Mar 7, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the lower seed but you wouldn’t know it by how the two teams played each other in the regular season. The Thunder swept the Trail Blazers, in albeit close games. Oklahoma City has to do it again, but this time in the playoffs. One was a one-possession game, the other went to overtime. So, Oklahoma City didn’t exactly walk over the Blazers.

Here are three things that will lead to Oklahoma City beating the Blazers in the first round:

Attack Portland’s interior

The Blazers are without one of their best passers in Jusuf Nurkic. He went down with an injury earlier this month. What hurts the Blazers is his ability to pass the ball. When the ball went to the post, he was able to kick it out ot numerous shooters. However, his replacement, the lovable Enes Kanter, doesn’t carry that ability. He’s a guy who can score, sure but he doesn’t space the floor with his passing, nor does his find a way to limit his opponents defensively like an underrated Nurkic did.

Nurkic averaged 16.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game against the Thunder. That’s a massive hole. He was often the most impressive person on the floor, causing fits for players like Steven Adams. Without him, the Thunder have to attack. They need to attack Kanter on the pick-n-roll. They need to attack him on the glass. Sure, the Blazers are going to chip him on the cut to the rim, trying to limit Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams on the glass. However, the Thunder have to show the massive liability Kanter is. It helps the Thunder had him for a few seasons, learning what those were.

Emotional IQ

This is more along the lines of Westbrook. Mr. Triple-Double. It’s no secret these two teams aren’t fond of each other. Westbrook had his run-ins with the Trail Blazers. Westbrook often gets in his head and plays certain ways against teams and players that appear to bug him. For his career against Portland, Westbrook is shooting under 44 percent from the field and only 30 percent from three. That’s where Westbrook has to keep his wits about him. He has to be smarter. If he wants to sit back, rock the baby and try to dominate the game in the post, Portland is going to be more than content to letting Westbrook do that.

Westbrook’s ability to funnel the game through his all around game play is what is going to fuel Oklahoma City to victory. If he’s sharing the ball, and playing within his game, that’s where he becomes lethal. When he’s forcing it into the post and making it about him and not the game, the Thunder could struggle. Don’t give the Trail Blazers what they want. Westbrook has to have a high emotional IQ in this series. That is not excluding his temper with the officials and dumb fouls. This isn’t the time for that. Team first.

Pick your poison

The Trail Blazers don’t have a real lockdown defender, let alone two. There’s no way the Blazers can defend Westbrook and Paul George. George averaged 38.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in his four games against Portland. He shot 46 percent from three and shot 60 free throws. If the Blazers throw Moe Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu at George, it’s Westbrook who should be able to take Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. If they switch that to Harkless or Aminu on Westbrook, it’s George that has to go to work.

All of this point, goes back to the first point, attacking Kanter on the pick-n-roll and on mismatches. The Thunder have to give the Blazers all they can handle. and more with Westbrook and George. They have the best tandem on the court.

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Chuck Chaney

Founder & Editor-in-Chief.
Member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.