Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George make an impressive trio for the Oklahoma City Thunder on paper, enough that a Portland Trail Blazers squad missing leading scorer Damian Lillard should not have had much of a chance when the two teams faced off on Tuesday night. The old saw says that games aren’t played on paper. As it turned out, the Thunder didn’t play much of a game on the court either. They tried to out-talent and out-isolate the supposedly-inferior Blazers, but Portland was having none of it. Thanks to an amazing game from CJ McCollum plus tons of help from guys whose names won’t appear until Page 100 of the Trail Blazers Google Search, Portland handled Oklahoma City easily, sending their star-studded opponents to an embarrassing 117-106 home loss.
Start Hot, Finish Hotter
The Blazers got off to a 15-8 start, courtesy of Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum throwing fire from the field. Steven Adams threw his weight around on the other end and Russell Westbrook would score 10 in the first period, but OKC barely led, 26-24 after one.
Portland’s bench came through big as the second quarter opened. Pat Connaughton scored 7 points in the first 4 minutes while Shabazz Napier hit opportunistic shots while the Thunder were paying attention to bigger names. Napier would continue strong throughout the period, joined later by Nurkic for a reprise. Meanwhile the Thunder decided to out-talent the Blazers, playing isolation ball at any cost. Adams fell out of the picture completely. Westbrook didn’t get the same touches or openings. Portland won the period 30-24 and led 54-50 at halftime.
The Blazers took the third quarter 34-26, a significant margin but hardly game-deciding under most circumstances. The point deficit may not have been indicative, but the way Portland earned it certainly was. The Thunder continued their stubborn, single-point offensive attacks. This made Portland’s defensive job incredibly easy. Whomever had the ball was going to shoot. When most of those attempts missed, all the Blazers needed to do was gang-rebound. They did, then passed the ball to whomever was open on the other end. The Blazers were guilty of a few ugly shots, but McCollum started churning points while Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner hit threes. When the third quarter horn sounded, the Blazers led by 12 and the Thunder were thoroughly dispirited.
The fourth period would feature more glaring and swearing on Oklahoma City’s part, as they couldn’t figure out why they were losing and tried to overcome it as individuals. Since that was most of the problem in the first place, it didn’t work. Even heroic, late three-pointers couldn’t save the Thunder from a double-digit loss.
Jack Ramsay Said It
This game was decided in the third period and it was decided by an old-school principle: team basketball beats individual talent. None of OKC’s Big Three were bad. Westbrook and Paul George scored 22, Carmelo Anthony 19. Adams even added 16 on 6-8 shooting. They just didn’t help each other. Their entire attack was “me or you”. They had no sense of playing together.
The Blazers didn’t play ideally. They had only 4 assists heading into halftime. They finished the game with 19 total...a significant turn-around. McCollum led them with 27 points and Nurkic scored 20, but Portland’s edge came from players like Napier (5-10, 21 points), Connaughton (4-7, 10 points), Moe Harkless (3-3, 9 points), and Zach Collins (4-9, 9 points). All of those players but Napier have to be set up to score, and even Napier needs tacit permission. Granted, Damian Lillard didn’t suit up, leaving extra shots for ancillary scorers, but had McCollum and Nurkic decided to play two-man basketball for the majority of Portland’s possessions, nobody could have stopped them. Instead the Thunder devolved into predictable points of attack while the Blazers at least found isolation plays in different positions, from different people.
Oklahoma City’s offensive decisions made Portland’s defensive job simple. The Blazers were barely tested on that end. Players the caliber of Westbrook, Anthony, and George are going to hit shots, and they did. But in the process they went a combined 23-55, barely making their defenders move. The Blazers could dedicate a single person to staying in front of them and shade inside with everyone else, preventing clean drives and uncontested rebounds. After that, all Portland needed to do was keep the Thunder out of transition. OKC scored 13 on the break, but that was not near enough to turn the course of the game.
The NBATV “Players Only” commentators were effusive with praise for Portland’s team game. They probably haven’t watched every Blazers outing this year, else they’d have been more reserved, but they had a strong point: the system worked tonight. Oklahoma City playing like goat pajamas made winning easier, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Blazers could stare across the court and say, “There but for the grace of Ryan Reynolds go we.” That they played better and won is a tribute to the players involved and the coaching staff. For another night, for another moment, they looked like they should.
The Curtain Call
Everyone on the team deserves credit for this one, but we’ll single out three.
You could almost feel the disdain for Shabazz Napier dripping off of OKC’s lineup. It wasn’t so much intentional as, “Who, exactly, are you compared to us?” Shabazz showed them. He was too quick, too crafty, and had no fear. 21 points is impressive at any time, but 21 on 10 shots (courtesy of 2-3 from the arc and 9-10 free throw shooting) was fantastic.
Pat Connaughton shot as freely and decisively as I’ve ever seen him, to the point where I had to shake my head and double-check the uniform number.
Zach Collins benefited big-time from Oklahoma City’s single-minded attack. His defensive instincts are good. When you narrow the court to a five-foot active area, they’re great.
Oh...and the Thunder DID try to pay attention to CJ McCollum all night and he STILL scored 27 on 11-19 shooting. That’s impressive.
The “Loud” in Welcome to Loud City will be complaining tonight.
If you like celebrating a win, think how much fun 2000 kids who otherwise would never be able to see a game in person will have on February 27th. Here’s how you can help make that happen.
The Blazers get no rest, suiting up again Wednesday against the Houston Rockets at 5:00 PM, Pacific.