The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 109-95, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, dropping Portland's record to 23-27.
That is why you want absolutely nothing to do with the playoffs if you're the Blazers. Those two rosters could face 20 times and Portland would be lucky to win once.
Oklahoma City now has three players that Portland struggles to stop from possession to possession. They now have four bodies to throw at Portland's only reliable scoring option. They have the offensive discipline and focus to generate quality looks against a mediocre team defense, they have the defensive tenacity to overwhelm Portland's guards and they have the size to dominate the glass. They jogged out to a 65 point first half, totally lost interest, toyed with the Blazers like a big brother tormenting a younger sibling, and then coasted to the blowout victory. There was nothing taxing about this victory whatsoever.
The game-changer, clearly, was All-Star guard Russell Westbrook's filleting of Portland's point guard duo of Nolan Smith and Jonny Flynn, patched together after starting point guard Raymond Felton left the team to be with his mother. Westbrook exploded for a game-high 32 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals on 16-for-26 shooting. He made Smith and Flynn look like fourth graders taking the SAT.
"I thought Russell really did a good job controlling the game," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He was getting to the paint, he was getting to his sweet spots and making shots and shooting over the guards."
Westbrook was shooting over the guards, running past the guards, picking the guards' pockets, blowing by the guards, swooping around the guards, dribbling as if he had the guards on a string, attacking the guards in transition. Really, torturing the guards.
"It's definitely a challenge," Smith admitted after making his first NBA start. "I was excited about it, excited about going out there and matching up. He's an All-Star. He knows how to get to his spots, where he wants to get on the court. I just tried to do whatever I could to disrupt his rhythm and make his shots tough."
There was no disruption. When Portland succeeded in keeping Oklahoma City in the halfcourt, Westbrook simply nestled into the free throw line extended areas, knocking down the same jumpers he spent 15 minutes working on during pre-game warm-ups. Splash, splash, splash.
"My job is to take control when the game gets out of wack," Westbrook said. "I just try to get to my spots, shoot the shots I work on during the season."
"He saw we were a little stagnant, we weren't getting any shots, so he took it over," All-Star forward Kevin Durant, who finished with 25 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, said. "That's what great point guards do. He got hot. He's been working every single day and that mid-range is starting to be water every single time."
"I noticed Russell, I don't think he missed a mid-range shot tonight," Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge said, after finishing with 20 points and 8 rebounds. "He made some tough shots tonight. That's good for him. He did what they needed tonight."
Westbrook and the Thunder caused all sorts of problems with their defense too. Their gambling, perimeter pressure helped hold Portland to 6-for-23 in the first quarter, as the Blazers struggled to get clean looks and settled for 3-pointers. Westbrook stepped into passing lanes, Serge Ibaka made a number of extraordinary blocks (6 total) and the Thunder regularly held Portland to one-and-done possessions.
"We know that Russell Westbrook is one of the best, if not the best, ball pressure guards in the league," Blazers Interim Coach Kaleb Canales said. "We had some options and counters that we didn't get to offensively [because of their ball pressure]. Down the stretch, Russell had a big steal that led to an easy basket."
Once Oklahoma City hit transition it was highlight time. Westbrook found himself so unmolested in the frontcourt that he repeatedly had the luxury of taking extra seconds to survey his fast break options -- as if he was ordering appetizers -- before picking out Durant for a few high-risers.
"Just trying to be unselfish and get guys involved," Westbrook said of his open-court machinations. "Everybody wants to see a show. Kevin can jump so you might as well let him show you dunks."
Westbrook's total domination and Durant's perfect 7-for-7 half shooting in the first half were plenty deflating. But Portland still made a push, reeling off a 17-2 run in the third quarter to briefly cut Oklahoma City's lead to just five. Even still, the Thunder's flashes of brilliance were way, way too much. The most spectacular came on a penthouse floor block by Ibaka of a Batum transition dunk attempt: way off the ground, perfectly-timed, across-the-body and yet still totally clean. It was a once-a-fortnight thing of beauty.
"Top 5, top 10," Canales answered, when asked to rate Ibaka's standing in the NBA in terms of his ability to influence games on the defensive end. "He's top tier for sure. His ability to block shots, even though he doesn't get to some, him and [Kendrick] Perkins defensively as a tandem are one of the best."
(This is the part of the story where Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune steps in to remind everyone that Ibaka is 22 years old.)
Portland's bright spot was the play of reserve forward J.J. Hickson, who shot 9-for-10 from the field and finished with 21 points and 4 rebounds, doing most of his damage from close range after barreling straight at the rim. Hickson logged 26 minutes on Tuesday with center Joel Przybilla and forward Kurt Thomas seeing limited action and reserve forward Craig Smith getting a DNP-CD.
"I know how to play this game, I didn't start playing yesterday," Hickson said of his quick adjustment to Portland. "I think I'm doing a good job of making myself available, getting the ball where I know I can score. Playing to my strengths... Coach is a great coach, he's young, energetic. He's just like me. Once we get a little more comfortable with each other, you'll start to see great things."
That might be a touch or two too optimistic, but he's made a strong first impression. It wasn't enough to keep all the fans in their seats for the entire 48 minutes but it was another step on his path towards sticking around next season.
Maybe it took this thorough demolition by the West's best to finally take any remaining remnants of luster off the worthless myth of a playoff chase. Hopefully. How watching Tuesday night happen four times in a row could still be considered preferable to an opportunity for even one additional ping pong ball is impossible to comprehend.
