The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight short approximately half a roster, courtesy of season-long injuries and an afternoon trade that sent Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver to the Sacramento Kings. Damian Lillard did everything he could to keep Portland in the game. Gary Trent Jr. scored a career high. It wasn’t near enough as Oklahoma City downed the Blazers handily, 119-106.
The two teams started out in a contest of wills. The Blazers wanted to work the halfcourt, setting up iso posts or jump shots deliberately. The Thunder were OK in the halfcourt as well—it’s their specialty—but they were willing to hit quick and run against the undermanned Blazers. Layups became OKC’s currency in the first period, and they were plenty rich. If the Thunder could hit a three, they would have led by 30. As it was, 10 free throw attempts stood them in good stead and they exited the period up 32-24.
Portland’s “second” unit—by definition it could include no more than three actual bench players tonight—picked up energy and tempo. Trent Jr. hit from outside while Carmelo Anthony went iso in multiple possessions. As OKC kept attacking the rim, the Blazers abandoned the mid-range entirely to guard it. Any Oklahoma City player going inside found extra defenders. Anyone outside 12 feet found an open shot. Portland’s scheme started falling apart when Nerlens Noel, who looked like a giant against the smaller Blazers, leveraged height into clean looks.
Portland cut the lead to 3, then Damian Lillard went nuclear, keeping the Blazers in contact with 24 first-half points. The Thunder continued to pound it inside, answering every time. While Portland hit jumpers to survive, OKC hit them as the frosting on their cake. The score read 64-57, home team, at intermission.
The third period got ragged quickly, with both teams forcing contested drives and committing turnovers. Foul shots kept the scoring going when the ugly play couldn’t. The sides appeared to tire as the period progressed. Offense drifted outside, which didn’t help the scoring issue. Trent bucked the trend. His sweet strokes from distance were literally perfect; he didn’t miss a single shot all night until the 2:54 mark of the third. The Thunder missed plenty, but Portland couldn’t rebound any of them. The busted-up period proved basically a wash; the score read 87-77, OKC, after three.
Fatigue was an issue in the fourth period for both teams, each playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Oklahoma City had a dozen-odd players to run into the game. Portland had eight. OKC’s legs were tired, Portland’s rubber. The Thunder lead ballooned to 17 in the first three minutes of the period and never got appreciably lower. The game was over long before it was over, the kind of night where nobody else getting hurt was the measure of success as the clock dwindled to zero.
Nothing in this game mattered long-term or was indicative. The troubles the Blazers have had all season, they still had. Fielding only eight players created new ones. The Thunder didn’t have to beat Portland, they just had to outlast them. They did that and more.
Oklahoma City normally plays at a sedate pace while the Blazers like to go quicker. The inversion of tempo—likely a planned tactic from OKC’s end—was evident in the first and last quarters. Portland could only run so long and could only score so quickly in the halfcourt.
Gary Trent Jr. had a near-perfect night from the field. Every shot was in form. It was nice to see him shine with a career high 30 points on 12-18 shooting, 5-9 from distance in 36 minutes.
Anfernee Simons has more hops than a microbrew IPA, but you already knew that. He should be a fun story in a season that appears to be spiraling.
Damian Lillard scored 34 points in 36 minutes. Bless his heart.
The Trail Blazers will limp home for a Monday meeting with the Golden State Warriors at 7:00 PM, Pacific.
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