In a Nutshell
The Blazers experience the expected troubles with pace and lack of continuity without their starting (and only) point guard--the injured Raymond Felton--but still manage to ride LaMarcus Aldridge and various situation-specific heroes through their fistfight with the Thunder. A poor goal-tending call at the end of regulation helps send the game into overtime. There, as in much of regulation, the Blazers have trouble rebounding and setting the offense. Those twin bugaboos, plus occasionally lax transition defense, provide enough margin for the Thunder to escape with the win.
The Blazers came out aggressively in this game. You have to give them credit from the start. They did not have their usual tempo. They didn't have their usual array of offensive options. They did, however, set a basic offense wherein Jamal Crawford (or whomever the Thunder forced the ball to on the perimeter) entered the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge. The Thunder decided not to double Aldridge for most of the early game. As a result LaMarcus feasted on jumpers over hapless defenders. Whenever anybody else had an open look they took the shot and usually hit. Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford fit into this category. The Thunder, longstanding victims of Portland physicality themselves, tried to bump and shove the Blazers early, establishing themselves as the more physical team. They're not good at it. They remind me a little bit of the Prime-Roy Years Blazers wherein everybody had skill but nobody was particularly tough. The result of OKC's bungling attempts to bully was trips to the foul line for the Blazers. Sadly Portland missed many of those attempts, but the pattern was set.
On the other end the Blazers did a good job guarding 4 of Oklahoma City's 5 players on the floor at any given time. For most of the early minutes of the game that 5th player--varying each trip--was wide open. Not being fools or particularly weak at their exterior positions, the Thunder took advantage, straight-lining and twining jumper after jumper. From the beginning of the game the Blazers also had a problem corralling OKC misses, likely indicative of the extra effort required just to stop them in the first place. Nevertheless, Oklahoma City is one of the weakest offensive rebounding teams in the league. Not so tonight. Between second chances and a bunch of niggling Portland continuity (and sometimes flat-out turnover) errors the Thunder were able to keep close even with the sterling quarter the Blazers put forth. Portland led 31-29 after one.
Portland's bench is already shallow and Raymond Felton's absence made it paper thin. Craig Smith played well enough in the second period but Nolan Smith looked overmatched and overwhelmed. Portland's savior on Saturday, Nicolas Batum, entered the game and began missing the three-pointers that went in against Denver. Thankfully Oklahoma City's bench didn't fare much better. James Harden made free throws. That was about it. Still, it would have been foolish to keep Portland's deep bench players in for long, as the writing was on the wall there. So Portland coach Nate McMillan started rotating his starters back in, beginning with Aldridge who responded with yet more scoring. The extra minutes for their main guys kept the score close, 50-50 down to the 3:15 mark of the second. That's when the Blazers started gagging up the ball and not getting back in earnest. Plus they gave up more offensive boards. OKC took advantage of the gifts to build a 60-52 lead going into the half.
When the third period began with the Blazers generally flat-footed and the Thunder out-hustling them in every conceivable way it looked like this contest was over. The ONLY thing the Thunder couldn't do was put the ball in the hole. They got to loose balls first. They rebounded. They played faster than the Blazers. They made more quality passes. They just could not hit the shot. The thing is, despite the valiant lobby efforts of advanced statisticians across the internet, basketball games are still scored using plain old points. A free throw here, a tip-in there, and the dozen-point Thunder lead was down to 6. That seemed to rekindle the Blazers' fire. They threw on some nasty defense, barely allowing OKC to dribble, let alone pass clean. A couple of turnovers, a three-pointer and some change, and the Blazers were back on top. From then on you knew it was going to be a scrap. The third period ended with the Blazers spreading scoring between Aldridge, Crawford, and Matthews while the guard duo of Russell Westbrook and James Harden went on a huge tear for OKC. When the dust cleared from all of this twine-tickling Oklahoma City had re-established a 6-point lead, 85-79, but Portland was looking steely-eyed yet.
The fourth period began with Harden and Batum engaging in a mano-a-mano duel that should be sung through the ages. Harden scored a couple times in the opening minute before Batum said, "Mais non, mon frere." (Add the accent, both grammatical and in the delivery of the line, yourself.) The two then commenced to pushing, shoving, and butting heads like Bambi and that jerk deer going after Faline. (Sorry. Batum is kind of cute and baby-faced so when he gets all tough it brings to mind Disney movies.) In any case, Batum shut down that Harden crap and scored a little himself, playing a different kind of hero. When he finally connected with a three at the 6:50 mark the Blazers were even once again.