The Blazers spin in circles, sifting through endless roster questions, while the Thunder chug along towards legit contention. All the good things that have been said about the Thunder are accurate -- and more. The players show up early, warm up in a diligent and organized manner, work on the things they should be working on, have coaches and trainers aiding every step of the way. Everyone involved has been hand-picked, they are endlessly supportive of each other, they understand what it takes to win, they each know what they do well, and they -- by and large -- succeed in accomplishing it. (The only apparent chink in the armor is that far too many members of the organization laugh far too loudly at Westbrook's lame attempts at off-court humor.)
Tuesday night was a perfect case study for the importance of alignment, an example of how a mish-mashed roster put together by a makeshift front office can manage one great quarter while a meticulously constructed machine assembled by careful, intelligent engineering can dominate the other three quarters and take the punch without flinching.
The goaltending game will be remembered forever but this one should be just as instructive.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout.
- It's excellent news for the Blazers organization that president Larry Miller has decided to take up the GM search process once again. Obviously the process should have never ended. Why start it up now when he said less than two weeks ago that he wouldn't address the position until the offseason? Who knows. Maybe reality finally set in. Maybe the importance of the Draft process started to crystallize with the trade deadline officially passed. Maybe this is just Miller being Miller, changing course on a whim as he has throughout his tenure. Maybe it's just cover so the "No GM" headlines and punchlines won't dominate for the next month as the team limps into the offseason. Whatever is prompting the accelerated timeline, it's more important that the right decision has been made than that it was made for the right reasons. You can't always say that. But in this case it's true.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports that former Phoenix Suns GM and current TNT analyst Steve Kerr could be a GM candidate.
- Prior to the game, Blazers assistant coach Buck Williams and Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant ran a fairly epic 2-man comedy routine at the prodding of Dwight Jaynes. Their belly laughs were a good reminder that there have been happier times in Portland and that there will be happier times again.
- Shortly before tip off of the first game between the Blazers and Thunder since Goaltend-Gate, NBA commissioner David Stern told reporters in Phoenix that the NBA has had "some discussion" about implementing instant replay on goaltending calls. Coincidental timing or conspiracy?
- Portland made its big push in the third quarter but it also began a mini-run in the second. Brooks watched it unfold and simply decided to let his reserve unit play through it. Thunder guard James Harden restored order with back-to-back baskets.
- A Blazers season ticket holder named Brandon won free parking for a year during a jumbotron promotion and celebrated by getting the top of his completely bald head licked repeatedly by his male companion.
- Kevin Durant on OKC's defensive scheme against Portland: "We know [that] this team [is] relying on Lamarcus Aldridge, speed cuts, offensive rebounds. We wanted to take that away from them, make them shoot contested shots. LaMarcus Aldridge is such a load but Perk, Nazr [Mohammed], Nick [Collison] and Serge battled all night, did a great job."
- When you have four solid big guys to throw at an opposing All-Star plus three All-Star (or All-Star caliber) shot-creators, you're ready to contend for a title. Period.
- Hasheem Thabeet in a funny picture at the mall.
- Thabeet's lady friend is on Twitter. She's completely NSFW and for mature audiences only but also hilarious.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
32 point first quarter. 33 point second quarter. We didn't bring our hard hats in the first half to defend. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played like all-pros.
Frustrated by defensive effort?
We're going to stay committed to playing defense for 48 minutes. I thought we did a great job as a team to respond and come out in the third quarter and win that quarter. I thought Harden and Westbrook made plays down the stretch in the fourth. They came up with some key offensive rebounds. They beat us on the boards tonight, 43-30, you have to give them credit for that.
Point guard play
Well, I thought defensively we let them get in a rhythm. We talked to Nolan and Jonny about getting energy on the defensive end and the offense will come. I thought it was a good change of pace, Jonny coming in and pushing the ball. But we need to do a better job as a team defensively.
I thought J.J. was very good off the bench. But, again, we need to guard people, we need to play defense.
What went wrong defensively?
I think in the first half we had 2 or 3 key turnovers that led to easy baskets. We missed some rotations, we missed some crackdowns that we needed to get to. We made some halftime adjustments, I felt we corrected them in the third quarter. You have to give them credit, they made plays down the stretch.
How do you explain Jamal Crawford's struggles?
With Jamal, we talked about it this morning, we want to limit his tough shots. I thought he did a better job in the second half, trying to attack the basket. He needs to continue to try to get to the free throw line. We have confidence Jamal will knock down the next shot.
Did Jonny Flynn make a case for a spot in the rotation?
I thought Jonny played well. I think we'll take it game by game. He definitely made a case for himself tonight.
Did their perimeter ball pressure catch you off guard early?
I don't think it was a surprise. We know that Russell Westbrook is one of the best, if not the best, ball pressure guards in the league. We know Sefalosha's strength is to play defense. We had some options and counters that we didn't get to offensively. Down the stretch, Russell had a big steal that led to an easy basket. I can't remember if it was in the late third or early fourth, you have to give them credit.
I thought he was focused out there. He missed some easy shots that he wil usually hit. This is a team loss and this is a loss that we need to get on the defensive end of the floor.
What can you carry over to the New Orleans game?
Hopefully that third quarter. We played well, as good as we've played a quarter this season. We just need to be consistent on the defensive end for 48 minutes.
How does Serge Ibaka rank league-wide as a defender who can influence a game?
Top 5, top 10. He's top tier for sure. His ability to block shots, even though he doesn't get to some, him and Perkins defensively as a tandem are one of the best.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter