The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night without center Jusuf Nurkic, defense, or much of a sense of continuity. Portland would be expected to handle the Thunder easily. Those expectations were wrong. On a night when Damian Lillard broke Clyde Drexler’s All-Time franchise scoring record and Jerami Grant left an indent on the rim from repeated dunking, nearly everything else for the Blazers fell flat.
The game was nip-and-tuck after the mid-first quarter, with neither team gaining separation on the scoreboard. It stayed within one or two points clear through the final minutes, making the outcome a coin flip. That flip was decided by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored his 34th and 35th points of the game via a buzzer-beater, ruining Lillard’s record night by sending Portland to a 123-121 defeat.
Lillard had 28 points on 9-17 shooting, 6-12 from the arc in defeat. Grant added 26 on 10-18 shooting.
The Blazers started out by hitting their first five shots, including four right at the cup and a three-pointer from Damian Lillard. Jerami Grant found himself unopposed at the cup three times in the first 150 seconds of the game, causing a frustration timeout by the Thunder. It didn’t stop the flow, just interrupted it for two minutes. Grant continued to dunk inside. The only thing keeping the Thunder in the game was some nifty offensive rebounding by Luguentz Dort in the absence of Jusuf Nurkic. But “close” was relative. The Blazers threatened to run away with the scoreboard early, leading 17-9 with 7:30 remaining in the first.
Portland’s scoring stalled mid-period, though. They continued to shoot a high percentage.; they just didn’t get a ton of shots off. Oklahoma City didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but they continued to hammer shots inside. They cut the lead to six with 3:30 remaining.
The trend would continue as the quarter closed. Portland’s shots made unpleasant “Bonk!” sounds, when they got them up at all. Oklahoma City went on a 12-2 run to tie the score at 28 after one.
So much for an easy night.
Anfernee Simons canned a three to start the second period, his second of the game. Grant was fouled on a three-point attempt a play later, and suddenly the Blazers’ scoring was back. If Portland could have curbed their turnover issues, they would have been off to the races. Instead that distinction belonged to the Thunder. OKC couldn’t hit anything but easy buckets; the Blazers obliged by giving them plenty. That was enough to keep the scoreboard tight midway through the period.
The bottom started falling out for Portland as they committed near-comical defensive errors, then compounded them with fouls on the resulting OKC gimmes. Now it was Chauncey Billups’ turn to call timeout to refocus his charges. The score read 44-41, Oklahoma City, with 6:37 remaining, but against a tougher opponent, the Blazers might have been down 16 at this point. It certainly felt like it.
The Thunder continued to push the pace on Portland through the end of the second period, forcing the Blazers’ hand via running dunk attempts. It was neither pretty nor welcome. OKC had the lead to eight, 53-45, at the 4:00 mark. A Lillard three, then a Dame assist to Josh Hart for another (after drawing the defense tight), righted the situation somewhat, pulling Portland back within three. A Drew Eubanks tip off of a Simons miss with four seconds remaining kept the margin there at the half despite Portland playing sub-optimally. The Thunder led 61-58 at intermission.
By halftime Damian Lillard had 14 of the 21 points needed to pass Clyde Drexler as the All-Time leading scorer for the Trail Blazers.
Damian Lillard hit a three to start the third, indicating that the record was going to fall no matter what. He’d hit another a couple minutes later; Simons would add a third. Eubanks played with energy inside, balancing out the attack somewhat. It was enough to restore a 75-71 lead to Portland by the 7:30 mark.
Portland continued to turn over the ball, but this time Oklahoma City did as well. Simons scored again in the halfcourt, Grant with a transition dunk. Then Aleksej Pokusevski returned the favor on the other end, followed by a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dunk with the and-one. Every time it seemed the Blazers would streak away, their own bungles and lack of defense allowed OKC right back in it. Without Lillard’s record chase, the game would have been annoying. But everybody, including his teammates, seemed to be vibrating with anticipation as Lillard climbed within a single point of Drexler’s mark. You almost wanted the bucket to fall in order to dispel the distraction. The 82-all tie at the 3:00 mark of the third stood testament to Portland’s struggles against a lesser team.
Lillard rattled out a three with 2:20 remaining, then finally got his moment with 1:33 remaining in the third. Fouled on a drive, he sank two free throws, the first of which pushed him to 18,041 points, breaking the record.
Mike Muscala hit a three eight seconds later, then Grant dunked AGAIN, indicating that the game was back on...with all its warts on defense for both sides.
In a “second verse, same as the first” kind of way, Justise Winslow gave Portland a big lift with a put-back off of a Grant free throw miss less than a minute later, but the Blazers gave back all three points to Gilgeous-Alexander in one quick shot on the next possession.
Appropriately, the score read 94-94 at the end of three. The first team to play real basketball would win this game.
The first three minutes of the fourth solved nothing, despite Keon Johnson hitting a three, which he would follow up in like fashion a minute later. The Thunder got a layup, free throws, and their own three to keep pace. Portland led 104-103 with 7:50 remaining. Grant hit a three, then Isaiah Joe hit one. It was like Groundhog’s Day, except with worse defense. Between Dort’s ball-hawking and rebounding/offense from Gilgeous-Alexander, Portland couldn’t keep the Thunder quiet.
The scoreboard gap remained at a single point through the midsection of the fourth. Then Simons came stomping through the room like a St. Bernard climbing your Christmas Tree. Ant hit a pair of threes, finally making the margin five instead of one. If Grant could have followed with his open attempt from distance, the game might have been decided. But he front-rimmed it and the Thunder continued their game-long trend of good rebounding. Gilgeous-Alexander hit a pair of free throws and a step-back jumper, and there we were again...115-114, Portland, 2:20 left.
Lillard turned over the ball on the next possession after the timeout, then Gilgeous-Alexander burned him on another step-back. Portland trailed by one. Then Simons hit a two-pointer to regain the lead, 117-116 with 1:20 remaining.
Gilgeous-Alexander finally missed on the next trip down the floor, giving Portland the ball with a one-point lead, 1:00 remaining. Simons tried to be the hero, but got his jumper blocked. Then Dort got fouled on a return drive. He’d sink both foul shots, 118-117, OKC, 41 seconds remaining.
The Blazers needed a hero, and Lillard stepped up. He faked the snot right out of Dort’s nostrils, then drove right down the middle for a layup, putting the Blazers up 119-118 with 31 seconds left. One good defensive possession would give Portland the breathing space they needed.
Portland got it, sort of. They forced Dort into a turnover, but then Simons tossed away the ball. On the next possession, Winslow was whistled for a blocking foul on an awfully close call. Gilgeous-Alexander made both free throws, putting the Thunder up 120-119 with 16 seconds remaining.
Lillard tried to bull his way down the lane but got stuffed by multiple defenders, leading to another turnover, the seventh of the period for Portland. After an intentional foul, Gilgeous-Alexander hit one of two at the foul line, leaving 6.5 seconds on the clock, Portland down two, 119-121.
On the inbounds play, Lillard got the ball on the left sideline, then dribbled around Dort again for a reverse layup. The scoreboard read 121-121, 3.2 seconds left.
Unfortunately for Portland, Gilgeous-Alexander got free from Winslow on a baseline jumper. He rose, flicked, and swished in perfect form, giving the Thunder the victory.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from the game, coming soon!
The Blazers will play their second straight against the Thunder on Wednesday night, again with a 5:00, Pacific start time.