For 30 minutes, it looked as though the Portland Trail Blazers would cruise to an easy victory over the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, maybe even getting some rest ahead of an always grueling back-to-back on the road. Instead, dreams of relaxation turned to chaos, as the Blazers proceeded to blow a 24-point lead in the second half. They trailed by five in the final minutes, only to be rescued by undoubtedly impressive, yet frustratingly mandatory heroics from Damian Lillard. When the dust settled, Portland was was lucky to walk away with a 115-104 win that was WAY closer than the final score would give the impression of.
Lillard led the way with 31 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds - but even this line fails to capture how awfully the game would have gone without him.
Portland started the game with trepidation, trying to feel out if they would be facing the same Thunder squad that shot over 50% from the field and made them look silly back on Jan. 25. But down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—who had 24 points in that meeting—Oklahoma City was only a shell of themselves. Lillard probed the Thunder defense like a child testing the boundaries of a parent’s supervision, seeing what he could get away with. As it turned out, that was just about anything. OKC had nobody who could compete with Dame’s quickness to keep him out of the paint, and after he burned them for a couple easy layups, Mark Daigneault just said “forget it” and started doubling him when he crossed the half court line. From there, Lillard got free choice of which teammate he wanted to gift a wide-open look to. Usually the answers were Gary Trent Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. With the defense discombobulated, it might as well have been a practice session. After one, the Blazers already held a commanding 34-21 lead.
With Lillard resting, Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little picked up right where he left off, combining for 25 points in the first half, most of which came from beyond the arc. Oklahoma City’s scouting report must have just been blown-up photocopy of Lillard’s face, because they did not appear prepared, or at times even interested in contesting shots coming from anybody else. If Simons got this much daylight on his looks each game, he’d be Sixth Man of the Year. He could have gotten his taxes done and mailed in the time it took a Thunder defender to get a hand in his face. Although OKC started to gain some rhythm offensively, Portland still outpaced them in the second quarter, pushing its lead to 64-50 at half.
It looked as though the Blazers were going to put this one away early, as Trent came out of the break like a man who wanted to relax during the fourth quarter, scoring nine points and pushing Portland’s lead as high as 24 midway through the third period. But there is no growth without struggle, as the Thunder—behind Luguentz Dort—mounted yet another inspired comeback to pull back within striking distance. The Blazers went nearly four minutes without a score, as the longball suddenly went ice cold, allowing Oklahoma City to close the gap to just 14 points. Portland led 93-79 heading into the final frame.
If the Blazers were ice cold in the third, they were sub-zero come the fourth quarter. Shot after shot clanked off of the rim as the nothing-to-lose Thunder continued to chip away at the lead until they even pulled ahead midway through the period. Free throws from Darius Bazley put OKC ahead by five with less than five minutes remaining, and just as all Hell looked to break loose, Lillard reminded the NBA why he’ll be attending the All-Star game in Atlanta next month. With everything about to slip away, Dame just went nuclear, draining four threes - deep, isolation, hand and arm in your face threes - over the final few minutes to play Obi-Wan Kenobi to the Portland’s Princess Leia. Trent and Robert Covington added another each for good measure, and what looked to be certain disaster was averted in about as quick of a flash as you’ll ever see in this league. The Blazers dodged a Matrix-level hail of bullets and walked away with the win.
The Blazers will get on a plane and head to New Orleans to take on the struggling Pelicans tomorrow evening at 6 p.m. Pacific.