The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 87-83, at the Rose Garden on Sunday night, dropping Portland's record to 20-17.
The Blazers have breathed more than their fair share of sighs of relief over the last six weeks, pulling out overtime victories and last-minute wins in all forms and fashion. On Sunday, the Thunder, playing without starters Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefalosha, played the "just happy to get out of there" role after a disjointed game in which only Kevin Durant, who finished with 33 points, six assists, four rebounds and two blocks on 12-for-21 shooting, and seldom-used DeAndre Liggins provided any consistent offensive success.
The NBA's three-time scoring champion was all smiles after Damian Lillard missed two late threes, after Nicolas Batum missed a lay-up with nine seconds remaining that would have given Portland a one-point lead, and after LaMarcus Aldridge air-balled a contested 19-footer with three seconds left that would have tied the game. Smiles because the Thunder got a tough road win without two key rotation players. Smiles, too, because Lillard was standing and watching on the weakside on the game's deciding possession rather than working one-on-one towards a game-winner as he did against the New Orleans Hornets back in December.
"Glad that Lillard didn't shoot that three at the end," Durant told Blazersedge. "He's such a big-game player."
His words were meant as a note of appreciation for Lillard's late-game heroics this season and they were generous on a night in which the Blazers rookie shot just three-for-14, including the two missed threes in the game's final 90 seconds. While not intended as an insult to Aldridge, who had his best game of the season spoiled with his errant, rushed left angle jumper over Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, Durant's words hinted at the general consensus that the Blazers couldn't have done much worse on the game-deciding play.
"I thought it was good and it was bad," Aldridge said of his late miss, after finishing with 33 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. "Bad shot by me. I have to be better.... I thought I was still out further. I was closer. I just missed it. It felt good when it left my hands but it definitely wasn't good when I shot it."
There are plenty of ways to lose a close game but none sucks the air out of a home crowd quite like a badly-missed shot that was rebounded with more than three seconds remaining on the clock. Fans looked left and right. What was that? Really? Aldridge was the play's third option, according to Blazers coach Terry Stotts, after a cutting Wesley Matthews and a curling Batum.
"There were three options," Stotts said. "Nic was setting a back screen on Wes, so you had that option. Nic was coming for a hand back to an open court. We didn't get the hand back. If the hand back wasn't there, L.A. was going to drive. There were three options on the play and they defended it well."
Aldridge didn't drive, though. After Durant disrupted the potential hand-off, leading Aldridge to conclude that a pass would be too risky, the Blazers All-Star forward took two dribbles to his left and launched a stepback.
"KD kind of jumped the play, so I had to throw the ball further away from where we wanted to catch it," Matthews, who inbounded to Aldridge, said. "That kind of put a little halt. We still got a shot, our All-Star got a shot off."
"That's tough for him," Batum said of Aldridge's aborted hand off. "You have to be sure 100 percent, because if a guy tips the ball, then it's over. That's up to him. I told him, if he didn't feel it, don't do it. We talked about it together on this play, on the hand off. If you don't feel it, don't pass it."
With the ball and the game now in Aldridge's hands, Perkins overplayed his right hand, showing him hard to his left. Aldridge went that way, saying afterwards that he wasn't comfortable doing so and that he wished he could have it back.
"I don't go left often, that's not me," he said. "I took one dribble. I missed it.... When I miss it, I say just learn from it next time. Force myself to go right. He had played me left. Maybe next time jab him left and go right."
Aldridge is shooting 41 percent on mid-range shots this season, according to NBA.com, but the final sequence felt doomed early. Aldridge was rushing and not milking the clock correctly. He wasn't comfortable with his location on the court or the options available to him. Ultimately, he was content to be pushed where he didn't want to go and where lower-percentage chances awaited.
This wasn't Portland's finest end-of-game hour, but Stotts nevertheless defended Aldridge's thought process. "Kendrick Perkins did a nice job," he said. "It's easy to say that [Aldridge should have driven] in retrospect. They pushed the catch out past the three point line. He probably lost a little track of the time. I'm not going to criticize our guys. They played their asses off."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks joined in the praise of Perkins' defense on the last play: "As good as you can do. I thought he had that type of [defense] throughout the game. L.A. is one of the best shot-makers at that spot. He shoots such a high release and he's 7-foot-1. He's so hard to guard."