From this point on the Blazers began to make better use of Aldridge and Crawford together as well, bringing LaMarcus out of that left-side post position and up above the key. Simple moves left him open for jumpers which he hit time and time again. Oklahoma City had no answer and now the Blazers led by 6, 101-95, with 2:17 left. Then Durant hit a three-pointer and Westbrook took advantage of his ability to drive, drawing fouls. With a minute left the score was tied again at 101. But the new, improved Blazer offense left more wiggle room for Crawford and he hit a jumper to put his team ahead by 2 again with 55 seconds left.
At that point the Thunder turned over the ball and the Blazers drained the shot clock before missing. OKC got the ball back with 34 seconds, down 2. The Blazers then proceeded to defend the heck out of the Thunder, forcing three consecutive misses between the 26 and 12 second marks, two by Durant. Sadly, the game-long inability to secure a rebound came back to bite the Blazers, as they ceded the ball after all three of those misses when any decent rebound would have secured them a trip to the foul line and a chance to put away the game for good.
With 6 seconds left Durant made one final run to the hoop, down the left side of the key. He got to the bucket, went for the layup, but LaMarcus Aldridge made a masterful block, laying in wait and timing it perfectly, making little contact below and smacking the ball off of the backboard just a hair's breadth--maybe half an inch or an inch--before it made contact with the backboard. The Blazers tipped out the ricochet and looked to run out the clock...but......... TWEET! Referee Scott Foster made a motion to count the bucket, calling the block goal tending, saying the ball had made contact with the glass before Aldridge slapped it away. Now granted, this was a close thing. A ref can be forgiven for messing up a distinction that presented itself to the eye for about a tenth of a second. I don't necessarily have an issue with the missed call. The problem I have is that when he made the judgment, Foster was the referee out beyond the top of the three-point arc...not the sideline ref, not the baseline ref, but the one out near halfcourt. The one thing you need in order to judge whether there was any air between the ball and the backboard when Aldridge hit it is an angle. Foster was not only 30 feet away, he was 30 feet away behind the ball. He had something of a diagonal view but nowhere near as good of a look as the two other refs who did not call goal-tending. The referee with the worst look made the critical call that changed a game with 6 seconds remaining in a close contest. If you make that call from that position you had better be right. Foster wasn't, as the replay clearly showed. Who knows...the Blazers might have missed their ensuing free throws and Oklahoma City may have tied it or won at the buzzer, but that's a long shot. Percentages say that this call cost Portland the game.
Russell Westbrook made a spectacular (and correctly-called) block of Nicolas Batum's layup attempt to send the game into overtime, tied at 103. Both teams, likely tired by that point, struggled to score in the extra frame. The Thunder missed jumpers. The Blazers had trouble even getting a shot off. Portland had the ball down 107-109 with 30 seconds left but even with a timeout to set up a play they had to settle for a horrible bail-out jumper attempt from Crawford at the shot clock's ebb which mercifully got blocked before we could all see how badly it missed. In a weird ending to an otherwise hard-fought game the Blazers failed to foul despite being down only 2 with time remaining. Durant ended up with the ball at halfcourt and streaked to dunk it, providing the final margin. The Blazers lose 107-111.
The offense in this game was a mixed bag without Felton running the show in the usual manner. On the plus side it forced the Blazers to play to their strengths more instead of just relying on a bunch of dribbling, maybe a pick, and bunches of bail-out jumpers. Portland was all but forced to look for Aldridge as both first and second options. That's a good thing. Also when other players got the ball in scoring position for the most part they took their shots, knowing there wasn't a good alternative. That's also a good thing.
Side Note: I say "for the most part" because the Blazers continued somewhat their current habit of passing up open jumpers they have to take, whether they make or miss them. It's like they've read their own stat sheets and public critique and are now avoiding the three, especially. The problem is, passing up an open shot often leads to a worse one or a turnover. That hesitation also allows the defense to recover and puts incredible time pressure on whoever ends up with the ball. I'd rather see an honestly-missed three in critical situations than shots passed up in favor of a desperation heave.
Despite the handful of good things, Portland's offense was generally slower than Felton has run it and everything seemed a bit off. Aldridge knew what he was doing. Everybody else had to work harder and at times looked puzzled, draining shot clocks that shouldn't have been drained.
