If tonight's game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder had ended at halftime the Blazers would have walked home with a supremely entertaining 1-point loss.
Portland started the game with a strong commitment to get the ball inside against a defense lacking its starting center, Kendrick Perkins. At first the Thunder shut down the Portland attack by smothering the lane. A couple jumpers took care of that. The Blazers made good use of available space in the paint, zipping the ball in or across the key for relatively easy shots. OKC made good by forcing turnovers and running out but Portland's inside-out attack netted them a respectable 26 points in the first to 30 for the Thunder.
The second period got even more exciting for the home team as Oklahoma City's rim defense disintegrated entirely. The Blazers backdoored, alley-ooped, and just drove past frozen Thunder defenders. Portland also employed a rarely-seen zone defense to which the Thunder responded poorly. They all but ignored Kevin Durant, opting instead to iso against the zone, throwing in the occasional one-pass for a long jumper. The results: bricks and turnovers. Portland came back and even built a lead late in the period. That was erased by a Thabo Sefolosha triple at the buzzer. Oklahoma City walked into the locker room with a 55-54 lead while Portland fans applauded and said, "Pretty good. Pretty good."
Then came the third period.
The Thunder came out of the locker room ready to demonstrate why they're the conference favorites for the second year in a row. And unlike some other Western Conference media darlings I could name, they did it with defense. It looked like everybody in the Oklahoma City locker room leveled up at halftime and put all their points into lateral speed. The Blazers got nothing. Nothing. It seemed like every pass Portland attempted resulted in a steal and quick two on the other end for OKC. So Portland stopped passing and just went to isolation ball themselves. They got swatted more than a kid playing with matches at a gas factory. And those were the good attempts. Mostly the Thunder had the Blazers shooting deep, covered jumpers against the shot clock. Oklahoma City didn't exactly explode in the period, scoring 26. The Blazers scored...7. And that, dear friends, was the ballgame. Portland would score 29 in the fourth but at no time was the game out of OKC's control. Blazers lose 106-90.
Portland did a couple things right tonight. They got up 11 more shots than the Thunder, corralling more offensive rebounds, limiting turnovers to 11 after the mid-game disaster. But the Blazers allowed 52% shooting to 41%. Portland shot only 30% from the arc and went -5 at the foul line. No triples, no fouls, and not enough forced turnovers equals no way to make up the defensive difference.
The most distinctive performance of the evening belonged to Damian Lillard. Unfortunately it was distinctively limp. It was almost like he spent all of his mojo in that great Lakers game and had nothing left for this one. You know Russell Westbrook looked across the court and said, "Fresh Meat!" Lillard shot 3-14, 1-5 from the arc, shot only 4 free throws, and scored 10. He had 8 assists. Westbrook, meanwhile, went 10-18, 11-12 on free throws, and scored 33. Lillard was a cute bunny, Westbrook the pickup truck.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant made a pre-game compact not to shoot tonight. Durant attempted 11 shots for 16 points but also had 5 rebounds and 6 assists. Aldridge attempted 14 shots for 12 points and 2 rebounds.
Will Barton had a couple of thunder dunks (lowercase "t") and a couple thunder bricks on jumpers. He also had an amazing reverse layup under the hoop off of a drive. Wowzers. At least he did something...19 shot attempts. He scored 18 with 7 rebounds in 38 minutes.
Victor Claver came up pretty close to empty. J.J. Hickson had 7 points and 7 rebounds in 13 minutes but didn't defend sharply.
Joel Freeland and Sasha Pavlovic did yeoman's work in this one, getting meaningful minutes due to injury. Freeland had 6 rebounds in 15 minutes. Pavlovic went for 5 assists and 7 points in 23 minutes.
Eric Maynor had 26 minutes and did great on the offensive end. He shot 3-6, scored 11, dished 3 assists. Defense was not so great.
Meyers Leonard and Luke Babbitt produced well but had most of their impact after the game was decided. Leonard threw down a dunk, hit another three-pointer, shot 4-8, scored 10, and grabbed 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. Babbitt scored 5 with 2 assists in 12 minutes. It's nice to see both playing confidently on offense.
The Blazers travel to Denver to face the Nuggets in a 2:00 Pacific game on Sunday. Note the early start when filling out your Jersey Contest forms.