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Thunder roundtable: What's the biggest question facing OKC against the Blazers?

The Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will meet for the first time ever in the playoffs this weekend. The Oklahoman’s Thunder coverage team of Jenni Carlson, Erik Horne, Maddie Lee and Berry Tramel answer three questions about the team entering the first-round series:

Describe this Thunder regular season in one word and explain

Jenni Carlson, columnist: Capricious. A 50-cent word for sure, but it means "given to sudden behavior change." That description fits this Thunder season perfectly. There have been times of great success, times even when we thought the Thunder was a legitimate contender in the West. But then the Thunder did a 180-degree turn, and we wondered whether this bunch would make the playoffs.

Erik Horne, beat writer: Perplexing. The Thunder will amaze with both brilliant and bewilderingly bad play, often in the same game. Those extreme swings — from a two-month stretch of elite 3-point shooting to a post-All-Star break stretch of 29th-in-the-league offense — were costly in seeding. Yet, here OKC is in sixth with a legitimate chance to win a series via a wild combination of inspired play and good fortune.

Maddie Lee, beat writer: Unpredictable. Who foresaw a five-game winning streak to close the regular season? What about losses to Washington and Memphis immediately after big wins? Two months of shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range? Sweeps of Utah and Portland? Getting swept by Denver? Setting itself up for a first-round matchup with Portland? OKC has been full of surprises all season, both good and bad.

Berry Tramel, columnist: Rollercoaster. This has been the wildest season in OKC history. A four-game losing streak to start the season. Then a 16-3 spurt. A 1-5 slump, mostly against bad teams. Then stretches of 11-1 and 7-19. Finally, a five-game winning streak to end the season. Fans need a barf bag.

Fact or fiction: With a five-game winning streak entering the playoffs, and a matchup against Portland, the Thunder is the favorite in the series.

Carlson: Fact. Just don't tell the Thunder that. Whenever this bunch thinks it's supposed to win, it falters. The defense goes flat. The offense falls apart. Even effort and energy suffers. When the Thunder believes it is the underdog and is in a desperate position, it plays its best ball. So, yes, finishing on a winning streak, playing great ball and sweeping the season series against the Blazers, who are now without star big man Jusuf Nurkic, makes the Thunder the favorite. Just keep that fact to yourself.

Horne: Fiction. Las Vegas will tell you otherwise, as will everyone who brings up Nurkic is out and Portland suffered an embarrassing sweep last season against New Orleans. The Thunder has beaten the Blazers twice in four years in Portland. Both wins came this season, which should bolster confidence, but tread lightly calling the inconsistent Thunder the favorite.

Lee: Fact. Let’s put aside the Thunder’s 4-0 sweep of Portland for a moment. Portland is missing its starting center, and although it has weathered his absence well to end the regular season, that’s a hole the Thunder can exploit over the course of a series. Portland has an impressive backcourt, but OKC has matched up well against it, largely due to Terrance Ferguson’s emergence as a defensive stud. Now, whether the Thunder will live up to that expectation, that's another question.

Tramel: Fact. The Blazers are playing without Nurkic, the Thunder went 4-0 vs. Portland this season and Russell Westbrook/Steven Adams have a much deeper playoff pedigree than Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum. The Thunder duo has shared four playoff series victories. The Blazers’ duo has shared one.

What is the Thunder's biggest question entering the playoffs?

Carlson: Focus. Honestly, if this team focuses, it has enough talent to make the Western Conference Finals. But will this bunch focus? Will they make 85 or 90 percent of their free-throws? Will they stay with their man on defense? Will they lock in? I'd like to say yes; this is the playoffs after all. But the only thing that's been consistent about this team is its inconsistency, and that has a direct link to its focus, or lack thereof in this case.

Horne: Will Ferguson and Dennis Schroder make shots? Westbrook may be facilitating at the highest level of his career. If he continues to move the ball, Schroder and Ferguson — a combined 39-of-97 (40.2 percent) from 3 in the last 10 games — have to continue to connect to take pressure off a defense which has shown slippage.

Lee: Can OKC’s find consistency? Maybe Playoff P will shrug off his shoulder issues and shoot like he did in December, January and February. It’s more likely, however, that he’ll continue to shoot at a 40 percent clip, as he’s done since the All-Star break. In that case, the Thunder needs the other players around Paul George and Westbrook to shoot well. During the Thunder’s winning streak, Westbrook is averaging 15.6 assists per game. That kind of attack is much harder to stop than Westbrook, or even George, playing isolation ball.

Tramel: George’s health. And that doesn’t mean just his availability. Can PG’s damaged shoulder find his shooting touch? Before Valentine’s Day, George shot 41.3 percent from 3-point range. After, 32.5 percent. That correlates exactly with the Thunder’s late-season swoon.

Related Photos
<strong>Paul George, left, celebrates with Raymond Felton after the Thunder's 112-111 win against the Rockets on Tuesday. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Paul George, left, celebrates with Raymond Felton after the Thunder's 112-111 win against the Rockets on Tuesday. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-07db757abbc606bc4cae6a5798ab2f48.jpg" alt="Photo - Paul George, left, celebrates with Raymond Felton after the Thunder's 112-111 win against the Rockets on Tuesday. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] " title=" Paul George, left, celebrates with Raymond Felton after the Thunder's 112-111 win against the Rockets on Tuesday. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Paul George, left, celebrates with Raymond Felton after the Thunder's 112-111 win against the Rockets on Tuesday. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-468d253d71d71ea169058d9a34003d5f.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Raymond Felton, right, drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Raymond Felton, right, drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Raymond Felton, right, drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-222042d903b8fc0901eea8b5ddddfb0a.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Abdel Nader shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Abdel Nader shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Abdel Nader shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e95c3c3ee4c8dfc709714e45557e83a8.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams, left, is fouled by Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams, left, is fouled by Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams, left, is fouled by Milwaukee Bucks' Tim Frazier during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0e96fb1c37846b2e90ff73673b6bf541.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Sterling Brown during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Sterling Brown during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Sterling Brown during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4b287319b713503c6da4abe747c80b15.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant (9) drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant (9) drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant (9) drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-08717eb4a00b4e3fef838eda5e0edfdf.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder shoots against Milwaukee Bucks' Bonzie Colson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a0f2d45933b6b786587b838fce495a10.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder is fouled on a drive to the basket by Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder is fouled on a drive to the basket by Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder is fouled on a drive to the basket by Milwaukee Bucks' D.J. Wilson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-02ff32901a7c13f27a9c94137673d8bd.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder's Jerami Grant dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-cf6c638166ec128ae872da21894573a7.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson, left, collides with Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson, left, collides with Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson, left, collides with Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

Erik Horne

Erik Horne is in his fourth season on the Thunder beat. Horne joined The Oklahoman as a sports web editor/producer in September 2013 following a five-year stint at The Ardmoreite (Ardmore) – first as a sports writer, then sports editor. At The... Read more ›

Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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