Portland's defense looked pretty good most of the time, less because Felton himself is a horrible defender and more because they were forced, almost by default, to keep other good defenders on the floor. Crawford's defense looks a lot better when he's in a lineup with Matthews, Batum, Wallace, Aldridge, and/or Camby than it does when he's paired with a relatively weak Felton or Smith in the backcourt. Portland kept a lid on the Thunder most possessions. The glaring, GLARING exception was in transition, where it looked like nobody had a clue. At minimum the guards are supposed to get back to defend. That didn't happen. In the halfcourt Oklahoma City had to earn their points but when they got running you might as well have had a table of NBA legends and fat guys on the sideline with numbered placards to judge the dunks.
Yet again when these teams match up LaMarcus Aldridge looked like the better of the two UT stars tonight. Durant had 33 points on 33 shots including a bevy of the usual ill-advised early-clock jumpers. He had 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Aldridge had 39 points on 28 shots, went 11-11 from the foul line to Durant's 1-1, and netted 6 rebounds and 3 assists. All of Aldridge's non-bailout shots looked solid and well-executed. Plus Aldridge defended the heck out of Durant when it mattered. I'm not saying Aldridge is better than Durant on average or overall. That would be silly. But when these teams meet Aldridge just looks...amazing.
Gerald Wallace had a rough offensive night at 2-9 for 4 points but to be fair the Blazers seldom ran and often left him holding the ball from long range with nothing to do but shoot. He had 5 rebounds and 4 assists and keyed that energetic defensive run in the second half that brought the Blazers back. I don't think he had anything to be ashamed of tonight. He did what he was supposed to do.
Marcus Camby had 15 rebounds, doing what he could to prevent the Oklahoma City roundup on the glass. Nice "D" here too. He did end up taking 11 shots but the Thunder let him. 4-11, 8 points.
Jamal Crawford did not suck. He wasn't exactly the point guard of your dreams but this could have gone a lot worse against Westbrook and company. Granted Russell scored 28 with 11 boards but he's done that against other Portland point guards. Meanwhile Crawford committed only 3 turnovers, had 5 assists, and managed the ball. He couldn't push it and the Blazers kept it simple, but that almost worked out to a win against a very good team. He went 6-18 for 17 points.
Wesley Matthews struck opportunistically tonight, shooting 6-9 for 18 points, 2-5 threes made, 4 assists, 2 steals in 36 minutes. He took his shots on offense without getting in the way, defended sporadically but not fatally...it was OK. However, if there's a worse player on the fast break attack I don't want to see him. In the last week the litany of Matthews' faults on the run have included getting his fast-break layup attempt blocked by Earl Watson (who is about the same size as Emma Watson), then getting capped in the same situation the next game by Isaiah Thomas...and not even THAT one but his 5-9-ish son. Then tonight, among other things, he actually outran his own dribble when going in for a layup on the break. This is getting Paris Hilton under green light ugly. And I feel the same kind of embarrassment watching it.
Nicolas Batum shot 5-15, only 1-6 from distance. To be fair a few of those three-point attempts rattled in and out. But you knew he wasn't going 9-15 again. To his credit after four misses or so he abandoned the tactic and started playing real offensive basketball again, to good result. His defense was masterful at times. His effort was superb. He was a true star in that early fourth quarter. 13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals in 32 minutes.
Kurt Thomas did fine in his 21 minutes, as did Craig Smith in his 9. It was about what we've come to expect from both.
Nolan Smith got 8 minutes, shot 1-3, and got off the floor without causing damage to either team.
Fun With Numbers
- The teams were pretty close except in a couple of categories. The Thunder got 20 fast break points to Portland's 7. The Thunder had 59 rebounds to Portland's 39. That's ouchy when the Blazers are more known for beating up on OKC than vice-versa.
- The Thunder had 18 offensive rebounds. That's 8 over their average.
- The Blazers won the turnover battle, committing only 12 while the Thunder committed 19. The Thunder actually scored more points after turnovers than the Blazers did though.
- 30 feet. That's how far away you were when you made that call, Scott Foster.
- 70 degrees. That was about your angle when you made the call. The ideal would have been 0 and the worse possible would have been 90.
Neither team has anything to regret here. The Thunder did plenty enough right to win this game and they did, getting the Portland monkey off their backs, at least in part. The Blazers also did plenty right under less than ideal circumstances. It was a great game.
Read about the Oklahoma City impressions over at Welcome to Loud City.