With Damian Lillard and four starters resting, the Portland Trail Blazers gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a good shot in front of the Moda Center crowd tonight.
A starting lineup of Ryan Archidiacono, Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Trendon Watford, and Drew Eubanks jumped out to an early double-digit lead, before engaging the Thunder in a back-and-forth fight for 48 minutes. Ultimately, the effort came up short and Portland fell 118-112.
Sharpe looked spectacular in a leading role, scoring a career-high 29 points. Nassir Little played great all game for 28 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his killer run against the Blazers this season with 31 points and OKC completed the 4-0 regular season series sweep.
In their second showing together, an unorthodox starting lineup for the Portland Trail Blazers (maybe call it a tank squadron) got off to a solid start against the equally youthful Thunder.
After an opening play drawn up for Ryan Arcidiacono in the pick-and-roll with Drew Eubanks resulted in perimeter swings and a missed Matisse Thybulle 3, Portland made an emphasis to get their new primary playmakers involved: Sharpe and Trendon Watford. The next Blazers’ possession, Sharpe took an outlet pass from the backcourt and dribbled down the left wing to drill a step-back triple. The confidence and green light reminded viewers he’s the No. 1 scoring option with this unit. Then Watford drove to the bucket for two points before working the high post on the next possession for a right-handed hook shot over a smaller defender.
A few possessions later, a Thunder turnover in the lane resulted in a breakaway dunk for Matisse Thybulle. Add in a free throw and Portland jumped off to a 10-3 lead early.
The Thunder put up several 3s in the opening few minutes and only managed to hit one — a theme for much of the opening quarter. The Blazers, packed in their zone defense, were making a concerted effort to clog the paint and force the Thunder to beat them from the arc. In the first quarter, OKC couldn’t do it.
Meanwhile, Portland’s replacement lineup caught fire from downtown. Watford, who was looking super solid in the early going with 6 points on 3-4 shooting, went to the locker room with a hobbled ankle around the 5-minute mark and the score 14-9 Blazers. His absence appeared alarming, considering Portland’s lack of playmakers. but the Blazers shot their way to an even larger lead. Thybulle and Kevin Knox II hit back-to-back triples to extend the lead to 22-14. Later, back-to-back triples from Knox and Little in the final minute pushed the lead to 12. Knox hit three 3s off the bench in the opening period.
OKC did have success in transition and attacking the paint. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander especially excelled in that category, but the Blazers did well to not let OKC run crazy. And at the end of the day, 3s overpower 2s like rock over scissors. Blazers led 37-25 after period one.
The Blazers stayed energetic in the second quarter, with less results. They shared the ball well and attacked the offensive glass. Walker led the second-chance charge while Little and Keon Jonson took the onus to attack the paint strong, resulting in foul calls or kick-outs for open 3s (Johnson, getting to the rim and knocking down some 3s, played a solid game). This quarter, the Blazers just didn’t hit the open looks at the same rate. Some unfortunate in-and-outs plagued the Blazers momentum, too. A corner 3 from Walker, a potential and-1 from Johnson and a blown layup from Knox all looked good before squirting out. That, combined with more production from the Thunder in transition — helped by some Blazer turnovers — tightened the game back up. Once the lid came off the basket for OKC’s 3s, control began shifting firmly to the Thunder. Isaiah Joe, who came alive with three 3s in the quarter (part of five triples in the half), knocked down two in a row to cap a 10-0 run and seize a 55-49 Thunder lead.
Later, a missed dunk from Eubanks led to a deep pull-up 3 from Joe that was nothing but net. The 5-point swing represented the quarter well: Good hustle and process led to good opportunities, but the Blazers couldn’t finish and OKC capitalized. But to the Blazers’ credit, they didn’t fold. They took OKC’s punch in the first half, the deficit ballooning to as much as 8, and kept contact. A lot of that had to do with Sharpe.
The rookie led Portland with 16 points in the first half on a perfect 4-4 shooting and 6-7 from the free throw line. It was a quiet, perfect start, primarily because the 19-year-old was so patient, even in a leading role. He used pump fakes, changes of pace and wicked-long euro-steps to find space on isolation possessions. And his feathery touch was lethal from inside and out. When Portland needed a bucket, such as during OKC’s second quarter burst, Sharpe steadied the squad with an answer. He even grifted some free throws off OKC super defender Luguentz Dort. The Blazers would’ve been better off had Sharpe been more aggressive in the opening two quarters.
It was a tale of two quarters in the first half, but Portland maintained contact after OKC’s big showing in the second quarter, heading into intermission down 68-62.
NOTE: Though Watford returned to the game for a brief stint in the second quarter, the team announced at halftime he would be out the rest of the way.
The Blazers looked a little flat coming out at half after a few empty possessions. One might’ve wondered if the lay down was coming. But a bucket from Sharpe, then a 3-pointer and 3-point play from Little calmed things down and got the energy back. Following that, Sharpe netted a triple and the team got the lead and their swagger back at 73-70. It was an 11-0 run all from Sharpe and Little. Timeout OKC.
Giddey steadied OKC out of the timeout with a floater. A nip-and-tuck battle ensued the rest of the third. Little did a lot of the punching for Portland. He continued to attack the lane with physicality and stayed confident in his shot, leading to success in both areas and a big quarter.
The most exciting sequence came at mid-quarter when the Sharpe show wowed the crowd once again. First, Johnson and Giddey traded triples. Then another slow euro-step from Sharpe resulted in a one-legged banker as he faded away from defenders toward the left sideline. He followed that finesse move with power. The next play, Sharpe broke lose from OKC in transition and soared into the paint for a mega-hammer that got everybody up. Back on defense, Eubanks erased a OKC shot and Little found Sharpe again on the break for an alley-oop. Great highlights be darned, the slam was taken off the board after Little was called for a charge on the lob. Regardless, the sequence was further proof of Sharpe’s stellar performance and electrifying talent. The sequence also highlighted Eubanks’ stellar work on the inside throughout the game. That block was one of Eubanks’ six during the game, all of the ferocious variety.
The Thunder closed the third with a layup in the closing seconds to take a 96-94 lead into the final frame.
Little continued his great game with a coast-to-coast slam through traffic that looked like he shot out of a rocket early in the fourth. It gave Portland a 102-98 lead, but the Blazers offense stalled in the middle section of the quarter, with all Blazers going cold. Both offenses slowed down and fell out of rhythm though, with OKC doing a bit better. The stretch allowed the Thunder to go on a prolonged 11-1 run to take control and a 109-103 lead heading into the final five minutes.
Portland’s floundering offense revved back to life thanks to a Sharpe midrange jumper (the bucket gave him a new career-high of 25 points) and Eubanks’ sixth block which led to a Reddish breakout. The sequence cut the OKC lead to 109-107.
With under three minutes remaining, the Blazers made a concerted effort to get the ball in Sharpe’s hands and OKC made a concerted effort to stifle the rookie. It worked. The Thunder gave Sharpe the best player treatment, putting on-ball pressure on him well beyond the 3-point line and sending extra bodies his way when he tried to drive. That pressured resulted in a foul up top and two Sharpe free throws to bring the deficit to 111-109. After Giddey canned a triple, the pressure on Sharpe the next time down resulted in a turnover off a deflected pass. OKC pounced for an easy layup and a 116-109 lead.
Thybulle preserved hope, canning a triple of his own, but two missed free throws from Sharpe with under a minute left made the 116-112 deficit dire. Portland did get a stop and Sharpe pushed the tempo with under 20 seconds remaining, but he was stripped in the backcourt. Dort dunked the ball for a 118-112 final score. Game over.
Sharpe fought admirably against the OKC pressure, a great late-game test for the young rookie. His effort came up just short — just like this young Blazers team tonight.
Stay tuned for analysis coming soon!
The Blazers play the New Orleans Pelicans tomorrow night at home. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. PT.