Sky Sports Arena
- Oklahoma City Thunder @ Portland Trail Blazers, 8:30pm, live on Sky Sports Arena
- Detroit Pistons @ Milwaukee Bucks, 12am
- Utah Jazz @ Houston Rockets, 12am
The X’s and O’s and the statistics always tell part of the story in a game or a series, but the team’s mental and physical approach will be crucial in this series as well. Despite being the lower seed and starting on the road, the Thunder face a Blazers team missing Jusuf Nurkic, their star center who suffered a severe leg injury on March 25.
Highlights of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s visit to the Portland Trail Blazers in week 21 of the NBA
The Blazers have won seven of nine games since Nurkic’s injury and went 14-3 down the stretch. Despite sweeping the season series, OKC’s four wins came by two, nine, nine and eight points, in an overtime game on the road. Those skinny margins, Portland’s late surge and the challenge the Blazers present all give the Thunder a healthy level of respect to go with its ever-burning confidence and competitiveness.
“Those four games are out. This is where it really starts,” George said. “They’re going to make adjustments, we’re going to make adjustments, it’s going to be a whole new series against them.
“They’re a three seed, we’re a six seed, so we’ve got to go into it like that,” Grant said. “We know we’ve got to stay focused and come out and play extremely hard.”
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