The Portland Trail Blazers entered their contest with the Oklahoma City Thunder without center Jusuf Nurkic, guard CJ McCollum, and forward Robert Covington tonight, three-fifths of their starting lineup. Portland got great effort from the players who stepped in their place, but no grade of offensive octane could overcome a slow and splintered defense that allowed Oklahoma City 18 of 40 three-point shooting and more than 30 points per quarter. Portland see-sawed through most of the evening and made a big closing run behind Damian Lillard as the game closed, but ended up running out of steam at the end. Portland lost 125-122 to go 9-7 on the season.
The Blazers went with Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter in the staring lineup in the absence of Covington and Nurkic. They held tight for the first few minutes, but midway through the first Oklahoma City’s three-point shooting turned into a meat grinder. And the Blazers were a ripe, plump pig rump. The Thunder doubled up on the scoreboard 30-15. Oklahoma City shot 6-12 from distance in the period, the Blazers just 1-8. OKC led 34-24 after one.
The Blazers got a huge youth injection at the start of the second, as Harry Giles III, Gary Trent, Jr., and Anfernee Simons the First attacked the bucket and set good screens for each other. The Youth Brigade (which included Nassir Little and Anthony) closed the deficit almost immediately. It’s amazing what happens when you run action inside instead of always working for threes that aren’t falling. Unfortunately the defense couldn’t hold up long-term. The Thunder paid Portland back, slashing for layups which the not-so-big defensive lineup couldn’t handle. Inside play opened up Oklahoma City’s outside shots, and all of a sudden we were back to the first-quarter theme: can’t stop the three. OKC got the lead to double-digits again. A last-second Trent three took the margin below, but not by much. The Thunder led 69-60 at the half. At that point they were shooting 12-21 (57%) from three.
Lillard started to take the game personally at the onset of the second half. He drained a three, then drove and set up teammates. You could hear Portland’s offense start to hum, like a generator just firing up. Trent, Jr. contributed threes, Jones, Jr. dunked, and suddenly the game was a dogfight. Portland tied the game and it went back and forth until, predictably, the defense slipped again towards the end of the period. The injured Blazers are capable of looking good on any given possession, but aggregate trips catch up to them. The Thunder threatened double-digits again before Simons came to the rescue with a trio of threes. That made Portland’s defense look almost excusable. OKC led 94-91 after three.
The early fourth quarter was rough for both teams, but Oklahoma City proved better at closing off the perimeter, creating rushed shots and turnovers. That gave them a telling edge. Easy transition points and superior height in the halfcourt allowed them to streak ahead to an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining. Jones, Jr. left the game with a quad contusion, returned briefly, and then left again, further weakening the rotation. At that point, Portland needed to outscore their opponent from the perimeter. They hit shots, but nowhere near enough. The Thunder knew what the Blazers had to do and were able to take the edge off enough to cruise away with the win.
The Blazers faced a bit of a problem tonight, endemic to their depleted roster. When they went small they could defend better outside, but not rebound or watch the rim. When they went bigger they patrolled the lane well, but couldn’t stop three-pointers or pull-up drives. It’s not a nice conundrum.
Simons and Trent Jr. went crazy from three-point range tonight, shooting 6-10 and 4-9 from distance, respectively. Simons finished the game with 26 points, Trent, Jr. 22.
Enes Kanter may not be helping Portland’s perimeter defense, but boy can he rebound. The big man collected 22 tonight, 7 offensive.
The Blazers travel to Houston to face the Rockets on Thursday night at 6:30, Pacific.