Send kids to the April 1st POR-OKC game and let them be a part of the revenge!!! (These are kids who otherwise couldn't afford to go. It's not only a good idea, it's good karma.)
In a Nutshell
After exposing the Thunder defense something awful in the first three periods and building a double-digit lead the Blazers cough up a game they could have walked with. The late-game decline was about 30% strategic Thunder substitutions and bullying, 20% fatigue, and 50% loss of focus.
First, give TNT credit. The early game went long tonight as always. Tip-off was held until the cameras went on in the Rose Garden. Great decision, bravo, thank you TNT.
It's a good thing the national audience got to see the first period, too, because it was a barn-burner. Both teams scored with relative ease. The Thunder lived off of jumpers from their star players and some Russell Westbrook offensive-rebound putbacks. The Blazers showed off their new offense, complete with laser-like passes and cuts to the rim with a couple alley-oops on flat-footed defenders thrown in. The Blazers made a concerted effort to get the ball in the paint. Even though this resulted in a few turnovers they were well worth it. Technically OKC had a 29-23 lead at the end of the first but had the game remained the same Portland was sure to surge ahead, as the Thunder jumpers weren't going to drop forever. Special credit went to the Blazers defense who, in a development that lasted nearly all night, decided to let Oklahoma City's supporting cast get shots up in favor of quickly sending a second guy against Durant or Westbrook whenever they touched the ball. The result was a near complete lack of penetration by anyone who mattered for the Thunder.
The second period only got better. Seeing the writing on the wall, OKC tried to force their way past Portland's help defense. This resulted in a ton of turnovers and plenty of forced shots against multiple defenders in the lane. Since those defenders were in perfect position to turn and get the rebound, Portland could immediately run off of the miss. They also ran off of the turnovers. The Blazer offense went zip-zip-zip-swish, where "zip" equals an instantaneous pass advancing the ball and "swish" equals "Hey, we just scored again!" Total time elapsed: about six seconds. The Thunder continued the laborious process of taking the ball out of the bucket and the Blazers stuffed it right back in there after every OKC miscue. Portland's second unit and supporting cast brought energy. Everybody got back to prevent easy points for the Thunder. The only crack in the facade was offensive rebound putbacks given up to Russell Westbrook. Wait? Have I said that before? Oh well. Portland outscored the Thunder 35-22 in the period, sending OKC to the locker room, chins dragging, down 7.
The third period opened up with more of the same. Oklahoma City came out with some idiotic offense, letting Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic try and shoot them back in the game. Meanwhile the Blazers went alley-oop, pick and pop, steal and streak...everything went great. Portland eventually built the lead to 13. With Nicolas Batum playing excellent defense on Kevin Durant and the cavalry still arriving right on time whenever their superstars threatened, this game looked like a laugher. Everything bad said about the Thunder had come true right before our eyes and the Blazers' too.
It was about that time that Portland stopped playing.
It started with a nice substitution by the Thunder. It was so nice, in fact, that you could pretty much say they were short-sighted not doing it sooner. After suffering through the horrors of a mostly-passive Krstic, Scott Brooks finally sent Serge Ibaka in the game. Ibaka immediately took after Aldridge. This was significant because heretofore when you have read "alley-oop" or "pick and pop" LMA was on the business end of the play. He killed the Thunder all night. Ibaka decided he would rough up Aldridge well before LaMarcus received the ball. He bumped and tugged, chucked and moved. Faced with the physicality, Aldridge had considerable trouble establishing position. Eventually, though certainly not afraid to be mashed into a pulp or have his elbows broken or kneecaps split, Brave Sir Aldridge bravely ran away. Denied their Fountain of Endless Points, the Blazers went to Plan B. "B" stands for "Isolation". I know, it makes no sense. But neither did the offense.
Brandon Roy started going after his own shot in the third. Andre Miller followed on his heels in the fourth. To their credit, they scored at first. The Blazers kept their heads above water. They still led by 6 heading into the final period. But the problem with that iso offense is that it gets addictive. The guys hit a few shots at first but they don't know when to quit. Pretty soon those shots are missing. Pretty soon they're also coming from farther out on the floor. This was the story of Portland's fourth-quarter offense. Andre Miller killed the Thunder with his timely shots and great passing in the late third and early fourth quarters. Then he killed the Blazers with an array of missed jumpers late in the fourth. Brandon Roy, having been hit and miss on his iso attempts, stopped touching the ball altogether. Focused on one defensive target (a spotty shooter at that) the Thunder easily picked up the shot, grabbed the rebound, and then ran like heck while Portland's guards were still wondering whether it went it. Blam kablam kablam-blam-blam, the Thunder are tied and it's neck and neck going down the stretch.
The Blazers tried to go back to Aldridge but his short, bodied hook shots missed. Meanwhile the Thunder (including and especially Russell Westbrook) were either hitting shots or grabbing their own misses. The only guy that kept the Blazers going was Marcus Camby, who grabbed offensive rebounds of his own and gave the Blazers extra chances to put the ball in. Behind Camby and a made shot and nifty alley-oop assist from a resuscitated Miller, the Blazers actually went up 5 with 2:00 to play. Sadly the once-crisp defensive help had become stale and soggy, as defenders arrived late if at all. Westbrook scored twice on jumpers in the last 2 minutes and Ibaka drew fouls and scored on close-up attempts, freed because of that same slow help. With only a Miller layup to their credit in that same span, the Blazers found themselves tied with 10 seconds left. Brandon Roy ran the clock down and faked Durant out of his socks but sadly the shot he set up was a leaning three which missed. Overtime was upon us. Ask not for whom the horn toots. It toots for thee.
