The Portland Trail Blazers underachieved in the NBA Playoffs last season, but have returned as the third seed in the Western Conference with their key players in the prime of their careers.
Standing in their way of advancing to the Conference Semi-Finals are the Oklahoma City Thunder and one of the most devastating tandems in the NBA in the form of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
The Trail Blazers secured the third seed in the Western Conference last season, but were dumped out in the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans. Terry Stotts has been a good coach in the regular campaign, although he will be under pressure to improve his playoff record. Another first-round exit could end his tenure Portland given the talent at his disposal.
CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard are all outstanding players, although the loss of Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome was a blow. Amid a talented Western Conference, they need to rise to the occasion to guide their team through to the latter stages of the post-season.
On the other side, Westbrook has not quite been the points’ scoring machine he has been in previous campaigns. However, the 30-year-old has been distributing the ball around in the final third, allowing George to take center stage.
Westbrook led the NBA with 10.7 assists per game, while only James Harden notched more points per game than George. The duo have the ability to carry the Thunder into the latter stages of the post-season on their own – and they may have to with little around them.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland are in familiar territory after securing the third seed for the second season in a row. Last term their 49-win campaign was good enough to clinch the Northwest Division, but the Denver Nuggets rise has knocked them down to second place even after winning four more games. The Trail Blazers have not lived up to expectations in the post-season.
As the third seed last term, they were hammered in the first round by the Pelicans as Anthony Davis and company completed a sweep. Stotts is under pressure to deliver a stronger effort this time around. The presence of George and Westbrook will complicate matters, putting the onus on McCollum and Lillard to excel for their side. Nurkic’s presence would have been a welcome factor to tip the balance, but his devastating leg break ruled him out for the campaign and potentially the rest of 2019.
Lillard enjoyed another strong campaign, averaging 25.8 points per game. He is the heartbeat of the team, but has to improve the level of his production in the playoffs. The 28-year-old was well below-par against the Pelicans last season. His performance over the four-game stretch was a large reason why the Trail Blazers crumbled.
Lillard cannot afford another disappointing effort. McCollum remained consistent on the court, becoming the dependable option for Stotts. Whereas Lillard failed to fire last year, McCollum was on form, taking his game to a different level. Former Thunder player Enes Kanter takes on an important role in light of Nurkic’s injury. The center has to rise to the challenge of replacing his impact on the court, although matching his levels of production will be a difficult prospect.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder won one more than match than their campaign last season, but are two seeds lower than the 2017/18 season. Billy Donovan’s men occupy the sixth seed in the Western Conference and will be looking to replicate the performance of the Pelicans to sweep the Trail Blazers.
They were beaten in the first round of the post-season as well last term. Westbrook and company faced off against one of the NBA’s elite defenses – the Utah Jazz. It was Utah that were able to advance to the Conference Semi-Finals, despite a valiant effort from Westbrook.
Donovan’s men will have learned from the experience and the form of Westbrook this term suggests that the point guard appears to be spreading the ball around more in the final third. The 30-year-old has been a statistical machine in his career and has produced numerous breathtaking moments on court.
Westbrook tied Magic Johnson for the second most triple-doubles of all-time in his last outing. However, in the playoffs he has to concede that he cannot do it all on his own. Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and Dennis Schroder all have to play their part, although George has been dominant finding the net.
The 28-year-old has been outstanding this term, aided by the playmaking ability of Westbrook. He was second in the NBA in points per game to Harden. George has to maintain his impeccable standard of play in the playoffs given the importance of the Thunder’s leading duo. It might not be enough to defeat a team of Portland’s quality.
Head to Head
Games Played: 236 Portland Trail Blazers: 116 Oklahoma City Thunder: 120
The Thunder enjoyed a dominant run over the Trail Blazers this season, winning all four of their meetings. It was a complete contrast from last term when Portland enjoyed the sweep. All the contests this term were close-run affairs, being decided by nine points or fewer.
The Trail Blazers’ issues in the playoffs and their form against Oklahoma City this season will give Stotts cause for concern. Westbrook and George are big-game players and have already hurt Portland this term. The absence of Nurkic could be the crucial factor.
However, Portland will be determined to prove a point and will take the first game of the series so back them at odds of 69/1001.69-1450.69-1.450.69 with TopBet. However, the Thunder have the quality to claim the series as Westbrook and George will outduel Lillard and McCollum. Take Donovan’s men to advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals at odds of 13/102.30+1301.301.30-0.77 with BetOnline.
Portland Trail Blazers To Beat Oklahoma City Thunder Game One
Sunday 14th April 2019 15:30 EST (20:30 BST)
Oklahoma City Thunder To Beat Portland Trail Blazers Playoff Series