With the intensity and feel of a playoff game, the Oklahoma City Thunder edged the Portland Trail Blazers tonight in overtime despite 51 points from Damian Lillard. The Thunder victory completed the season sweep. In addition to Lillard’s monster night, CJ McCollum added 25 of his own. On the other side, Russell Westbrook and Paul George combined for 69 points.
Throughout all 53 minutes of play, neither team led by more than eight; there were 23 lead changes and 16 ties. Each team strung together small runs each quarter to gain a slight advantage until Jusuf Nurkic’s untimely ejection enabled Oklahoma City to attack the paint in overtime and generate the deciding run.
The non-basketball plays and comments were almost as entertaining as the game, so let’s look at those first.
Chuck and Kenny See Blazers in Finals
During TNT’s halftime show, Kenny Smith stated that the Blazers will make the NBA Finals. Charles Barkley then went one step further and claimed that the team will make the FINALS, encouraging Kenny to double down and agree with his counterpart. This Kenny-and-Chuck hypothetical playoff scenario lines Portland up against the Toronto Raptors (if you were wondering).
As the second half started, the TNT halftime crew continued to debate their claim; Reggie Miller did not see the same playoff outcome, though. After three minutes of circling each other, the two broadcast crews agreed to disagree and Kevin Harlan’s play-by-play resumed.
For a Blazers team accustomed to little national media attention, the two former players’ predictions put them in the spotlight.
Technical Fouls Alter the Course
In the last matchup, Westbrook and Lillard chirped at one another several times. No confrontations resulted from the jawing that night, but they certainly did in this game.
Behind a play in the second quarter, Nurkic potentially stepped in Westbrook’s path and caused him to stumble. In response, the OKC guard body-checked Nurkic and sent him to the floor. The questionably retroactive technical issued to the Bosnian Beast upon review of the body check haunted the team as another scuffle, this time between Nurkic and George late in the fourth quarter after a hard foul, earned him another technical and therefore an ejection.
Billy Donovan selected Skal Labissiere to shoot the free throws - the new signing missed both. Without a foul call on Markieff Morris on the rebound, the Blazers would have lost this game in regulation because of Nurkic’s ejection.
Without the starting big man for overtime, the Thunder dominated the paint and ultimately won the game.
Low Assist Numbers
Each team recorded 14 assists in an extra long game, significantly below their respective season averages. On the Blazers side, two factors contributed to that low number: missed threes and necessary hero ball down the stretch.
Portland’s wings - Rodney Hood, Jake Layman, Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu - shot a combined 5-22 from the field and 2-15 from three. Time and time again, Lillard and McCollum found them on the perimeter after drawing the defense in on a drive, but the wings didn’t capitalize on the open looks.
Likely in response to the missed three-point opportunities, the backcourt took matters into their own hands. In a third-quarter stretch, Lillard and McCollum scored 14 straight baskets for the Blazers. They craftily utilized Nurkic’s screens to either drive or generate mid-range looks. However, the Thunder focused its defense on the two because no one else could score and caused offensive difficulties for Portland in overtime.
Dame and CJ Stagger
The absence of Evan Turner due to personal reasons prompted Terry Stotts to stagger Lillard’s and McCollum’s playing time. Oklahoma City staggered Westbrook and George so keeping one of the backcourt stars on the court also served as a counter.
Despite Lillard and McCollum taking turns leading the reserves, the Thunder bench outscored Portland’s by seven. They also built a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter, a run Hood fortunately stopped when Lillard found him open for three. That couple-minute stretch was a microcosm of the whole night; the Blazers bench lost grip of the game frequently, only to retain it with the help of Lillard or McCollum.
Nurkic and Kanter run the center position for all 48 minutes most nights; thus Portland ranks as an elite rebounding team. The Thunder grabbed seven more rebounds in this game, though, including 16 decisive offensive rebounds.
This rebounding discrepancy surfaced late in the game. With Nurkic focused on Adams, the other Thunder players crashed the offensive glass for second chance opportunities. Portland’s wings either got stuck helping on defense or ball-watched as Morris and Jerami Grant secured the loose ball and an uncontested layup.
George and Westbrook pulled down 21 combined rebounds, three of which were offensive. The defensive boards allowed them to run the floor quickly and catch the defense out of position. As the Blazers scrambled to cover the open man, Oklahoma City created easy chances in the paint. They outscored Portland 70-48 in the middle.
Damian Lillard Drops 51
Fueled by a tough loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, plus Westbrook’s comments last matchup, Lillard came out and attacked the basket. He made 15 of 28 shots; the high shooting percentage resulted from quality looks at the rim. His penetration also led to 20 free throws.
Lillard thrived on Nurkic’s screens. After he established the pick-and-roll game in the first quarter, the All-Star guard exposed Adams on the perimeter by blowing by him time and time again.
Westbrook adjusted how he handled Nurkic’s screens to prevent the drive, so Lillard adjusted his offensive intentions after he bent around his teammate. In the fourth quarter, he began to step behind the screen and canned a few triples, shots that gave Portland life down the stretch. The Blazers could have prevailed if only Lillard’s halfcourt heave went in as time expired in regulation. No such luck.
With the loss, Portland remains in 5th place in the Western Conference Playoffs race. Oklahoma City and the Houston Rockets sit 3rd and 4th, each with 25 losses. The Blazers have 26 defeats on their ledger; the Utah Jazz are just behind them with 27.
The Blazers host the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night at 7:00, Pacific.