The Portland Trail Blazers stared down Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight with positioning for the 2018 NBA Playoffs and tiebreaker privileges on the line. Oklahoma City played without Carmelo Anthony but they still brought the reigning NBA MVP, perennial All-Star Paul George, plus plenty of size and athleticism to the court. The Blazers brought their familiar star backcourt, one of whom would have a tough night. Normally that would spell trouble for a squad short on options, but Head Coach Terry Stotts went Inspector Gadget, pressing a hidden button on his left elbow and summoning rookie Zach Collins from Gonzaga to save the day. While Portland fans scratched their heads and Thunder fans began laughing, Collins filled up both floor and stat line, giving his team enough support to hang onto the critical 108-100 victory.
Here’s how it went.
Slow and (Mostly) Steady
The Blazers didn’t start out scoring efficiently, as Damian Lillard would begin a long march through a rare poor shooting night from the field. CJ McCollum and Evan Turner made up the difference by hitting threes, helping Portland hold the game mostly even until the 4:00 mark. Poor bench defense allowed the Thunder to get out on a late-quarter run. Oklahoma City led 28-25 after one.
McCollum would spur Portland’s reserves to an amazing start to the second period. Offense and defense clicked together; OKC looked befuddled. McCollum personally accounted for 8 points in the first 6 minutes of the quarter, assisting on another bucket. He distracted the Thunder defense enough to allow Pat Connaughton and Zach Collins good looks. The Blazers rolled onward without opposition until Russell Westbrook drew a technical foul with 3:53 remaining, taking out his frustration with the officials by shoving Jusuf Nurkic. At that point the Blazers seemed to get wrapped up in the drama surrounding the game instead of concentrating on the play itself, especially when relatively-friendly whistles turned sour after Westbrook’s display of pique. An 8-point Blazers lead shrank to 3 as Westbrook and company jammed the ball inside for layups or fouls. Portland led 53-50 at the break.
The third period became a contest between mirrored opponents as the teams alternated (mostly unsuccessful) layup attempts and (mostly successful) three-pointers. Lillard, Turner, McCollum, and Al-Farouq Aminu would all hit long shots for Portland. John Huestis, Patrick Patterson, and Jerami Grant replied for the Thunder. The Blazers also got a taste of the fully-armed-and-operational Paul George, whose size and dribbling wizardry got him to the cup for multiple scores. Westbrook and Lillard remained relatively silent. Even with George scoring big, as Portland’s “other” players out-dueled their OKC counterparts. The Blazers led 83-75 heading into the fourth.
Attacking Like a Bulldog
With Oklahoma City fielding one of the greatest crunch-time scorers in the league, locked in a battle that could determine playoffs seeding, they were not going to go quietly into the night. They started the final period with continuity, renewing their game-long attack on the lane. It worked. OKC notched 10 points in the first 4 minutes, only one shot coming farther than 10 feet out. But Zach Collins responded with 5 of his own, keeping Portland afloat through a multi-minute scoring drought that would afflict both teams.
Collins had been playing well all night and Portland fans were primed to give him a handy ovation when his shift ended. The problem was, it never did. Through thick and thin, the rookie from Gonzaga stood. The “thick” turned out to be Westbrook pouring it on, trying to take over the game in patented fashion. “Thin” were Westbrook’s chances of getting up a clean shot closer than 20 feet with Collins patrolling the lane. Collins rotated, rebounded, and eventually began to intimidate inside, riding his length and defensive instincts to a masterful performance.
Now riding a wave of confidence, Collins hit a three-pointer with 2:23 remaining to put Portland up 102-93. It looked like that shot might be the dagger until Westbrook returned the favor, pulling the Thunder back within 6. Then Grant hit a shot with 1:32 left to make the score 102-98. Portland’s lead of 4 looked too slim. When Collins turned over the ball via a horrible entry pass on the very next possession, the Moda Center groaned. When Collins blocked Paul George’s next layup attempt clean, denying the Thunder a chance to take advantage and pull it within two, it evoked all the crowd-rousing redemption of Neville Longbottom disarming Voldemort with an Expelliarmus charm. The arena went crazy and Oklahoma City went down. Say what you want about the ex-Bulldog’s performance to this point; the Blazers wouldn’t have earned this victory without him.
Defense Wins Again
For the second straight game, the Trail Blazers salted away a game they could have easily lost with good defense. Portland shot a mediocre 44% from the field, only 33% from the arc tonight. Earlier in the year, those numbers would have spelled near-certain defeat against good teams. But Portland held the Thunder to that same 44%, only ceding 22% from the arc. In a similar vein, Lillard shot 5-18 overall, 2-8 on threes, but Westbrook only managed 12-31 and 1-5. The Blazers didn’t play their best—maybe didn’t even look that good—but on the defensive end in crunch time, they were spectacular.
Five extra three-pointers made and five more free throw connections helped Portland persevere on a night when they lost the paint battle 56-46 and trailed 19-7 in fast break points. Portland’s game plan got them the right looks, especially in the first half when every attempt came either at the rim or from long range. Not every shot fell, but almost every shot made sense.
Collins deserves the game ball tonight. In addition to saving the game late, he scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting. CJ McCollum made up for Lillard’s off night by scoring 28 on 10-20 from the field. Ed Davis was predictably awesome as well, filling the middle for 10 rebounds, 5 offensive, in 20 minutes.
Jusuf Nurkic drew 4 fouls in 18 minutes, shot 4-11, and scored only 9. Both Collins and Davis got more minutes than Nurkic, who was again notably absent during long stretches of the fourth quarter.
Ahead for You
Zach Collins’ twitter account for those who want to tell him how awesome he did.