In one respect, it was nice to see Aldridge actively involved in a final play, given that he's often served as one of the four non-participants when the Blazers go one-four flat for Lillard or watched as Batum was handed the car keys. At the same time, he handled the moment like a player with far less experience than he's accrued during his career.
"That's not my decision," Aldridge said of Portland's regularly alternating crunch time pecking order this year. "The play tonight was made for Nic and if he wasn't open, I'd make the play. He wasn't open, I made the play. I didn't make it."
"He had thirty-something points," Brooks said of the Blazers turning to Aldridge. "Terry knows his team and they've done a great job at the start of the year. They're doing as well as anybody at home. That's a no-brainer."
Aldridge's night nicely mixed interior play with the jumpers that he's relied on more often this year. When the Blazers went ice cold in the third quarter, he was the only Portland player to make a field goal in a nine-plus minute long stretch. "He was hitting some tough ones, some tough shots," Durant said. "LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star. He's going to make those shots."
"I have to carry the ball a lot on offense for 40 minutes and then on the other end I have to carry it on that end," Batum, who played nearly 44 minutes, admitted. "I was very, very tired. The fourth quarter I was very tired."
The Blazers played their best stretch of basketball in that fourth period, though, going small to match-up with the Thunder's preferred smaller lineup. Out went J.J. Hickson, who had no one to guard and who wasn't playing well enough on offense to risk the mismatch, and in came Sasha Pavlovic to match up on Kevin Martin. Pavlovic managed just one missed shot and one rebound in 13-plus minutes but Martin wasn't any better, scoring four points on one-for-eight shooting in 33 minutes. With the wings staging a brick off and Russell Westbrook struggling to a five-for-21 night, this boiled down to a bit of a shootout between Aldridge and Durant.
"KD, you can't block his shot," Batum lamented. "You can't. You don't know what he's going to do. You know he's going to shoot. You don't know how he's going to shoot, which way he's going to go. LeBron [James], he tries to pass the ball first. KD, you don't know if he's going to shoot a three, go left, go right. He's 6-foot-11. He's taller than L.A. You can't really block his shot, you have to make him work. He's a great player."
Durant's improved handle was on display throughout, as he expertly created space going both left and right, getting into the paint regularly and using his herky-jerky style to get to the free throw line. That handle deserted him in the game's final 30 seconds, though, and he narrowly avoided calamity on a wild exchange thanks to Perkins.
After Matthews stripped him cleanly and Batum cashed in a three to cut the Thunder's lead to one with 21 seconds remaining, Durant expected a forced foul call in the backcourt, which didn't come. Trying to avoid a turnover, he threw an ill-advised pass to Westbrook, who in turn expected a forced foul call, which also didn't come. Both Durant and Westbrook said diplomatically afterwards they would go back to review the tape to see exactly what had happened, but that they expected the foul call to be made by the referees because the shot clock was turned off and the Thunder were still up one.
Amid that confusion, Batum wound up with the loose ball, attacking the basket instinctively, even though he too thought play would be stopped by a whistle.
"We had the steal," Batum said. "I don't know if I should have attacked or [kept] the ball. [I decided to] try to go, try to draw the foul. I was kind of surprised because I thought they called a foul [on Lillard]. They stopped playing for one or two seconds."
- The Rose Garden was announced as a sellout. A fair number of Thunder jerseys were in the crowd and there was some Seattle SuperSonics gear as well. It didn't get all that loud until the very end and it's hard to remember the place going from ecstatic to funereal as fast as it did following Aldridge's miss.
- Blazers president Chris McGowan executed another round of layoffs but says that this will be it for now. The general reaction, albeit from a small sample, was: "It could have been worse."
- DeAndre Liggins, thrust into the starting lineup for the first time in his career, went three-for-three from downtown on his way to 11 points. Prior to Sunday night, he was zero-for-five on three-point attempts in 30 career appearances for the Orlando Magic last season and the Thunder this year.
- As mentioned, LaMarcus Aldridge had a nice night overall. The highlight probably came when he recognized a mismatch with Perry Jones III guarding him, quickly and easily beating the rookie with a spin move to the hoop.
