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On a night where they all but wilt under Oklahoma City's defense, the Blazers play scrappy basketball in the fourth period to claw into striking distance, but then scrappy play loses an "s" in the decisive offensive possessions.
You have to hand it to the Blazers. 87-83. They almost did it.
You have to hand it to the Blazers. They almost did it on a night when they shot 36% from the field, 28% from the arc.
You have to hand it to the Blazers. They almost did it with only two players scoring in double figures.
You have to hand it to the Blazers. They almost did it in spite of Kevin Durant pasting 33 on them in an offensive tour de force.
You have to hand it to the Blazers. The Thunder tried to. But the Blazers wouldn't accept.
More on that in a minute.
You could tell this was going to be a long night from the opening tip. Kevin Durant announced his return to Portland by slicing and dicing his way to 9 points in the opening 6 minutes of the contest. Inside or outside, he made a mockery of Portland's defense. But it was going to be a long night for Durant as well. As the game progressed two players worked tirelessly to make sure he didn't have a career night. Nicolas Batum got destroyed every time Durant caught it on his watch. So he went to the adulterer's defense: deny, deny, deny. It worked pretty well. After that opening flurry up until the half Durant caught and shot late. Russell Westbrook also did his part, hoisting his way to 5-21 shooting in lieu of Durant's pristine percentage. Between Batum and Westbrook, Durant stayed muffled.
Meanwhile the Thunder played great defense on the other end. You cannot say enough about this. At times this season we've said the Blazers have played "great". Oklahoma City showed tonight that the correct definition there was, "great, for Portland". If you want to see truly great, watch what the Thunder--the best offensive team in the league--did to the Blazers on the defensive end tonight. The few open looks the Blazers got came from deep. Those shots almost always missed.
LaMarcus Aldridge played like an All-Star throughout this game, feeding Portland bucket after bucket in their time of need. Even his most heroic efforts were not enough to keep the Blazers afloat. Portland's prospects floated away in a slow, consistent leak as Aldridge's teammates struggled. Nicolas Batum got hot in the second, winning back the margin late in the half. Portland actually led by 1 going into the break. But then the Thunder knuckled down, populating the third period with a succession of amazing defensive stands. The Blazers got obliterated in the quarter, scoring only 16. Meanwhile the Thunder remember that Durant, you know, existed, He scored 13 in the period as the Thunder recouped their deficit with interest, leading by 9 as the third quarter closed.
At that point it looked like lights out but once again Aldridge surged, followed by Batum. Together they were enough to counter the 9 more Durant scored in the final quarter. With Portland down by 7 with 4:40 remaining, LMA and Nic scored 11 straight points. Wesley Matthews switched over to Durant late in the game and forced a steal with 26 seconds remaining, leading to Batum's final three-pointer, pulling the Blazers within 1, 83-84, with 21 seconds remaining. Instead of intentionally fouling Portland forced a second turnover as Damian Lillard poked away the ball from Westbrook. Prone on the floor, Lillard flipped the rock to a streaking Batum. Nicolas drove but Durant swooped in like an eagle, making him change to a looping, left-handed layup attempt which missed badly. All the air came out of the arena at once. The moment was THERE but the Blazers couldn't convert.
Matthews alertly fouled Kendrick Perkins on the rebound. True to form, Perk missed 1 of 2, leaving the Blazers down 2 with 8.5 seconds remaining. After the timeout they got the ball to Aldridge, defended by Perkins. I was under the impression that no shot could look more awkward than the layup Batum had just attempted but Aldridge's semi-turn-around 19-footer with a second remaining put that theory to rest. It was a poor game-tying attempt, a reminder that:
A. Oklahoma City plays both ways. And...
B. Nobody in this starting lineup outside of Lillard--and that means nobody--has any kind of one-on-one attack off the dribble.
For all the poor shooting throughout the game, the Blazers never lost contact or hope. They actually played pretty well in most areas. Only in the last 9 seconds of the game did we see Portland collapse under Oklahoma City's pressure. Sadly those were the 9 seconds that decided it.
Normally we spend our time talking about the opponent in the preview and the Blazers in the recap, but let me just state again how incredible the Thunder looked on the defensive end tonight. It was a brilliant showing, the kind you'd expect to win playoff games with. This could well be the difference between the best and second best team in the West this year.
Portland also did well defensively, particularly with Batum's ball denial and team rebounding. I'd say Westbrook caused about half of the difficulty Oklahoma City's offense faced tonight but the Blazers didn't make it easy on them either.
Had Portland been able to hit a reasonable percentage on the handful of open threes they got, this game might have gone differently. But great teams don't give you many chances. If you don't grab the ones you get, forget it. Oklahoma City played like a great team tonight. The Blazers created opportunities but ultimately let them slip through their fingers.
The Blazers made 31 field goals tonight. LaMarcus Aldridge was responsible for 15 of those makes, roughly half. He went 15-26 on the evening. The rest of the team shot 16-60. Aldridge added 11 rebounds and 2 blocks to his Durant-matching 33 points. Most of his damage came on the face-up jumper, making a lack of free throws the only negative to his offensive game.
