In a battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder went into the Rose Garden to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 89-77 on Tuesday night. As usual with games I attend in Portland, here are five thoughts from the game.
1. A New Example of Youthful Success
Last week, I got a good e-mail from Chip Crain, a co-author of the Memphis Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue:
"I was re-reading your piece on Age and Success in the NBA and was wondering if you planned on updating the article for this season. With the recent success of the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers I was curious if age and success still has as direct a relation as in years past."
Actually, the correlation between team effective age and winning percentage is almost exactly the same this year (.511) as over the three-decade period I studied last year (.515). In part, the Blazers are no longer overachieving based on their age. With 33-year-old Andre Miller at the point and 37-year-old Juwan Howard logging heavy minutes in the middle, Portland is now almost exactly average in effective age, ranking 16th in the league.
Still, Memphis and Oklahoma City have both been outliers. The Grizzlies, contending for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, are the league's fourth-youngest team. Meanwhile, the Thunder is not only the youngest team in the entire league but at an effective age of 24.0 is slightly younger than Portland was a year ago (24.5). Nonetheless, Oklahoma City would be the sixth seed in the Western Conference Playoffs if the season ended today and is trending upward. The Thunder is 17-7 since Dec. 23.
Before the game, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks was asked about his team winning despite its youth.
"I don't talk about their age," said Brooks. "They don't talk about it. I don't allow them to talk about it. You don't want them to make that an excuse. If you're an NBA player, no matter how old you are, you're an NBA player. You expect them to perform and do the things you need to do to win. Our guys embrace that."
We saw some of that during the second half. The Thunder was reeling late in the third quarter, allowing the Rose Garden crowd to get into the game. Oklahoma City responded with a 15-2 run to start the fourth period and never looked back. It was a composed stretch from a team that plays with much more maturity, especially at the defensive end, than its age would indicate.
2. Blazers Ready for Break
On the reverse side of that fourth-quarter run was the Portland bench struggling all night long. Other than rookie Dante Cunningham, who scored a career-high 14 points and added six boards, the other four Blazers reserves who saw action combined for five points on 2-of-18 shooting. Three of those guys were on the floor at the start of the final period, along with Cunningham and ineffective starter Martell Webster.
Because players like Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge have stepped up, the stretch going into the All-Star break hasn't been quite as dire for Portland as I suggested it might be when I last traveled down I-5 on Jan. 27. The Blazers have gone 3-4 since then with one more game tonight at Phoenix before the All-Star break. Still, it's obvious that the team could use a few days off to get guys playing through pain like Jerryd Bayless healthy and would really benefit from the return of star guard Brandon Roy, who will not play until at least next Tuesday when Portland starts the second half of the season by hosting the L.A. Clippers.
I mentioned this last time, but the issue is that Roy's absence, especially combined with missing big men Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, leave the Blazers with little margin for error. So even on a night where they defended Oklahoma City very well, their poor outside shooting (3-of-20 from three-point range), the bench and 24 turnovers left them neutered on offense. Portland managed just 81.0 points per 100 possessions and looked stagnant with the basketball. We can credit the Thunder's defense (which I'll break down in more detail tomorrow) with some of that, but not all of it.
3/4. Kevin Durant and Nicolas Batum
This is worth two thoughts. Tonight was the first look this season at a matchup that figures to be an entertaining one in the Western Conference for years to come, Thunder star Kevin Durant and Blazers defensive specialist Nicolas Batum. Batum, who recently returned from shoulder surgery, missed the first meeting of these two teams. In that game, Martell Webster did an excellent job defending Durant, and though Batum made his first start of the season, Webster initially got the call against Durant defensively. With the Oklahoma City forward starting as well as Portland came out cold on the other end, Webster sat in favor of Steve Blake little more than three minutes into the game, passing Durant along to Batum.
Both players are incredible athletes whose arms seem to reach almost to the floor. That makes Batum an ideal defensive matchup for Durant, and he did a better job of man defense than Durant's final line of 33 points and 11 rebounds would indicate. Through the first three quarters, Durant shot just 9-of-21 from the field. And if that still sounds pretty good, remember that Durant has shot 50.6 percent from the field in calendar 2010 as part of a stretch that has seen him elevate his game to another level. Beyond that, Durant rarely beat Batum one-on-one early on, getting most of his points in transition or as part of pick-and-rolls. But Durant would eventually get the better of his opposing number, knocking down a long jumper and a pull-up three-pointer in Batum's face to salt the game away late in the fourth.
As for Batum, in the nine games he has played since returning to the lineup he has looked like a different player than during his solid rookie season. Then, Batum was very much a role player whose involvement in the Blazers' offense was limited to transition and spot-up three-pointers. Building on his strong effort for the French National Team in last summer's EuroBasket 2009, Batum has been much more aggressive in his abbreviated sophomore campaign, increasing his usage rate to 16.6 percent of Portland's possessions while on the floor and creating more for himself. That's a good sign that Batum, still just 21, has a chance to develop into a valuable player at both ends of the floor.
5. The Ups and Downs of Russell Westbrook
Should Kobe Bryant be unable to play in this Sunday's All-Star Game, by the numbers Russell Westbrook is one of the top options among Western Conference guards to replace him. With 5.7 WARP, Westbrook is third among the group of West guards not already invited (trailing Dallas' Jason Kidd and the L.A. Clippers' Baron Davis). Westbrook certainly looked the part last week, when he won the conference's Player of the Week honors on the strength of 19.7 points, 9.7 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game. Tonight's effort, in which Westbrook struggled to finish and missed seven of his nine shot attempts while turning the ball over four times, was a reminder that Westbrook still has a ways to go to reach that level in terms of consistency.
Really, it's remarkable that Westbrook rates as well by the numbers as he does, given that he's making just 42.8 percent of his two-pointers and has a True Shooting Percentage below 50 percent (it's at 48.4). Westbrook's chiseled frame and ability to jump out the gym suggests that he should be a phenomenal shot-maker in traffic, but for whatever reason the skill to finish the shots he often creates with ease eludes him. Hoopdata.com shows Westbrook making just 52.0 percent of his shots at the rim, which is actually an improvement form last year's 47.0 percent mark.
Still, Westbrook is a highly valuable player because of his myriad other skills. The last time the Thunder visited Portland, I remember having an extended conversation with Brooks about Westbrook's ability to play the point, which was at the time very much in question. No longer, as he has rapidly developed into a premier set-up man. Westbrook's assist rate is eighth in the league, and five of the seven guys ahead of him are All-Stars. Beyond that, Westbrook can simply make athletic plays at the defensive end of the floor and on the glass few other point guards if any can match. During last night's game, he rose with LaMarcus Aldridge to intercept a lob in transition one-handed, like a cornerback cradling an interception on a jump ball.
No, Westbrook isn't quite there yet, but when he does figure it out, watch out.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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