- Former Blazers center Hasheem Thabeet didn't receive a standing ovation in his Rose Garden return and he didn't do much, scoring just two points and grabbing two rebounds in 16 minutes. That said, his block of a Damian Lillard drive just before halftime was beautifully timed and located.
- Speaking of nice blocks, Will Barton had a chasedown block of DeAndre Liggins. Often you hear chasedowns get called off for "pinning" the shot on the backboard but, in this case, the shot wound up literally pinned (wedged) in between the rim and backboard, forcing a jump ball at center court. That was neat. Not as neat as this though.
- Here's the perpetually bland Russell Westbrook on Damian Lillard to Blazersedge: "He's good. He's talented, man. They have a good team here. He runs the team well and there should be some good things in the upcoming years."
- Westbrook said he had no particularly defensive strategy against the likely Rookie of the Year. "Nothing. Just come out and defend."
- Lillard and Stotts both credited the Thunder's pick-and-roll defense but also said that Lillard's three-for-14 shooting night was simply missed open looks. Lillard: "I don't think it was [Westbrook]. It was me just missing shots. A lot of shots I missed he wasn't even there to contest them sometimes because of the screens. Because of the situation on the floor. Shots just didn't fall for us as a group."
- Of all of Lillard's shots that didn't fall, none topped his ambitious one-hand put-back dunk. One of those missed dunks that was almost good enough to make the highlight reel anyway.
- Westbrook had some success taking Lillard into the post but launched 13 shots from outside the paint on the night, making just two. Scott Brooks still had nothing but good things to say about his point guard: "Russell makes big plays he didn't shoot the ball well tonight but he had nine assists and he always makes big free throws. I thought his floor game, his defensive game, was at a high level."
- Batum with some praise for Matthews' work on Durant: "We know what he's done on James Harden, LeBron a couple of days ago. He's one of the best defenders in the league."
- Brooks on Aldridge's All-Star chances: "He's an All-Star for a reason and he probably will be one again this year."
- The kids continue to get creative with the sign routines on the jumbotron. This time, one boy had a sign that read, "Don't worry, I'm a Blazer," and he stripped off his Thunder jersey to reveal a Blazers jersey underneath once the camera was put on him.
- The Blazers had to like the results on both ends during the fourth quarter with the Lillard/ Matthews/ Pavlovic/ Batum/ Aldridge lineup playing most of the minutes. The Blazers out-rebounded the Thunder 13-7 in the final quarter, forced five fourth-quarter turnovers, and held OKC to 19 fourth-quarter points, eight of which came at the free throw line, including some forced fouls at the end.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
LaMarcus Aldridge's final shot
There were three options. Nic was setting a back screen on Wes, so you had that option. Nic was coming for a hand back to an open court. We didn't get the hand back. If the hand back wasn't there, L.A. was going to drive. There were three options on the play and they defended it well.
Wish LaMarcus Aldridge would have driven the ball?
Kendrick Perkins did a nice job. It's easy to say that in retrospect. They pushed the catch out past the three point line. He probably lost a little track of the time. I'm not going to criticize our guys. They played their asses off. They were in a position to win the game or at least put it into overtime and we came up short.
Going small in the fourth was match-ups
Defensive match-ups mainly. It helps our offense. It just felt like defensively we match up with them better.
Wesley Matthews switching onto Kevin Durant
Wes and Nic have done that throughout the year, changed things up. It was effective. They talked among themselves to do it. Wes did a nice job with him those last few possessions. Gave him a different look, was physical with him.
So they decided to switch?
I give them latitude on the match-ups. I'm confident with Nic, but Nic had four fouls. Durant had scored some. What happened I think was that there was a pindown and they switched the pindown, which is fine, and Wes defended him well on that possession so we just stayed with it the next time.
I thought he had some good looks. He probably had better looks than he had in Golden State. They bottled up his pick-and-rolls pretty well. They corralled him, didn't let him drive, and stayed attached and didn't give him good looks off the pick-and-rolls. They did a nice job of containing his pick-and-rolls.
Shooting under 40 percent again
Well we've played three good defensive teams. That's part of it. I think things even out. We've had some shots that we can make. We shoot under 50 percent in the paint, 15-for-36 in the paint. Generally people like to say we take too many jump shots. If we're not shooting the ball well in the paint, it makes it tough. Shooting percentages usually even themselves out but I'll give credit to the defense in the last three games as well.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter