The Portland Trail Blazers put up a gutsy effort versus the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night, hanging close with the conference champs through three quarters. The strengths and weaknesses of their lineup and style of play were on full display in a game that's likely representative of the way in which their entire season will flow.
For Timmay's instant recap, including a breakdown of each quarter, CLICK HERE.
Plenty of things went right for the Blazers tonight, particularly in the first half. Their three point shots were open and falling. They never held the ball against Oklahoma City's defense and they never hesitated pulling the trigger when shots were available. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge both came out reasonably hot, making the defense pay attention. The Blazers rebounded well against the Thunder. We didn't see an aberration tonight, nor a particularly poor game. The Blazers did most of the things they set out to do.
Even when the Blazers were playing their best, however, fatal flaws showed through. Portland scored 0 fast break points in the first quarter and would remain largely silent throughout the game while Oklahoma City ran out repeatedly. (OKC won the fast-break battle 23-6 for the game.) With 5 minutes remaining in the second quarter the Thunder led the Blazers 20-2 in points in the paint. (The margin at the end of the night was 44-24 for Oklahoma City.) Kevin Durant contented himself with passing off in the first half but Russell Westbrook was eating the Blazers alive whenever he wished. And all this was when the Blazers were playing well.
Portland had spurts in the second half but as the game wound on the shots started coming deeper and missing short, likely due to fatigue. The Blazer bench came up flat. Opening Game star Nicolas Batum found himself unable to hit a shot. Without every piston firing the engine knocked, rattled, and then died no matter how hard Lillard, Aldridge, or the current hot hand pushed the accelerator. Riding the twin talents of Durant and Westbrook, Oklahoma City cruised home.
I'm saying this is probably reflective of the season for a couple reasons. First, the flow of the game mirrored the likely flow of other games and the schedule as a whole. The Blazers will be fine as long as they can keep their starters on the floor, fresh and healthy. They'll be doubly fine when other teams aren't prepared for them. Both will happen early in games and early in the year. But as soon as Portland's main guys tire--later in games now and probably for entire games later in the season--the Blazers will be in trouble. Fast break points, crisp cuts into the paint, and made three pointers all take energy. Fatigue is the enemy of all three. The Blazers don't have enough really good players to avoid tiring. The mantra will be "Looking good early, less so late" whether you're talking about a particular game or the season as a whole.
Second, the percentages don't favor this kind of attack no matter how fun it is or how good it looks. Granted, if the Blazers could field 10-12 good players they could make it look better in the win-loss column than it's likely to. But relying on outside shots and fast breaks from turning over the opponent is inherently more risky than relying on mismatches and scoring near the bucket. As we've said about a billion times already, some nights the Blazers will look great and other nights they'll look awful. This game tended towards neither of those extremes, which reveals most of what you need to know about the upcoming season. When they look great the Blazers will probably win. They're certainly capable of winning against almost any opponent when the shots fall. When those shots aren't falling and they look awful they'll lose, which is expected. The problem is, most nights the shots will fall an average amount, but that average will look better for the opponent because the Blazers are neither scoring in, nor defending, the paint, plus they're giving up a ton of free throws. Lacking the talent to overcome that gap by sheer force, Portland will have to hope that something goes wonky in some other category. Most nights it won't and we'll be left with the realization that when the Blazers play average and the opponent plays average, the Blazers will still tend to lose.
In short, nearly everything has to go right to give the Blazers a credible chance at success, especially when they allow over 50% from the field. One or two things like we saw tonight--a key scorer going cold, losing a critical positional matchup, early foul trouble for a starter, secondary defensive players not rotating--will be enough to take the Blazers down.
Damian Lillard was brilliant again in this game, particularly in the first half. He went 9-19 overall with 21 points and 7 assists. He kept the starters in rhythm, timed his shots well, struck a balance between the jumper and the drive and dish. He even put up a couple attempts in the lane in the second half. You can't overstate how pretty his offensive game is given the fact that he's a rookie in his first week. We also should mention that the Thunder obviously had instructions (or just the good sense) to drive on Lillard every time he was on-ball defensively. Russell Westbrook did it repeatedly (finishing with 32 points on 54% shooting) as did anyone Lillard got switched off on. The guy's a rook though. You can't have everything. You may never get great defense from Lillard. But man, that offense already comes pretty close to making up for it.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a great opening run, went ice cold in the middle, then finished strong for 22 points on 8-22 shooting. He drew 6 foul shots and hit all 6, which was good. His attempts were mostly straight-away jumpers, though. Those deserted him as soon as the Thunder defense started tightening up. All he could do was rush the "J" a little quicker, which inhibited his accuracy. Aldridge nabbed 15 rebounds, a great effort. His defense was also good considering how much his team was scrambling after getting beaten in individual matchups. All in all it was a good night for Aldridge, probably not great.
Nicolas Batum started the game quick shooting and quick passing every time he touched the ball. Neither one of these things is inherently bad. A few of his passes were brilliant, in fact. As he started missing, though, his game went south. Having to guard Kevin Durant for long stretches probably didn't help his confidence and concentration. All too soon he disappeared from the floor in all-too-familiar familiar fashion. He played 37 minutes. You noticed him for maybe 14. He went 1-11 for 3 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists, and 1 steal.
Side Note: It's early in the season but already we're seeing a couple things that make the back of my neck itch. One is momentous reactions to single games. After the Lakers game a portion of the chorus said the new Nicolas has arrived. No doubt after this one a similar portion will claim that he stinks. Neither is true. Batum is not as good on a nightly basis as he was Wednesday, nor is he as bad as he was tonight. The second is the propensity to blame every perceived ill on coaches...in this case former coaches who supposedly "stunted" him while the new staff "sets him free". Might it be possible that Nicolas Batum goes up and down like this because that is the player Nicolas Batum is at this point? Neither a red light nor a green is responsible for the quality of his play, he is. The single most important characteristic he can develop this year is consistency...that whatever the heck he does, he just does it and the Blazers can depend on it and plan accordingly. Without that, all the talk surrounding him is wasted air. But that's not a coaching thing, nor should it be entirely an opponent thing. That's a Nicolas Batum thing. Judge accordingly.
Wesley Matthews started out the game shooting in fine fashion and actually played some nice defense throughout, save the Thunder plays that were all but "undefendable". He looked really in tune with Lillard and his own shot early on. The shooting fell apart as the game progressed and Matthews finished 5-15 for the game, albeit 4-9 from the arc, for a nice 17 points. He had 3 rebounds and no assists, but he wasn't really the facilitator tonight.
You have to say this for J.J. Hickson: he's giving a heck of an effort on the boards and he's one of the few Blazers getting better as the game rolls along instead of worse. Hickson had 12 mighty boards tonight including a handful he fought for tooth and nail. His offensive rebounds (7 on the night) provided some of the few paint points the Blazers could get. J.J. finished with 14 points on the night.
Sasha Pavlovic led the bench players with 23 minutes but couldn't come close to duplicating his spark-plug performance from Wednesday. He shot 0-2, grabbed 2 rebounds, and collected 5 personal fouls. Yikes.
Meyers Leonard played 15 minutes and had 4 rebounds. Like Hickson, he did a good job fighting for those rebounds. Both he and Hickson got destroyed by Hasheem Thabeet (of all people) because of the size mismatch. But Leonard only collected 2 personal fouls in his outing. Baby steps.
Nolan Smith played 10 minutes, hit a nice runner, and turned the ball over twice. The Blazers tried a press when he was in, which could actually be a good move. He's running around hard anyway. This channels his energy.
Luke Babbitt got 9 minutes and I suppose one could see what one wanted in his performance. He hit shots, going 3-5, 2-3 from distance, for 8 points. But outside of the catch and shoot and maybe the power dribble pull-up, he doesn't look like a basketball player out there. The things he does well are fine. The things he doesn't do well are pretty bad.
Joel Freeland had 6 minutes, grabbed 3 rebounds, and missed 2 shots. Jared Jeffries got 5 minutes and Will Barton saw a token minute at the end of the game. Neither one had a significant impact.
It's off to Houston tomorrow...Portland's first opponent that isn't expected to contend for a title. The Rockets are young and now sport James Harden, making them doubly interesting. The preview for that one will go up overnight.
Boxscore for this game.
You can see the Oklahoma City side of this story at WelcometoLoudCity.
You'll have to overlook the Jersey Contest until we get the form fixed. Some unforeseen things are going wrong. Hold on and we'll re-start soon.
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