The Portland Trail Blazers won a thriller in Oklahoma City tonight, downing the Thunder 115-104 after a blizzard of last-minute threes saved them from disaster. You can get a rundown of the action in our instant recap. Damian Lillard scored 31, blazing in the first quarter and the desperate final minutes of the game. Here’s that observation and seven more just like it in our analysis of the victory.
Just when you think you know who Damian Lillard is, he turns into something else. We’re all familiar with Lillard’s M.O. and skill set, right? Shoot threes, score 30, come up big late in games. So what did Dame do tonight? He came out hard in the first period, driving the lane like crazy, scoring 12 on 6-11 shooting with not a single three made. Lillard also defended hard, providing the sharp point of the attack that held Oklahoma City to just 21 points.
THEN Lillard made four three-pointers in the final four minutes, assisting on two others, to turn a game the Blazers were, at that point, losing into a decisive victory.
Dame can truly do anything. It’s special. Watch every moment you can.
Enes Kanter stand like a tree among daffodils in Portland’s lineup now. As long as he’s in the game, the Blazers can cover for their injury-induced lack of height. As soon as he goes out, the Blazers get tiny. Forget the abominable switches that leave Anfernee Simons as the central rim protector. Those still happen when the defense goes wrong. But it’s not much better when the defense goes right. If Harry Giles, III and Jusuf Nurkic don’t hurry back, this is likely to get ugly. Teams will be able to game plan for Portland’s lack of height.
OKC did just that in the second half. They ended up with 48 points in the paint. Had they been able to hit threes, it would have undone the Blazers.
Simons Says Gimme the Ball
Anfernee Simons hit threes tonight, shooting 5-8 from distance for 15 points. but he did as well running the offense in the first half as we’ve seen him. With Lillard drawing four fouls in the opening two periods, Simons’ play was a godsend.
It looks like, by design or fortune, the Blazers have simplified the game when Simons is in. When he handles the ball, he has a couple of clear options. He really looked wonderful against OKC. He didn’t get direct assists, but he initiated plays, controlling ball and pace, instead of just firing his (admittedly excellent) three.
Bench Blows Up
The Blazers played only three bench players more than 3 minutes tonight. Carmelo Anthony scored 10, shooting just 4-14. He’s in the “down” cycle of his up-and-down year. Still, we’re not long past the time when a bad game from a Portland bench player meant 0 points, not double digits.
Meanwhile Simons shot 5-9 from the floor for 15 points while Nassir Little hit every shot he took—including three threes—for 13 points on 5-5 shooting.
Portland’s reserves are playing like the green light never goes out. Frankly, it’s a good look for them. “Unconcerned” might be one word for it. Refreshingly productive are two more.
All Threes, All the Time
For better or worse, the Blazers went all-in on the three-pointer tonight. 47 of their 96 attempts came from distance, almost 1 in 2 shots. They connected on 20, for 42.6% overall.
The plan worked great in the first half when Portland was hot. It looked terrible for most of the second when fatigue, and a wee bit of defense, began to catch up to them. But all’s well that ends well. Six made threes in the final four minutes put the game out of reach.
Tired in Transition
The Blazers played (essentially) eight players tonight, in a fast-paced game on the road. And THEN Lillard got in foul trouble. Their energy waned as the game progressed. Oklahoma City started grabbing extra rebounds and getting out on the break. Portland has done great during this injury-plagued stretch, but it might be time to start hoping that the All-Star Break comes soon.
Ripping and Stripping
It didn’t necessarily show up in the boxscore—Portland was credited for only 6 steals—but it’s become clear that reaching and stripping are an increasing part of Portland’s defensive repertoire. All the smalls are trying to poke the ball away. Since the Blazers have nobody but smalls right now, that means a lot of active arms.
This isn’t a bad thing. Forced turnovers are one benefit, but honestly a lot of Portland players have trouble moving their feet and bodying up on “D”. This is another option to get them engaged in some way on that end. Fouls will go up, but at least they’re tracking the ball and not watching it go by.
On the Rebound
Despite the smaller lineup, Portland dominated the offensive glass tonight, eclipsing Oklahoma City 15 O-rebounds to 7. Enes Kanter had a mammoth 7, but five of the top six Portland players grabbed 2 or more. This has become to the offense what the poke-away is to the defense.
The finish of this game was as exciting as could be imagined. Portland blew a huge lead, went all the way upside down on the scoreboard, then rained in multiple triples to bring home the win. There was a fair amount of excitement after...not goalpost-tipping celebration, but clapping and nodding. That’s fine. The poise in the final minutes of play was downright professional. The Blazers looked like they knew they could win it, then followed through. Don’t look now, but they’re playing like a team that knows what it’s doing. The confidence level is starting to rise. That’s a good sign for the season.
The Blazers get no rest. They’ll take on the New Orleans Pelicans tomorrow night at 5:00, Pacific.