Let's take a trip in the way-back machine to the first game of the 2013-14 season, one year ago. The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Phoenix Suns, full of hope for the bright, new season. The Blazers took the floor and promptly laid an egg, ending up on the wrong side of a 91-104 defeat. After that humbling experience Portland took off for the moon, winning 17 of their next 19 to establish themselves as a legitimate playoff team in the conference. That first outing dimmed to a fuzzy memory.
Return now to this evening. Full of hope for the bright, new season, the Blazers took the floor against the Oklahoma City Thun. (I know, but they were only half there.) The Blazers didn't exactly lay an egg this time, but they nestled down in the nest and grabbed a magazine before the fourth period brought them to their senses and they raced to a 106-89 victory. If the experience was less than inspiring for three quarters, at least it resulted in a win. That's one game ahead of where they were a year ago.
You can get a basic sense of the gameflow plus post-game reaction from the arena in our Instant Recap. Here's the in-depth look.
The evening started out with Russell Westbrook making hash out of Portland's interior defense. The Oklahoma City superstar scored again and again in the lane as Damian Lillard failed to contain him and help came late, resulting in fouls. Robin Lopez picked up his second foul with 9:23 remaining in the first period and had to sit early. Playing without Kevin Durant, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Anthony Morrow, the Thunder still managed 34 points in the first period, 20 of those in the paint.
On offense the Blazers looked oddly out of sorts. They seldom shot a three-pointer that wasn't forced. They played two-man basketball instead of their customary four- or five-man style. The Thunder jumped out to a 13-5 lead as the Moda Center crowd checked their tickets to see if they came to the right game.
The Blazers got bailed out by two heroes. Chris Kaman came off the bench to replace Lopez and motion picked up around him as the Blazers put the ball in his hands. Along with Wesley Matthews, Kaman helped trigger a mini-run that brought the Blazers back to within 2, 18-16. When Westbrook answered, Portland finally figured enough was enough and got the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge in his usual left-side haven. Aldridge destroyed every defender who came against him, especially Kendrick Perkins, whom he seemed to take particular delight in juking and shooting over. Aldridge would end up scoring 15 in the period, besting Westbrook's 11. But the Thunder still led 34-29 after one.
The second quarter started out with Kaman and Lopez playing together, Kaman drawing the defense out with shots and Lopez cleaning up his misses. Portland's offensive rebounding picked up immediately...the only time during the game when they had that advantage clearly. Kaman touched the ball on a surprising number of sets, for a brief spurt anchoring the offense as Aldridge normally does, just on the other side of the court. He didn't score like Aldridge, of course, but the Blazers put the ball in his hands in the mid-post area and moved around him.
Though the Blazers looked better in the early minutes of the second, they were aided by Oklahoma City's complete lack of a bench. Sebastian Telfair ran the Thunder offense, which turned out to be no offense at all. The Thunder scored a single point in the first three minutes of the period before Scott Brooks threw in the towel and inserted Westbrook back in the game. Westbrook promptly scored 15 and the Thunder led 54-49 at the half.
The Blazers made a defensive switch to open the third. Nicolas Batum shifted over to Westbrook and tried to keep him out of the lane. He wasn't entirely successful but he managed far better than Lillard. A combination of Batum and fatigue would keep Westbrook near the perimeter for the rest of the game, resulting in a sharp decrease in Oklahoma City points.
Nor did Westbrook's compatriots fare well. Portland began to probe the lane themselves, then hit open jump shooters. The shots didn't always fall but at least the Blazers forced their defenders to move instead of standing and waiting for rebounds. Batum keyed this new-found offense, taking the lane, dishing, and hitting jumpers. If Aldridge and Kaman were the first-half heroes, Batum was the third quarter star.
The Blazers couldn't keep Oklahoma City out of the lane entirely, but the Thunder offense began to slow along with their footspeed. OKC led 77-75 to end the third, but their momentum was flagging.
Smelling blood in the water, the Blazers pounced in the fourth. Once again they took advantage of Telfair and the Thunder "bench", holding Oklahoma City to 6 points in the first 6 minutes of the period. Westbrook couldn't save them this time. Despite a long rest (maybe too long) he never regained the spring in his step and never left Portland's defense behind, scoring but 2 in the final quarter.
Meanwhile the Blazers ran the Thunder ragged on the other end. They found shooters standing still beyond the arc and Oklahoma City never closed on them. Six Portland triples in the frame spelled doom for the Thunder. When the Blazers weren't bombing they scored at the rim. A 4-point lead at the 7-minute mark ballooned to 10 with 5:20 left on the clock, and it was over. Portland walked away with the 106-89 victory.
Looking at the 44 points the Thunder scored in the paint, you'd think the Blazers did a reasonable job defending inside tonight. That's not entirely accurate. Westbrook broke down Portland's interior defense something fierce until Batum and tired legs saved the day. Had the depleted Thunder roster had a little more help, Westbrook's performance might have had graver consequences. You can flip a coin whether better defense or the grind of having already driven the lane 62 times caused Westbrook's fall-off, but either way the Blazers can't let it get to that point.
(Some will point to Westbrook's 33 minutes and ask how he could get tired but it was a rough, high-mileage 33 minutes.)
Offensive rebounds told a similar story. The Blazers allowed 14 overall, again tightening up as the game wore on but never really controlling the action until late...outside of that brief stretch in the second period when Lopez and Kaman played together.
You can credit Westbrook with much of the defensive difficulties, but Portland's early offensive performance was all them. They scored 29 in the first period because of Aldridge's brilliance but outside of that, they took plenty of un-Portland-like shots. Oklahoma City's defense was ripe for the picking and nobody harvested. Maybe they thought it would be easy? They were proven right, but not until the fourth. Before their 6-7 performance beyond the arc in that period, they shot only 5-22 from distance. The issue was less form than set-up...three-pointers launched off of dribbles or with not enough space instead of in the flow.
A 14-4 deficit in fast-break points bears noting as well.
On the other hand the Blazers held the Thunder (admittedly without their best shooters) to 2-16 shooting from beyond the arc. (Thanks, Sebastian Telfair!) After allowing 58% in the first period Portland cooled the Thunder to 41% shooting overall. 13 offensive rebounds balanced the ledger on the boards as well.
Portland's brand new bench looked about as expected. Kaman and Blake played 22 and 20 minutes respectively. Kaman was semi-brilliant and Blake distributed nicely. CJ McCollum was the third reserve in line with 16 minutes and looked awkward. Nobody else got significant time. If the first game is any indication (and it may not be) Coach Stotts will be choosing between players he can rely on and players he can hope on. One guess which side of the ledger he's going to fall on as the season grinds on. But we haven't even started yet. Those young guys have plenty of chances to show they're reliable.
- The Blazers hit 11 threes to OKC's 2, providing a 27-point edge in that category
- Westbrook ended up scoring 38 but Aldridge's 27 came with the victory
- Portland scored only 20 points off the bench. 12 of those belonged to Kaman. The ravaged Thunder bench put up 24 and scored at a higher rate per minute.
- The Blazers have now tied the NBA record for winning home openers with 14 straight.