The Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder played a whale of a game tonight in Portland's Moda Center. The contest featured two point guards going supernova, key supporting cast members freezing up like an ancient ice age, and a thrilling ending that defied belief. When the smoke cleared the Trail Blazers had earned a 115-112 victory and a clear path to supremacy in the Northwest Division, but it wasn't easy.
Both the Blazers and Thunder pride themselves on offensive potential. They can hit an opponent from multiple positions on the floor, breaking the defense down in the process. All of that went out in the window in the first half of this game, though. Tonight's offense would not be a display of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Instead it was a two-hour long melodrama featuring 3 above-the-title stars: Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Westbrook began the night peppering the Blazers with blasts amidships. Lillard tried gamely to stay in front of him but Westbrook was having none of it. If Russ wasn't scoring in the paint he was setting up teammates for ridiculously easy shots. Like a hidden second eyelid Portland's interior defenders desperately attempted to close off the rim but they turned out mostly superfluous. Westbrook's light was shining too brightly for anything to stop it.
Fortunately Lillard didn't wilt in the face of Westbrook's assault, though he had a closer view than anyone. Instead Dame pinned his ears back and tallied his own points. Lillard turned OKC's usually-firm defense into so much soup, plowing through the lane again and again, tossing in sweet conversions.
Between Westbrook shining like the sun and Lillard spewing points like a busted radioactive reactor, the first half of this game was supremely entertaining. As it turned out, the team that generated momentum through defense, offensive rebounding, and tempo managed to break the deadlock between the two stars. Unfortunately for the Blazers, that team was Oklahoma City. The Thunder shot 51% in the half, beat Portland on the boards, and spaced the floor better around their main man. Thus OKC led 59-47 at the half.
Both teams started the second half with more of a commitment to team ball. The Blazers cranked up defensive pressure, hawking the ball like frantic, green-blooded hobgoblins, forcing OKC into tough misses and turnovers. The Blazers also used Lillard's threat to set up wings for clear three-pointers. Tempo, rebounding, and spacing all went Portland's way and they cut the Thunder lead to 5 midway through the period.
But even as they crawled back to respectability, the Blazers still faced issues. Containing Westbrook momentarily, they utterly failed at sealing off the lane versus OKC's ensigns and redshirts, including Serge Ibaka, Mitch McGary, and Dion Waiters. The Thunder would convert 10 shots within 4 feet of the bucket in the period. Portland's hree-pointers and balanced scoring couldn't keep up with that kind of production for long and the Blazers found themselves down 11 at the end of three, 89-78 despite their amazing performance.
As the fourth period opened
Gary Mitchell ...errrr...Mitch McGary's deity-like lane scoring threatened to spiral out of control. The Thunder stretched their lead to 13 with 9:40 remaining in the game. At that point the Portland faithful were preparing the bagpipes and empty torpedo cases for their fallen heroes. No need, as it turned out. Somehow, in an improbable plot twist, their team would rise from the ashes.
It started with new recruit Arron Afflalo hailing from distance, scoring the first 3 of his 11 points in the final period. Then Lillard checkmated OKC's defense time and again from the high pick and roll position. As the game drifted into critical possessions, Lillard gave way to Aldridge in the post. The Blazers' captain delivered again and again, kissing home an array of shots or heading to the line for free passes which he took full advantage of.
On the other end the Blazers finally decided that they'd seen enough of Westbrook running amok time and again. Nicolas Batum tapped Lillard on the shoulder and took his place on defense, putting the nerve pinch on OKC's point guard. Westbrook still scored but he had to work twice as hard just when he was twice as tired. His final quarter wasn't nearly as pretty as his first half. Plus, in true Westbrook style, Russell forgot that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one. In this case the "one" was him, as shot attempts in the period would prove. The contrast between his approach and Portland's was stark...though we should hasten to point out that with Kevin Durant in street clothes, Westbrook didn't have his captain to turn to like Lillard did.
After 48 minutes of literally anything you could imagine coming to life before your eyes (for good or ill) the game came down to the final. climactic moments. Portland's defense and rebounding had given them better possessions in the fourth period than Oklahoma City had. Their three-dimensional, chess-like attack prevailed over Westbrook trying to restart his team through controlled implosion. Plus the Blazers hit their free throws.
All of this set the stage as Portland led 113-110 with 6 seconds remaining. Oklahoma City had the ball for the last possession in regulation. A three would tie the game, sending it into overtime. In this situation the Blazers took a logical approach, electing to foul Westbrook, allowing the potential for 2 points at the foul line but not 3 from the arc.
Unfortunately Wesley Matthews picked that exact moment to bring out his drunken Gorn impression, fouling late, while Westbrook was in the shooting motion. Half of the Moda Center crowd responded with, "Highly Illogical." The rest of them screamed, "KHAAAAAAAAAAAN-FOUND IT! THAT"S GOING TO GIVE HIM THREE FREE THROWS! You Klingon bastard, you've killed our division lead!!!"
(Either way...poor Wes! I'm sure the human half of all of us felt for him in that moment.)
But then, in a final dramatic turn of fortune, Westbrook missed the first free throw, causing everyone in the arena to raise an eyebrow and exclaim, "Fascinating..."
(Or maybe, "YESSSSSSSSSS OHMYGOSH WE'RE GONNA WIN THIS THING CUZ EVEN IF HE SPITS AT US FROM HELL'S HEART IT"S ONLY WORTH 2 POINTS NOW! WARP US OUT OF HERE, SULU!)
Westbrook made the final 2 foul shots. It looked like he was trying to miss the last one but couldn't manage it. Adding injury to insult, he took a vicious knee in the temple from his own teammate in the lane scrum following. With a little over a tick left the Thunder fouled Lillard for possession. Dame sank the shots with his customary cool demeanor and OKC never got off the last-second heave. Portland walked out of the arena with an emotional, dramatic 115-112 victory.
Some speculation Westbrook's dent could be a fracture of the zygomatic arch. JR Smith had one last year and played through it wearing a mask— Royce Young (@royceyoung) February 28, 2015
The Blazers now stand 8 games over their division rivals in the loss column with tiebreaker in hand, making it 9 for practical purposes. That's a pretty nice lead with only 25 games remaining on Portland's schedule. That's the most important thing to come out of tonight's game by far.
Russell Westbrook scored 40 with 13 rebounds and 11 assists. The only thing that stopped him tonight was his fatigue, with maybe a side-splash of Batum-Matthews defense. But it seemed pretty clear that not only were the Blazers incapable of stopping the opposing point guard, they were barely capable of stopping the ripple effects on other players. OKC shot 48% tonight but they were above 50% most of the game, courtesy of Westbrook in the lane early, then everybody else in the lane after. Portland's bigger defenders had no way to rotate quickly enough against penetration when OKC was running free and easy. At a certain point it almost looked like they gave up., with near disastrous results. Nor were the Blazers good in transition tonight. No matter how secure the defense seems--and it's certainly more secure this year than last--these bugaboos haven't disappeared entirely.
The matchup and rotation crisis gave Terry Stotts a chance to tinker with lineups in the second half. Portland matched Oklahoma City by running smaller formations, making liberal use of Afflalo to good effect. Last week's trade paid off big tonight, and not just because of Afflalo's 18 points. He gives the Blazers flexibility and security they didn't have when Will Barton and CJ McCollum were the main choices off the bench.
This was a playoff atmosphere, becoming more so as the game progressed. Yes, the Thunder were short-handed but they tested the Blazers every bit as much despite that. Portland once again proved their resiliency. That's like an ace in the hole...one that you can't draw every hand, but that feels good in your pocket nevertheless. If there were any lingering doubts after the recent mediocre stretch, the Blazers proved tonight that they belong in the playoffs every bit as much as any other contender in the crowded and talented Western Conference. Then again, making the playoffs isn't the goal this year. The Blazers are going to secure a seed and will almost certainly gain an upper-bracket slot in the process. They'll still need to work on some of those weaknesses if they want to take the next step, moving beyond the "scrappy team, happy to be there" stage to live long and prosper in the post-season.
LaMarcus Aldridge continues to vacillate between looking hesitant and looking excellent. We saw more of the former early, more of the latter as the team needed him. It seems to me that the less he thinks, the easier his shots flow. The game got pretty intense in the second half and Aldridge exchanged serious words with Serge Ibaka. Perhaps adrenaline worked for him. Either way, it was nice to see clockwork-LaMarcus back for a while. He scored 29 on 10-23 shooting, including 9 critical points as the fourth quarter closed. Add in 5 assists against a single turnover plus a mighty 7 offensive rebounds and this was a pretty good night for Aldridge.
Damian Lillard scored 29 himself, largely due to his "Kiki Vandeweghe guards Kiki Vandeweghe" matchup with Westbrook. If these two point guards matched up every night they'd be co-MVP's. 10-22 shooting, 5 assists.
Wesley Matthews had 3 steals and hit 2-6 threes (33%) but otherwise went pure Ensign Leibowitz on offense, finishing the game 2-13 overall for 8 points. Nicolas Batum wasn't that much better at 2-6 for 9 points and three steals. To their credit, both took their turn on the bucket brigade trying to put out Westbrook's fire. Both did comparatively well.
Robin Lopez shot 4-8 for 8 points but otherwise wasn't a factor, getting lost in the whirling rotations, sometimes looking incredulously at teammates as if to say, "How the BLEEDING HECK could you let a guy get down the lane that quickly and what the SMOKING HELLBLAZES do you expect me to do about it?"
If Lopez didn't have a chance on defense, you know Chris Kaman didn't either. Fortunately Kaman produced 8 points and 7 rebounds in 14 minutes to help make up for it.
Arron Afflalo don't have to make up for nothing. Arron Afflalo just took the navigator's seat that's been a rotating mess since this series began. Arron Afflalo just started quoting Russian proverbs and all the girls think he's super-cute. Arron Afflalo will be staying for a while. If you doubt that, check out the 18 points on 5-6 shooting and the fourth-quarter Denebian Bacon-saving.
You know who barely played tonight? Steve Blake got 11 minutes while Dorell Wright and Meyers Leonard got the Doug E Fresh 6 minutes treatment. None of them did much with their time. Poor Meyers also has to suffer the indignity of being the second-most-alluded-to Leonard in this recap. Bad night.
The Blazers travel to Sacramento to face the Kings on Sunday.
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Still to come: our In-Arena Report from a wild and crazy Moda Center.
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--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge