The Portland Trail Blazers, spurred on by a 16-0 run late in the fourth quarter, defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-109 at the Moda Center on Thursday night.
Thunder Guard Russell Westbrook came into the game looking for a fifth consecutive triple-double, but came up short with “only” 45 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. Westbrook’s point total, however, is deceiving - he scored only 5 in the fourth quarter on 2-for-11 shooting, despite being one of the best clutch players in the NBA this season. The other four Thunder starters combined to score only 12 points.
The Blazers, on the other hand, had a well-balanced team effort with six players in double figures. Jusuf Nurkic, playing his first home game as a Blazer, had a huge impact in the paint and finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, a career-high 6 assists, and 5 blocks. Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 33 points.
The Blazers hit the floor running in the first quarter, jumping out to a 20-8 lead in the first six minutes of the game. The offense looked crisp and the passing, especially, was on point. Nurkic made his usual nice post feeds and Lillard whipped a Lebron-esque one-hander into the paint for a Maurice Harkless dunk.
Even TNT Color Commentator Reggie Miller noticed how high the Blazers energy seemed remarking, “If you’re a Blazers’ fan you’re asking: ‘Where is all this excitement and all this dribble penetration all season.’” But Westbrook and the Thunder battled back - a 14-4 run to close the quarter cut the Portland lead down to 26-24.
The second quarter started with neither Lillard nor Westbrook in the game. Both teams responded by taking, and making, several open 3-pointers. In Westbrook’s absence, the Thunder found some more sustainable offense in the post by pounding the ball repeatedly down to newly acquired Taj Gibson. The Blazers still managed to grow their lead out to 57-48 on the back of CJ McCollum’s 10 points in the quarter, but the Thunder scored the final 12 points in 77 seconds to take a 60-57 lead into the half.
The final three points came on one of the craziest shots I’ve ever seen:
"WHAT A SHOT BY TAJ GIBSON!" #KiaTopPlay pic.twitter.com/VOyHowFdkt— NBA (@NBA) March 3, 2017
The third quarter opened with Lillard and Westbrook teasing a mano-a-mano duel. Both players hit back-to-back 3-pointers on four consecutive possessions early in the quarter and would combine to score 25 of the total 49 points in the frame. Head Coach Terry Stotts made a point of calling plays to expose Alex Abrines poor defense and it worked on several possessions - at one point Abrines made a miserably poor decision to help out on a cutter in the already crowded key and leave Harkless wide open for a triple. But the Thunder’s defense was otherwise stable and the teams played to more or less a draw with OKC taking a 85-81 lead into the fourth.
The fourth quarter opened with Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson spelling Steven Adams. Kanter and Gibson were very good offensively, but the Blazers exploited Adams absence on the other end. Portland was able to continually cut into the lane for easy baskets (more Nurkic assists!), as well as grab rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu was the primary beneficiary, scoring 6 quick points in the early going. Kanter made up for it on the other end with more solid post work and the Thunder managed to grab a 97-89 lead on an Abrines 3-pointer with 7:48 to go.
And that’s when the wheels came off for OKC. The Blazers offense continued to hum along, but a strong defensive effort really bothered the Thunder in the closing minutes. The challenged jumpers that had been falling for the Thunder in the early going began clanking off. The Blazers finished the job by limiting the Thunder to one shot on each possession, culminating in a 16-8 rebounding advantage in the final frame. Consequently, after the Abrines three, the Blazers scored 21 of the next 25 points to take a 110-101 with 1:37 to go. OKC tried desperately to make a comeback in the waning seconds, but the Blazers hung on 114-109.
The Thunder are an incredible 24-6 this season when Westbrook picks up a triple-double. The Blazers must have known that because they seemed content to let Westbrook score off the dribble all night if it meant keeping his teammates un-involved. And that’s exactly what happened - through three quarters Westbrook had 40 points and the other four starters had a paltry 4. Not exactly a winning combination.
In a complete role-reversal, the Blazers defense was also excellent down the stretch while Westbrook struggled. This was surprising, to say the least, given that Westbrook leads the NBA in clutch scoring and the Blazers have had one of the worst second half defenses in the league in recent weeks:
Weird stat: Since Jan. 26 blazers have last place defense in second half of games. Fifth best in first halves. https://t.co/mLjXI6kcMg— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) March 1, 2017
Portland’s defense made hay by forcing the Thunder repeatedly into contested jumpers - earlier in the game many of those shots had been falling, but they began to miss in the fourth. Westbrook was the primary poor-shooting culprit. After hitting six of his first eight 3-pointers, he went ice cold and missed his final eight - five of them in the fourth quarter. He was 2-for-11 overall and the Thunder shot only 8-for-25 in the quarter. Basically, the Blazers strategy of letting Westbrook shoot while trying to contain his teammates worked. Throw in Portland’s massive rebounding advantage, and it’s no surprise the Blazers won the final frame 33-24.
When Westbrook was out of the game the Thunder focused almost exclusively on pounding the ball inside to Gibson and Kanter. With Nurkic patrolling the middle for Portland the game often looked like it had transported back to the lumbering big man heyday of 1997 for long stretches. Gibson and Kanter did very well for OKC, combining for 33 points on 22 shots and made defenders look silly on several plays, but their impact was mitigated by Nurkic’s big night.
Overall the Blazers played well enough they probably should have won this game easily instead of relying on a late run to get the job done. Being outscored a total of 26-4 in the waning moments of the first two quarters, and an inability to build a lead when Westbrook was out of the game offset any efforts to gain separation. But, in context of the 2016-17 Blazers, triumphing despite struggling to build a lead commiserate with the general game flow makes the victory down the stretch even more impressive. This has not been a team to overcome even the most mild diversity all year but they shrugged it off and flipped the fourth quarter script to pick up the surprising win.
Damian Lillard was huge again for the Blazers. His 33 points did not match Westbrook’s total, nevertheless his scoring punch was vital throughout the game. Impressively, he was only 2-for-7 on threes through three quarters, but still managed to shoot over 50 percent from the field.
CJ McCollum had a nice third quarter but continued his inconsistent post-All-Star Game shooting. Five-for-fourteen will not get it done on most nights. He did have one nifty wrap around highlight pass through traffic in the lane for an assist.
Jusuf Nurkic continues to impress. He played the entire fourth quarter despite being clearly winded and his impressive stat lines tells the story of the major impact he had on the game. Through five games he has delivered everything the Blazers need in a starting center.
Maurice Harkless had 10 points and 9 rebounds. His shot was off but he managed to draw 8 free-throws.
Noah Vonleh continues his vaguely passable but unimpressive play as starting power forward, finishing with 2 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes.
Al-Farouq Aminu led the bench players with 14 points and 6 rebounds. He also played the entire fourth quarter and made several big plays, including scoring 6 consecutive points early on. His versatility helped to offset OKC’s twin towers approach with Kanter/Gibson/Adams. Very good overall game.
Hey! Allen Crabbe has scored double figures in consecutive games! Yay?
Meyers Leonard, Pat Connaughton, and Shabazz Napier all got token rotation minutes.
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA | GoBlazers87@gmail.com