Despite heroic efforts from Marcus Camby in the extra period, again cleaning glass and playing defense, the Blazers fell under the weight of their own offensive proclivities. It's said that fatigue makes cowards of us all. The starting lineup worked 40+ minute shifts tonight with no break in overtime. Whether it was tiredness or stubbornness, the Blazers failed to get off any kind of shot that wasn't a contested jumper. In the absence of coherent passing and cutting they got stripped every time they drove. They'd take the ball into multiple defenders and then try and pass out of it, vomiting the ball like it was coated in ipecac. The Thunder couldn't score either. Their only early points came off of a fast break caused by one of those turnovers. But that three-point lead was all they needed. The Blazers' only points before a meaningless three by Armon Johnson to close the game came off of two Brandon Roy free throws and one Wesley Matthews charity toss. (He missed the second, sadly, as it was important with but 8 seconds left.) Though their shots were off, the Thunder scored at the line as well. They were also aided by plenty of offensive rebounds, including a couple from Russell Westbrook. Wait...have I said that before? Oh well. In any case, nobody shoots free throws better than the Thunder. In the end it was enough for the one-point victory, 106-107 for the Thunder. When a beautiful game turned physical and sloppy and the pressure rose, their ugly beat Portland's ugly. Full marks to the Thunder for upping the defense and physicality and for turning this into the kind of ugly game that gave them and their stars the advantage.
What is there to say? It's been clear all season that being forced into isolation kills Portland's offense. It works in small doses but when habituated, it's deadly. You could watch the team wilt before your eyes tonight as the game progressed. The offense went, followed quickly by the defense, followed quickly by the rebounding for everyone outside of Camby, followed by the game. It isn't necessarily the fault of the guards, though they're the main actors. Everybody else stops moving. The big guys don't establish position. How do you get a pass to Nicolas Batum when he's standing still in the shadow of his defender? What will he do with it if he does catch it? Whether it's the tireds, the lazies, complacency, or just not responding well to getting smacked upside the head, the Blazers are going to have to figure out how to go through a crucible without retreating into this style of play. It's not that the game was bad overall, rather that this was too beautiful of a game and too smart of an early effort to collapse like that.
One of the strong issues raised in this week's Trailblazers.com Podcast (posting tomorrow morning) was whether Brandon Roy could dominate a game with his jumper alone. The consensus? He can't. He tried to get out of jumper-mode tonight. Unfortunately nearly every time he drove he got stymied, swatted, or stripped. He doesn't look like the agile, multi-directional Roy of old. It got to the point where I almost wished he'd just go back to the jumper, which he eventually did. It wasn't a horrible night for him. He just looked bad on the drive. He scored 19 on 6-17 shooting, went 6-6 from the line, and had 5 assists against 4 turnovers. He also had a couple nice rebounds and a couple nice defensive plays.
LaMarcus Aldridge had three dominant quarters tonight. Unfortunately they were the first three, after which he disappeared until finally fouling out in overtime. When he was running well he played nicely on defense and brilliantly in the halfcourt offense. He went 11-19 for 22 points.
What can you say about Andre Miller? He kept Portland in the game tonight with a dazzling display of smart passing and well-timed shots. Then he launched late and added vinegar to the frosting. He ended up with 11 assists to only 2 turnovers. He also had 16 points on 7-18 shooting. Westbrook's rebounds, though...that's a black mark. The guy had 6 offensive boards. Had he been held to 5 the Thunder might have lost. In reality he shouldn't have had 2. When it happens six times, six times, six times, six times, six times, six times...that's just annoying.
Predictably Nicolas Batum had a nice start to the game when the ball was moving and then fell off a cliff on the offensive end when it wasn't. He played some great defense on Durant all night though. This was a rebound game for him.
Marcus Camby had 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and hit 6-7 shots for 12 points. He was the defensive anchor and the main man on the boards. He had a great game all-around.
Wesley Matthews was so-so defensively but he brought effort at least. He also hit 5-7 free throws on his way to 13 points with 2 steals and 2 assists in 19 minutes.
Dante Cunningham played 16 minutes with the usual hustle and Armon Johnson got 3 assists in 12 minutes. They completed the short, 8-man rotation.
Stats of the Night
- Westbrook 28 points and 11 rebounds
- Thunder shoot 49.4%
- Blazers have 20-ish assists at the half and finish with 27
- Thunder 47 rebounds, Blazers 38
- Portland 18 fast break points, 50 points in the paint and they lose
- Portland zero field goals in the first 4:59 of the 5:00 overtime. 4 of their 5 OT shots came from 17 feet or beyond.
Odd Notes and Links
Form for Saturday's game IGNORE THE FINAL QUESTION...I put in the wrong answer type. (Guess I folded in the fourth too!)