The Portland Trail Blazers woke up from a nearly season-long malaise tonight and stomped Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Moda Center, 114-95. The Blazers desperately needed this win after losing four consecutive games, including a 121-120 heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Clippers last night.
Westbrook, who come into Portland averaging a triple double, was held to 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists on 37 percent shooting. He got little help from his teammates who combined to shoot 26-for-68 from the field (38.2 percent) and looked unable to create offense on their own all night.
The Blazers, conversely, benefited from a solid team effort - Mason Plumlee’s 18 points led six Blazers in double figures. Damian Lillard added 17 points and 9 assists.
The first quarter opened on an ugly note for the Blazers who, briefly, looked like a team that arrived in town last night at 2:00 a.m. after a five-game road trip. The Blazers’ offense was sloppy as they missed five of their first seven shots and Portland’s big men exacerbated the uneven scoring attack by repeatedly picking up silly fouls on defense as Westbrook drove into the lane. Noah Vonleh paid the highest price, committing three fouls in the first five minutes before being replaced. Westbrook collected a quick 7 points, 2 rebounds, and 4 assists before checking out with three minutes to go in the first quarter. The Thunder led 27-21.
With Westbrook on the bench, the tide immediately shifted in the Blazers favor. OKC sorely missed their second playmaker, the injured Victor Oladipo, and it showed - the freewheeling offense from the first nine minutes quickly stagnated against the Blazers’ defensive pressure and the Thunder struggled to get open shots. The Blazers, on the other hand, thrived with Evan Turner leading the offense and Allen Crabbe getting open for 3-pointers and fast-break lay-ups. By the time Westbrook checked in with 8:41 to go in the second quarter the deficit had swung by 13 points - Portland now led 41-34.
Westbrook’s return, however, failed to stunt the Blazers’ offense. The Portland players continued to execute with precision - Lillard and Turner were whipping the ball around the perimeter, Moe Harkless was cutting hard to the hoop, and Mason Plumlee was doing his thing down low. On the other end, the Thunder had devolved to a one-man attack. Early in the game Stephen Adams and Enes Kanter had provided some back-up, but with the Blazers lead quickly expanding Westbrook attempted to take the game into his own hands. On this night that did not work and the Blazers’ advantage ballooned to 16 at the half, 68-52.
The Thunder failed to mount any comeback in the second half and the Blazers were content to continue attacking the lax defense. Lillard and Harkless clinched the game mid-way through the third with a 3-pointer, steal, and dunk combination that brought the Portland bench to its feet:
From there, the third quarter became a nearly literal lay-up drill and the Blazers scored easily and repeatedly at the rim off pick and rolls. Portland lead 92-71 at the end of the quarter and the final period served as extended garbage time.
The Blazers’ teamwork outnumbering Westbrook’s one-man show proved decisive in this game. Middle school basketball coaches across the country are likely exalting tonight’s game as demonstration of the benefits of collective effort and “playing the game the right way.”
With Oladipo out of action, everyone in the building knew that Westbrook would have to do everything if the Thunder had a shot at winning. The Blazers countered by packing the paint and taking away any easy looks at the rim for Westbrook. He still managed to get a few lay-ups but, overall, his relatively low assist total (6) and 5-for-11 shooting around the rim tell a story of a player who struggled to create easy scoring opportunities. His teammates did little to bail him out, shooting a combined 1-for-8 from outside the paint in the decisive second quarter. The Thunder finished with an abysmal field goal percentage of 37.9 - the second lowest mark for a Portland opponent all season.
Ordinarily it would be easy to feel some sympathy for Westbrook as he deals with the Sisyphean challenge of keeping Semaj Christon, Jerami Grant, and Anthony Morrow playoff relevant. But Russell’s on-court antics repeatedly undercut any lamentation from the home crowd; Westbrook seemed to be in the middle of a prolonged temper tantrum as he resorted to childish annoyances like kicking the ball away as Lillard leaned to pick it up, firing the ball into the stands and claiming to be passing to an official, swiping at Plumlee as he sets up to make an in-bound pass, and so forth.
These outbursts are especially damning given that Westbrook was just 48 hours removed from singlehandedly leading the Thunder to a comeback win over the Boston Celtics. The volatility of the “good Westbrook” vs. “bad Westbrook” dichotomy that has polarized NBA observers all season was on full display over the last two games, and may have won the game in OKC on Sunday, but cost the Thunder any hope of competing tonight.
For their part, the Blazers also took full advantage of lax and porous Thunder defense. Portland shot 62.5 percent in the first half and added 14 fast break points. Harkless, McCollum, Turner, and Crabbe joined Lillard and Plumlee in double figure scoring, and no Blazer needed to play more than 30 minutes. Overall, the game was smooth sailing for a team in desperate need of an easy victory.
Individual notes are generally not telling tonight given the lackluster play from OKC. Key contributors (e.g. Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Plumlee) played decently well and were able to get some rest.
The big man rotation, however, continues to cause headaches for Head Coach Terry Stotts. Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and Noah Vonleh seem to be in an ongoing battle to underperform each other on a game by game basis. Tonight Vonleh picked up multiple fouls on silly mistakes (e.g. being out of position to box out and fouling to compensate), while Leonard botched several defensive assignments. Eventually, someone from this triumvirate will need to distinguish himself (in a good way!) to help round out the rotation.
The strong effort over the last two nights under difficult (scheduling) circumstances gives hope that the Blazers have corrected their course after early season problems with historically bad defense and a general lack of effort. But this is not the first time Portland has shown signs of turning around their season - consecutive victories over the Pacers, Heat, and Bulls spring to mind.
If the Blazers have turned the corner they will need to prove it in the upcoming week: Three of their next four games are against sub-.500 clubs that a team with playoff aspirations ought to handle easily.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado