In yet another wire-to-wire matchup at the Moda Center, the Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder 125-122. The Blazers had four players score over 20 points in this one, with Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons putting up 26 points each and Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. scoring 22 each.
The Thunder had a pair of 20-point scorers of their own, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way with 24 points. Mike Muscala also poured in 23 off the bench.
The Blazers did not get off to a hot start, with only 35.7% of their first 14 shots going through the hoop. Most of those makes came from Enes Kanter cleaning up on the offensive glass, as he rushed out to six early rebounds. (He finished with 22.) Some of the misses came off forced shots — such as a couple ill-advised turnaround post-ups from Carmelo Anthony — and others were just off of open looks. Oklahoma City has a long and athletic lineup that does a good job disrupting opponents. But the Thunder really hurt Portland with their offense, making 56.6% of their first quarter shots and 50% of their threes. A late five points from Anfernee Simons made it 34-24 OKC after one quarter.
Portland started off the second quarter strong, attacking the Thunder on both ends of the floor. The Blazers were jumping passing lanes on the defensive end and driving to the hoop on the other side, overpowering OKC’s weaker bench unit, cutting the lead to two with an 8-0 run. It helped that Melo found his shot, working Kenrich Williams and Justin Jackson with his patented mid-range game. The most notable thing from this quarter, however, might’ve been the extended run that we got to see from younger guys like Nassir Little and Harry Giles. They weren’t always perfect but provided a lot of high-energy plays. Unfortunately, OKC just continued their offensive onslaught, with Mike Muscala pouring in 16 first half points. The Thunder made 12 threes in the half and led 69-60 at the half.
OKC started to come down back to earth shooting-wise in the third, and Portland finally took advantage. The Blazers continued to attack on offense, hitting shots both inside and out. In particular, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons carried Portland in this quarter. Trent consistently looked for his shot and just hounded whoever he was guarding at all times. Simons shot the ball confidently for the first time in what feels like forever, hitting three shots from outside. After a difficult season last year, it was a welcome sight. Lillard continued to work that two man game with Kanter, who absolutely dominated the glass and had almost 20 boards by the end of the quarter, making it 94-91 Thunder heading into the final quarter.
Things were looking up for Portland in the fourth quarter. Trent and Simons carried over the momentum they had built up from the previous period to this one. Portland was able to take the lead early on. But then things started going downhill. Derrick Jones Jr. left with a leg contusion. The Thunder started finding their way into the paint, either drawing fouls or finishing inside. And no matter what they tried — late-game heroics from Lillard, Kanter working the glass, Simons’s explosion, etc. — it just wasn’t enough. OKC came away with a 125-122 victory.
Let’s Touch On Defense Real Quick
Robert Covington did not play and Derrick Jones Jr. had to leave the game, but it has to be said that this was a pretty bad defensive game from Portland. It’s something that has been all too common these past couple seasons and a trend that probably won’t change anytime soon.
The Thunder came into this matchup last in offensive rating. They still put up 125 points. Mike Muscala’s only marketable skill really as a player is that he’s a stretch big. The Blazers of course sagged off him and let him hit six shots from outside. Muscala had been on a cold streak, but still, open threes were far too common yet again. Portland has to figure out how to neutralize this issue, because it’s just not sustainable.
The Young Guys Showed Out
Okay, let’s talk about some positives from tonight. The contributions from the young guns were critical in this comeback. Anfernee Simons shot the ball with the most confidence he’s had since 2019 Summer League. Gary Trent Jr. was a spark plug on both ends, taking quality shots on offense and forcing his opponents into difficult ones on defense. Even other young players like Harry Giles and Nassir Little showed flashes of how they can help this team.
That’s important. Without Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, the young guys are going to play, and they have to step up when they do if Portland wants a decent seeding in the playoffs. With the contusions suffered by Jones and Rodney Hood and now Covington’s concussion, they’re going to need this kind of effort almost every night if they want to compete.
Injuries suck. There’s absolutely no way around it. But even though they’re the worst, injuries provide coaches with a chance to experiment with weird lineups. I find myself thinking about all the weird combinations Portland could try. It’ll obviously depend on who’s actually available for each game, but Terry Stotts shouldn’t shy away from it.
Portland’s best closing lineup tonight involved Anfernee Simons — a player who most advanced stats had as one of the worst rotation players in the league last year — and he played great alongside Lillard. Why not get him involved and try some more small-ball lineups? Why not try Little at the five so that you have someone who can close out on a Mike Muscala, especially since the Thunder’s second unit is full of skinny dudes? I’ve already made it clear that we need more Covington at center. I just want to see Stotts get weirder with it.
It’s a busy week for Portland, as they’ll play their third game in five days on Thursday against the Houston Rockets. Tip-off for that matchup will be at 6:30 p.m. Pacific.