The Portland Trail Blazers came from behind tonight in improbable fashion yet again, notching a 98-94 road victory against arch-rival Oklahoma City on a night when Kevin Durant scored 37 but couldn't pull his team through.
The first quarter of this game was dominated by Durant. He scored 16 points, leading the Thunder to 57% shooting overall in the period. Oklahoma City kept their percentage high through a series of shots near the rim, piercing the paint in a fashion familiar to Blazers fans. The Blazers staved off disaster by hitting 6 of their first 7 shots, most at the hands of LaMarcus Aldridge. But when Oklahoma City shifted the defense to deny Portland's All-Star forward his teammates responded by hitting only 1 of 7 three-point attempts in the period. Failing to make the Thunder pay for hounding Aldridge, Portland managed only 24 points in the period, giving up 30.
The Blazers got a reprieve as Durant took rest on the bench. OKC's second unit scoring was limited to Jeremy Lamb. Meanwhile Wesley Matthews warmed up to a couple consecutive threes and all of a sudden it looked like a ballgame again. Portland climbed to within 4 points, 36-40, with 5:22 left in the second. Then the Thunder upped the tempo, breaking off of Portland perimeter misses. A couple fast-break run-outs put the margin back to double digits and Durant salted in another couple jumpers, making sure it stayed there. Oklahoma City led 54-42 at the half.
Those awaiting the famed third-quarter adjustments for the Blazers didn't find much to crow about as play resumed. Oklahoma City continued to close quickly and rotate well, making life tough for Portland's marksmen and passers. The Thunder couldn't shut down everyone but they did a good job of picking their poison, bothering Aldridge and Lillard, not letting Matthews have open looks from three-point distance, giving up shots to the likes of Joel Freeland, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, and Nicolas Batum. Batum struggled obviously, missing open three-point shots which led to easy rebounds and runs for the Thunder. But Oklahoma City's quarter wasn't perfect either. They committed turnovers and watched Lillard go on a mighty tear in the middle minutes of the period. But no matter how many shots the Blazers hit, they never seemed to close the deficit much. The Thunder always had an answer...or two. The only striking event outside of Lillard's mini-explosion came with 8 seconds remaining in the period. The Thunder moved the ball well, forcing Portland's defense to scramble. OKC found Steven Adams at the rim for an easy dunk but Joel Freeland streaked out of nowhere for a fantastic block which led to Portland breaking and Batum hitting an improbable three over Durant to close the quarter. That 5-point swing left the Blazers down only 7 entering the fourth, 78-71.
Now, if I've given you the impression that the game thus far was Thunder-centric, that intentional. At no point in the entire proceedings did you get the sense that the Blazers would make a comeback in this one. Oklahoma City controlled the court. Portland's body language read fatigue and perhaps a small dose of acquiescence. Sparks of life were few and far between for the Blazers. But then we got another one of those, "What the heck just happened?!?" periods for the Blazers and the story of this game changed.
The funny thing was, we didn't see a typical Portland explosion in the fourth period of this game. The Blazers scored 27 points, not modest but not exactly earth-shaking by their standards. There was no flurry of three-pointers made. 10 of those 27 points came from the foul line. It was really pretty pedestrian, all things considered. The one stark adjustment the Blazers made was hounding Durant the way OKC had hounded Aldridge through most of the evening. The Blazers had sent help on KD prior but not with such immediacy and energy. That set the stage for what was to follow.
The quarter began with Durant on the bench but even after he returned the Thunder ended up with plenty of shots from Derek Fisher, Nick Collison, and Adams...most misses. It was like Oklahoma City wanted to prove they could beat the Blazers with one hand tied behind their back. Considering that most of those shots were jumpers, it could have been both hands tied behind their back. They all but gave up on everything that got them the lead and control of the game in the first place, barely moving Portland's defense or causing the Blazers to reconsider tactics. With 5:20 left in the fourth the Blazers had closed the 7 point lead to 1. The lead see-sawed back and forth until the 3:24 mark when Batum hit another three after having spent the night cold. That put Portland up 2. Then the craziness began.
After a miss by each team the Thunder ended up making 3 visits to the foul line in 4 possessions. Oklahoma City is the best free throw shooting team in the league. Point Guard Reggie Jackson is the best individual free throw shooter in the league and he was responsible for 2 of those 3 trips. Each pair of attempts went like clockwork: 1 of 2, 1 of 2, 1 of 2. The Thunder would end up missing 4 free throws in the final 2:33 of the game.
But Portland still wasn't out of the woods yet. Free throws kept the Thunder within 1 with 15 seconds left when they intentionally fouled Mo Williams to regain possession. If Mo knocked down both attempts the Blazers would lead by 3 and OKC would have the last shot to tie. But Mo missed 1...then 2. And then the Blazers got the offensive rebound off of a free throw. The Thunder fouled Wes Matthews and he sank both shots, setting up the final-shot scenario with OKC needing a three.
Burned in late-game situations before, the Blazers changed their tactics and opted to intentionally foul on the inbound catch instead of letting OKC get up the last shot. This was a wise move, except Batum wrapped up Durant well before the ball was inbounded and it wasn't called. That would have been a free throw and possession for Oklahoma City, a disaster dodged. Batum did get whistled on the Durant catch and KD stepped to the line with 8 seconds left. He hit the first but missed the second and the rebound tipped off a teammate and returned right to him, in the corner of the paint, 9 feet from the hoop and open. This was the guy carrying 37 points on the night, the guy who had slaughtered Portland's defense like a butcher going through a loaf of bologna. 2 points down, 9 feet from the hoop, feet in the paint, open and clear to shoot...Durant left it short. The Blazers rebounded, the Thunder fouled Lillard for possession, Damian calmly sank the free throws, and the Blazers walk away with a 4-point win.
This came on a night when the Blazers shot 24% (8-33) from the arc, under 40% overall, got 10 offensive rebounds but didn't even score a second-chance point until the second half, lost the paint battle (though they did close the gap in the second half), lost the rebounding battle, lost the free throw battle, got creamed in the bench battle. The Blazers hit 8 threes while the Thunder hit 3. The Blazers committed 6 turnovers to 10 for OKC. The Blazers had more assists but Durant had 37 points all on his own. It wasn't a masterpiece. It wasn't even probable. It was...a win.
With that the Blazers finish the 2013 part of their 2013-14 campaign with a 25-7 record. Other obligations will prevent me from going into individual detail tonight but you can check the Boxscore and Tim's Instant Recap and fill in the details yourselves. Or check out the Oklahoma City perspective at Welcome to Loud City.
The happiest of New Years to everyone! The Blazers certainly left all of us a great year-end present tonight. Enjoy!