The Trail Blazers closed out their four-game road trip with a 102-99 victory over the Thunder. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 45 points, giving Portland just enough to return home to the Moda Center with a record above .500. The new-look Thunder, who underwent a summer of turnover following a memorable playoff exit, relied upon Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder to keep things moving on offense.
It wasn’t the prettiest win, but for a undermanned squad ready to return home, it was enough.
Thanks to CJ McCollum’s hot hand, the Blazers’ offense got rolling early in the first quarter. Thunder youngster Terrance Ferguson struggled to stick to the crafty veteran, leading to a 10-point opening frame from McCollum. Defensively, the Blazers struggled to avoid the whistle. Justified or not, Hassan Whiteside found himself in early foul trouble after some touch-and-go fouls in the post.
The Thunder connected on just five of their 18 attempts from the field in the first and the Blazers did an excellent job preventing second-chance opportunities. Portland finished the first quarter up 24-17.
The outside shooting woes continued for the Thunder into the second quarter. A combination of cold shooting mixed with an energetic defensive effort from the Blazers to keep the momentum out of OKC’s hands. When called upon, Skal Labissiere filled in for Whiteside admirably on the defensive end. The former Kings big helped corral penetration and managed to stay vertical in the process. Whiteside returned to the court halfway through the second and produced a scary moment for the Blazers. After attempting to block a shot from Chris Paul, Whiteside landed awkwardly and clutched his left knee. Once he stood up, the big fella headed to the locker room.
Despite their shooting troubles, the Thunder clawed back within five points at halftime thanks to an inspired rebounding performance led by Nerlens Noel.
After testing his knee at halftime, Whiteside triggered a sigh of relief when he returned to the court to start the second half. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the Thunder carried their pre-halftime momentum into the third quarter. Dennis Schroder’s work off the dribble finally started to take its toll on Portland’s defense. Forced to collapse, the Blazers started to leave the Thunder’s perimeter options open from beyond the arc. Portland’s defensive issues where compounded by stagnate possessions and careless mistakes. Danilo Gallinari and Schroder combined for 11 points in the third quarter to give OKC a slim 69-68 lead.
Fourth Quarter (Dame Time)
The Blazers opened the quarter with their starting backcourt resting on the bench. Anfernee Simons, Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja provided enough resistance to buy time for their starting counterparts. Simons stretched the defense with his outside shooting, Hezonja showcased a series of moves off the dribble and Bazemore maintained his aggressiveness.
Once Lillard returned, the action shifted to a familiar duel: CP3 vs. Dame. Both guards did a superb job of getting to their spots, but it was Lillard’s three-point shooting that proved to be the difference. In just two minutes of action at the halfway point in the fourth quarter, Lillard connected on three three-pointers and assisted on two others. Buoyed by Paul, the Thunder managed to stay within at least two possessions of the Blazers until free throws sealed Portland’s 102-99 victory.
Bazemore Finds Rhythm
Wednesday’s matchup was the most even production on the offensive end for Bazemore in a Blazers uniform. His three-point shot was deadly in transition and he avoided stalling the entire offense with prolonged dribbling, for the most part. The former Hawks standout appears to be adapting quickly.
On the negative side, Bazemore did have an ugly possession in the fourth quarter. After receiving the ball on the wing, he missed connecting with Anfernee Simons, who was sliding through the paint uncovered. The possession ended with a miss on a forced shot from Bazemore. Once those plays are eliminated and the foul trouble subsides, Bazemore is poised to be the stabilizing force between the first and second units.
Whistles & More Whistles
It is clear that the officials are patrolling certain areas with increased emphasis this season. Hezonja was the latest player to feel the wrath of a foul call that resulted from a push off. Referees are trying to balance the scales for defenders and monitoring how driving players create space is at the top of the to-do list.
Outside of off-arm infractions, illegal screens and traveling violations feel like they are getting more attention. All three of those factors came to the forefront in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, putting both squads out of sync.
Through five game, it is becoming clear that the Blazers struggle to create easy looks. Without Enes Kanter or Jusuf Nurkic in the post, Portland lacks a go-to scoring option from a high-percentage area. The Blazers, led by Lillard, have compensated by relying on their star player for extended stretches. That was once again the case when Portland was in trouble in the fourth quarter.
Having Lillard shoulder the load is understandable with all the new faces. But this roster has to gel in order to keep Lillard fresh for the long season ahead.
CJ Connects From Outside
McCollum connected on seven of his 22 field goal attempts. Of those seven successful attempts, five came from beyond the arc. McCollum finished the night with 22 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Labissiere recorded seven points and four rebounds in 21 minutes of action. He still has to improve on his rebounding and spacial awareness on defense, but the 23-year-old big man continued to show promise in an increased role.
Anthony Tolliver is not a flashy player, but he does the little things well. On offense, he knocked down two three-pointers in rhythm and provided space for the guards with his screens. Defensively, he did his best to get to the right spot to limit penetration and offensive rebounds.
The Blazers return to action on Saturday to face the 76ers in the Moda Center.