The Portland Trail Blazers' chief Northwest Division rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder, came to town on Wednesday night for a battle to determine bragging rights and the early edge in the race to the division crown. Wonder no more, Portland ripped both away in a thrilling 111-104 victory, their second in a row against the league's elite.
This one wasn't easy. The Thunder came in with a little bit of swagger and a commitment to chase the Blazers off of the three-point arc. The plan was solid, but Portland okie-doked OKC early by ignoring the distance shot, instead driving down the lane. The results: a handful of close shots made for Portland, 2 early fouls on Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, and a bunch of guys in blue going, "Whaa???" Meanwhile the Thunder seemed content to shoot from mid-range, as Portland always invites opponents to do. Oklahoma City missed plenty of those shots. They also committed plenty of turnovers. This should have led to a Portland surge but the Thunder kept the Blazers in check by controlling the boards. Portland couldn't keep OKC away from misses and what could have been a 32-25 period for Portland ended up 27-25 for Oklahoma City.
The story got worse in the second period as the Thunder got a grip in the lane on both ends, denying Portland access and enforcing their own at the other end. They were aided by Portland turnovers and repeated fast break runs. Oklahoma City couldn't stop every Blazer on the floor but they opted to leave Robin Lopez open as Portland's safety valve. Lopez scored but not enough to make a difference with OKC on the run the other direction. Feeling the offense slipping south, Portland panicked a little...a rare occurrence this year. They devolved into 1-on-1 dribble pounding, not their forte. This made matters worse, as did frustration with the refs boiling over near the end of the period. It took the halftime break for the Blazers to regain their composure. By that time they trailed 59-48.
Fortunately the Blazers put the intermission to good use, channeling their anger appropriately: against the opponent. The tip of the flaming spear thrust into Oklahoma City's heart was LaMarcus Aldridge. He crossed the invisible line tonight between star/All-Star and superstar. Coming into the period the Blazers needed heavy doses of poise, confidence, scoring, and rebounding. Aldridge gave them all four, emphasis on the scoring. Time and again during the second half he would sink one of his patented turn-arounds or drive the lane and put in a layup amid a chorus of defenders. Kevin Durant had his moments in this game but he was not the most noticeable player on the floor. That honor belonged to Aldridge. Whether he was ripping the rebound or canning the "J" he loaded his teammates on his back and told them that they were not going to lose. And they didn't.
The Blazers got aid in the third period from an unexpected source. Russell Westbrook decided to employ every trick he knew in order to lose this game for the Thunder. Ball hoggery? Check. Tortured shot attempts? Check. Turnovers? Check. Ignoring Durant? Double check. Utter obliviousness towards what he was doing to his own team? You betcha. In a complete reversal of fortune from the second period, Oklahoma City's offense stalled beneath a hail of semi-stationary dribbles while the Blazers ran free. The Thunder didn't get back on track until Westbrook went out for rest. By that time Aldridge had propelled Portland right back into the game. Portland left the third period with an 83-80 lead.
Oklahoma City's bench stifled Portland's at the beginning of the fourth period but they couldn't generate enough offense to gain separation. Coach Stotts got the starters back in and the game was on, tooth and nail, until the final minutes. Portland survived on offensive rebounds. Oklahoma City ran a two-man game between
oil and water Westbrook and Durant. Since the Thunder weren't going to reverse the ball away from their stars Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews played strong-side defense and made life tough. OKC scored, but again not enough. The lead see-sawed a little, the teams traded fouls, until finally Batum put the game away with a wide-open left-side three with 30 seconds remaining, giving the Blazers a 4-point lead and forcing the Thunder into long misses and personal fouls. When the final horn sounded for Portland's 111-104 victory you could have heard the cheering in Indonesia.
After their first-half drought the Blazers ended up shooting 23 triples, making 8 for a relatively low 34.8% clip. OKC only hit 5 threes but they shot a better percentage (45.5%). Those numbers are rarities for Portland. The Blazers ceded the free throw battle to the Thunder, going -6 from the stripe. The Thunder had 26 fast break points to 4 for Portland. The Blazers made up the difference with 16 offensive rebounds, 9 extra field goals, and 25 second-chance points. Not necessarily decisive but worth noting: the Blazers doubled up the Thunder in assists, 22-11. Thanks, Russell Westbrook!
We've already praised Aldridge, so we'll just add his stat line (38 points on 17-28 shooting, 13 rebounds on a night the Blazers were getting taken in that department, 5 assists, 2 steals) and say that the Moda Center chants of "MVP" were not that far-fetched on this night.
Frankly Damian Lillard didn't have to do that much in this game to impress. He could have snapped a photo of Westbrook and tweeted it under #not-him and looked pretty good. Westbrook scored 21 but he destroyed his team doing it. Lillard only had 14 on 4-14 shooting but he knew to keep his fingers out of his forward's soup.
Nicolas Batum looked a little frazzled in the first half, as did most the team. The pressure of going from Paul George to Kevin Durant shouldn't be wished on anyone. He normalized in the second half, played some gritty defense when the Thunder were trying to free Durant for shots, and ended up with the game-clinching shot and a compact night of 6-10 shooting, 14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a block in 35 minutes.
The Thunder didn't let Wesley Matthews free and it showed. Matthews shot 4-12 and scored 13 with 5 rebounds in 32 minutes. But Matthews played Robin to Batum's Batman in that fourth quarter, defending Westbrook in the two-man sets and doing credibly.
Robin Lopez shot 6-11 for 12 points but most of that came early when the Blazers were slipping behind. His biggest contributions came in the second half when he helped turn around the rebounding battle and blocked some shots. Lopez is part of the reason you cannot play iso ball against Portland. The Thunder didn't realize that, evidently. Robin ended up with 10 rebounds and 4 blocks in 33 minutes.
Mo Williams and Joel Freeland were less impressive. Williams hit a couple threes and dished 6 assists but the offense sputtered when he had the ball. Freeland gave the usual effort but was mostly holding ground until Lopez could get back in.
Don't look now, but the Blazers actually get to play some non-elite teams for a little while: Utah twice with a Dallas sandwich in between over the weekend. First to 20 wins buys the drinks.
Timmay's Instant and Enthusiastic Recap wherein you can find how many "O's" really go into a proper woot.
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