Nicolas Batum shot 6-17, 3-8 from distance on a night when he had...errrr...other duties. Whatever Durant looked like against Batum in the highlight reel--and Batum got burned multiple times so you'll see the clips--remember that nobody on the Blazers could stop him for long and that Batum actually did really well keeping the ball out of his hands. Batum also hit the critical three and a couple other improbable ones. The wide-open shots? Not so much. 21 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists.
The story was similar for Damian Lillard. Put him under pressure and take his mind out of the equation and he'd make a great shot or pass. His wide-open looks missed. he shot 3-14 on the evening, drawing only 2 free throws. He scored 9 with 9 assists. His defense was passable tonight. His individual defensive look is getting better. The whole scheme thing sometimes eludes him still.
Wesley Matthews had the NICE stand late against Durant, some solid defense otherwise, but shot only 2-8 for 7 points plus 4 assists.
The Blazers once again tried to set up J.J. Hickson early in this contest. Once again it turned out to be a poor idea. He's just not as good when he's the focus of the offense as opposed to getting his looks off rebounds or on the move. That experiment ended early and Hickson ended up having a decent night with 9 boards, 5 foul shots drawn (the most of any Blazer outside of Batum), and 7 points. The big problem was the lack of offensive rebounding. Hickson only got 1 on a night when Portland missed 55 shots.
Portland's bench was not good in this game. Joel Freeland and Jared Jeffries had 3 mostly so-so rebounds each. Will Barton had an ENORMOUS come-from-behind block in the first period, the kind that sent shock waves through the crowd. That was about it. Six bench players combined for 53 minutes, 3-14 shooting, 6 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 1 turnover, and 4 personal fouls.
Now the Blazers get to stare down the Nuggets in Denver. It's a reminder how ugly this little stretch is in terms of quality of opponent. After Tuesday, though, it's four straight home games against reasonable opponents. While it's not as exciting as playing the hottest, brightest, and best teams in the league all in a row, it will be a relief.
Update: People are talking about Aldridge's game-tying attempt in the comments so let's cover that a little more.
With the Blazers down 83-85 and 8.5 seconds left Portland came out of a timeout needing a bucket. Inbounding from the left sideline they spread the floor, then ran a diagonal screen for Aldridge to come out and receive the inbounds pass. He did, catching about three feet behind the three-point arc, up high, left side. Batum ran a curl above him, coming across the ball, prepared for the hand-off. Batum was well-defended on the cut but it also looked like Aldridge had already made up his mind to keep the ball. He lifted it out of Batum's way, waited until the cutter cleared, wheeled around with the left-handed dribble, going diagonally away from the bucket. This forcedhim to shoot back across his body for a well-defended 19-footer that airballed. It was an ugly attempt and an uglier result.
I don't blame LaMarcus for this entirely though. The way Aldridge was shooting tonight I'm totally on board with him taking the crucial shot. I just don't think this was his kind of play.
Objection #1: Even if you're on board with the Aldridge isolation look, why would you have him catch it 25 feet from the bucket? That's not scoring position for him. He has to move in order to become a threat and he's not good off the dribble, let alone off of the 4-5 dribbles it would take him to get in range.
Objection #2: Every key shot in recent memory (save the single-second prayers hoisted by Batum) has been taken by Lillard. I'm not arguing Lillard should have taken this one, but you know the opponent's scouting report has Damian's name circled in red in this situation. During this set Lillard was standing on the opposite baseline, hands down at his side, immobile. His only purpose was to keep a defender (in this case, Westbrook) over by him. Wouldn't you want to at least use him as a decoy in this situation? The set all but telegraphed where the ball was going and where it was staying. Why wasn't Aldridge posting and Lillard entering the ball, for instance? Or why didn't they have Lillard move somewhere, making the Thunder think about 2.5 players instead of the 1.5 they had to cover? The Blazers seemed to lose an opportunity for misdirection here.
Objection #3: I'm also fine with Batum factoring into the play, but his participation was underwhelming for a couple reasons. First, all he did was curl around Aldridge and Perkins. Nobody screened Batum's defender. Batum made no other motions except the curl. It was as basic as you could imagine, and thus as easy to read. The Thunder would have had to fall asleep to make the thing work. Second, the curl finished with Batum and his defender on Aldridge's right side when LaMarcus turned around, totally cutting off the possibility of Aldridge dribbling towards his right hand when he turned (the natural direction for a jumper when you're on that side of the floor). Batum and his defender were camped in Aldridge's path if he would have chosen to go towards the middle. Therefore when Aldridge spun he had only one direction to go: left, back towards the sideline...away from his shooting hand and the basket both. There was no chance to advance towards the hoop, no chance to draw a foul, no chance to make any kind of move except a straight dribble.
Given all this, the kind of weak, defended fade-away that Aldridge ended up shooting was hardly a surprise. But the final shot itself wasn't the real issue. Aldridge's position and that of his teammates--plus reasonable defense by OKC--set up that bad attempt.
The question is, was this the designed play or did something go wrong? It's hard to imagine a team with so much success in this kind of situation diagramming a play that ended up like that. That said, everybody but Aldridge and Batum looked like they did their jobs correctly. Perhaps Matthews, the inbounder, could have set a screen on Batum's man. Best guess, though, is that it was designed this way. If so, maybe it shouldn't have been.