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April 1, 2011
Defensive Effort
Blazers Lock Up Thunder

by Kevin Pelton

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PORTLAND - To overcome a halftime deficit and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a possible playoff preview, the Portland Trail Blazers got defensive. Having allowed 59 points on 56.4 percent shooting in the first two quarters, the Blazers had plenty of room for improvement. As it turned out, they swung all the way to the opposite extreme, limiting Oklahoma City to 32 points and 25.6 percent shooting in turning a six-point Thunder lead at the half into an eventual seven-point Portland win.

Most impressively, the Blazers locked down on Oklahoma City's leading scorer, Kevin Durant. Durant was red hot during the opening quarter, when he knocked down five of his seven shots, including a pair of difficult stepbacks set up by his crossover dribble. Over the next two and a half quarters, Durant would make just one field goal. He did not make a shot between the 5:36 mark of the second quarter and the 1:32 mark of the fourth, missing 12 consecutive attempts in that span.

A variety of different Portland players get credit for the defensive effort. Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace shared the assignment of shadowing Durant, but what made life especially difficult for Durant was the way both players and Wesley Matthews were capable of switching off on Durant, preventing him from getting free on the variety of away-from-the-ball screens the Thunder uses to create space for him.

Even when Durant was going nuts early in the game, it was largely on isolation plays. Other than a transition bucket late in the game, he got few uncontested looks at the basket. Yet Durant kept firing, especially from beyond the arc, where he shot just 3-of-13. By keeping him largely on the perimeter, the Blazers were able to keep him off the free throw line. Durant had just four foul attempts--three when he successfully used a rip move beyond the arc and one on a Nate McMillan technical.

The defensive effort on Durant might have gone for naught if it freed up other Oklahoma City players, as was the case in the second quarter, when Portland had a tough time getting enough stops to cut into the lead. But none of the Thunder's players could get it going after halftime, and overall Oklahoma City only got prolific and efficient scoring from one player--sixth man James Harden, who scored 21 points on 6-of-15 shooting.

The Blazers were able to stop the Thunder despite frequently giving up multiple shots on each possession. Oklahoma City dominated the offensive glass, rebounding 17 of 40 available misses in the lone flaw in Portland's second-half defense. That was the case both against the Blazers' smaller frontcourt of LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace and against the bigger duo of Aldridge and Marcus Camby that got the start to match up with the Thunder and move Aldridge back to his more natural power forward position.

As it turned out, the lineup change was largely overblown. The bigger unit struggled in the first quarter, when Oklahoma City came out with strong energy and execution and quickly built a double-digit lead. It was much more effective in the second half, outscoring the Thunder by seven points. Camby ended up playing 24 minutes--seven fewer than he did off the bench Sunday in Oklahoma City--and McMillan finished the game with the smaller unit.

The biggest benefit of the new lineup may have been giving Aldridge a favorable matchup against Serge Ibaka, a terrific shot blocker who struggles to defend the post one-on-one. Aldridge got going early and ended up with a monster 32-point outing on 14-of-26 shooting. Aldridge was effective inside and out, altering his game depending on whether he was going against the slight Ibaka or one of the Thunder's more physical post defenders.

Aldridge's outing was supported by Batum, who showed no ill effect of coming off the bench for the first time since Dec. 15. Batum scored 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting and chipped in six rebounds from the perimeter in addition to doing battle with Durant at the defensive end.

Oklahoma City suffered just its second loss in the 10 games Perkins has played for the team, and the optimistic perspective for the Thunder is that the outcome might have been different had Perkins been able to avoid foul trouble that forced him to the bench a little more than three minutes into the third quarter with Oklahoma City's lead still at eight. With Perkins on the floor, the Thunder outscored Portland by 11 points.

But either way, the Blazers' second-half defense and their offensive execution throughout the game may well have been too much. Portland did not shoot the ball exceptionally well (46.8 percent on twos, 29.4 percent on threes), though not for lack of opportunities. Crisp ball movement around the perimeter resulted in 24 assists on 34 field goals, while the Blazers turned the ball over just five times. Wallace, with three, was the only Portland starter with a miscue.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Two Cinderellas (04/03)

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