In a game that had NBA fans and analysts at the edges of their seats for its sheer magnitude, the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder faced off at Portland’s Moda Center on Friday night. The Blazers lost two starters—forwards Norman Powell and Robert Covington—as a result of a mid-afternoon trade. The resulting team was short in size and short on offensive continuity, but played with reasonable energy. The Thunder being among the most modest of NBA achievers didn’t hurt. Portland’s lack of coordination and Oklahoma City’s lack of talent combined to keep the game tight and somewhat scrappy.
Lack of offense typified the affair, coupled with turnovers and plenty of loopy play. With both teams out of rhythm, Oklahoma City’s familiarity with each other gave them an edge. A little tight defense in the fourth period made up for OKC’s complete lack of offense. The Thunder pulled out a 96-93 win.
CJ McCollum scored 19 in the loss, but he shot only 9-24 from the floor. Anfernee Simons added 19 on 7-15 shooting. Jusuf Nurkic was a solid rock everywhere but on offense, where he was a big brick, shooting 6-19 for 14 points. He had 16 rebounds, though, 7 offensive.
Together the teams combined for 73 makes in 188 shots.
The Thunder took scouting cues from many of Portland’s opponents lately, taking the ball inside against intermittent defense. Because they’re Oklahoma City, they hit some and missed some. The Blazers, meanwhile, bombed away with jumpers. Ditto on the effectiveness there. Since both teams were semi-putrid on offense, Oklahoma City’s interior game paid better dividends than Portland’s perimeter attack. The Thunder led 11-6 midway through the first.
At that point, Jusuf Nurkic (and sanity) took over. The Blazers got the ball inside for easier buckets. They pulled even just like that. The guards and forwards figured it out too, discovering that the Thunder weren’t very good at stopping penetration. All of a sudden Portland was scoring on dunks and floaters instead of bricking 20-footers.
That’s the way it went for the period. The team that went inside, scored inside. OKC led 21-19 after one.
Portland’s threes FINALLY started falling in the second period. That spurred their scoring from awful to very good. They didn’t stop their inside attack either. The only thing cramping their style was a relatively slow pace. Their shots came out of halfcourt sets...shaky halfcourt sets at that. They managed not to turn over the ball. That was good. But their decision making was labored. Brown continued to excel. Tony Snell stroked jumpers. OKC scored as well, just not as much as Portland. When Anfernee Simons hit a pretty sideline floater at the buzzer, the Blazers led 50-46 at the break.
Oklahoma City must have texted too much at halftime, because their offense ghosted them at the start of the third. They generated a few inside shots, but those were labored. Portland more than matched them in the lane and hit deep as well. Jusuf Nurkic stayed super active, especially crashing for offensive rebounds. Even with their imperfections on display, Portland opened up a double-digit lead.
OKC settled down mid-period, passing efficiently to set up three-pointers. That trimmed Portland’s edge down to manageable size, then to nothing. An 11-2, three-point-based run made the score 67-66, Portland, with 4:30 remaining in the period.
The teams exchanged buckets for the balance of the third. The Blazers would stroke the occasional sweet distance shot in between their numerous screen plays. It was enough to keep them afloat even when the Thunder got hot. Portland led 76-75 at the end of three.
The start of the fourth featured nice individual plays, but neither team could muster a sustained enough run to take over. Oklahoma City caught up to Portland screens, crowding dribblers before they could make moves or shots. The Blazers were predictably bad at improvising when Plan A went astray. At least they had a Plan A. Every trip down the floor was a new adventure for the Thunder. The relative lack of scoring in all of this mess kept the scoreboard tight.
The game started to turn in the middle minutes, as OKC’s defense found its rhythm and their rebounding picked up alongside. The Thunder weren’t more talented than the Blazers, but their lineups had played together longer. When it was team time, they had the edge.
Portland experienced a 4 minute, 30 second scoring drought. Oklahoma City didn’t run away with it. Their offense was too impoverished for that. But they did build an 8-point lead with five minutes remaining.
CJ McCollum tried to rescue his team with nifty pull-up jumpers. It would have worked, had he hit any. Then Nurkic tried to swing the score with somewhat-rushed inside shots. It would have worked, had he hit any, The Thunder corralled rebounds off of Portland misses, raced down the floor, and attempted to convert easy attempts before Portland’s defense could set up. It would have worked, had they hit any.
In theory, it looked like Oklahoma City doggedly defended a seven-point lead down the stretch. In practice, every lead is safe when nobody scores.
McCollum finally broke the offensive silence with a layup at the 1:59 mark. Then he collected an offensive rebound 30 seconds later and put it back in. The Blazers were back in business, down only 3 with a minute remaining.
Unfortunately, Portland’s next possession resulted in a turnover from an attempted Simons-to-Nurkic pass. The one after saw McCollum miss another layup, then foul the Thunder on the rebound. Mamadi Diakite made the free throws—literally the only way OKC scored in the final minutes—and that clinched the game. Simons hit an and-one layup at the very end to make it close. Luguentz Dort hit only 1 of 2 free throws, leaving his team up 3 with the ball in Portland’s hands. Simons’ three wouldn’t fall, though, and that was it.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game!
The Blazers get the Milwaukee Bucks tomorrow night at 7:00 PM.