The Portland Trail Blazers lost a close 118-112 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at home this evening. The Blazers fall to 32-42 on the year and one day closer to being eliminated from play-in contention while the Thunder improved to 37-38 and live to see another day as the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference.
Shaedon Sharpe and Nassir Little did the heavy lifting for Portland, combining for 57 points. Keon Johnson and Kevin Knox II were the only other Blazers to score in double figures as head coach Chauncey Billups went 10-deep.
After a slow start, 2023 All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander found his way to yet another 30-piece, scoring 31 points on 9-17 shooting from the field and 13-15 shooting from the foul line. Jalen Williams and Isaiah Joe gave him much needed offensive support with 23 and 20 points respectively, while Josh Giddey came on late and grabbed 11 rebounds while dishing out six assists.
Without Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers youth put up a good fight, but could not hang on to an early lead. Here are some major takeaways from the action, but first, be sure to read Conor Bergin’s instant recap for play-by-play analysis.
Coach Billups Moving Pieces on the Chessboard
The Blazers came out in man defense, with Trendon Watford on Jalen Williams and Sharpe and Matisse Thybulle alternating on Gilgeous-Alexander. Soon after, coach Billups would shake things up and deploy a 2-3 zone that saw Drew Eubanks play up high in the middle.
The Thunder played through the middle man, as Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams would cut toward the center of the free-throw line and look to break the defense down on their own or kick to open shooters.
The defense was a major catalyst to Portland’s early success. It made Gilgeous-Alexander work for all nine of his first quarter points, took away outside shooting and helped the Blazers establish a 37-25 lead after one.
For the rest of the game, Billups would spontaneously alternate between man and zone defenses, and whichever he deployed grew weaker as time waned. Soon, Gilgeous-Alexander was getting to his spots with ease. Also, Jalen Williams proved consistent from whistle to whistle, as he was able to penetrate inside for tough finishes and also spot up from beyond the arc where he went a perfect 2-2.
Despite Billups shaking things up, persistent problems throughout the season were not altogether cleaned up. Shooters became more open down the stretch and turnovers popped up out of nowhere, especially in the second half. Seemingly so, those issues are a Blazers problem, and not just culpable from their best players.
Award Winning Supporting Cast?
The Blazers may not have carried must-win expectations without their heavy hitters in the rotation, but a win was still feasible. Nonetheless, the biggest evaluation lied with who could be key contributors in the rotation for next season.
Eubanks showed that his defensive instincts are always turned on. He tied his season-high with six blocks in this affair. His ability to make up ground and protect the rim coming from the weak side holds value moving forward.
Sharpe has continued to mature and look like a reliable sixth man of the immediate future. He drilled a bevy of step-back threes, put on some electrifying dunks and was able to find his own shot. More importantly, he did not fall victim to the host of rookie mistakes he was making earlier in the season, even those that did not show up on the stat sheet. Even though he suffered a tough finish at the end, he looked like a player that was waiting for the moment to step up, and was not frightened by it.
Knox II had nine points in the first quarter, draining three trifectas. After being a lottery pick to the New York Knicks coming out of the University of Kentucky, Knox has fallen into obscurity. However, he shot with confidence and showed an ability to hit contested attempts.
Little continued making a case for an increased role down the line with a huge game while Thybulle impressed going 2-4 from the three-point line. Ryan Arcidiacono controlled the tempo and registered an impressive five-one assist to turnover ratio in 27 minutes but failed to push the pace in opportune situations. Keon Johnson was able to play faster and shoot well from outside, and provided balance.
What Happened Down the Stretch?
The Blazers had 100 points with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Once a timeout was called with 3:33 to play, the Blazers had only scored seven points in the elapsed time.
Josh Giddey got free for open three-point attempts, more careless turnovers sunk the Blazers and an unwise behind-the-back dribble attempt from Sharpe coming down the floor led to a steal from Luguentz Dort and a dunk to seal the game.
Throughout, the Thunder had a highway to the paint and when Eubanks came out, Jabari Walker was able to corral offensive rebounds but as a unit, Portland could not stymie a points-in-the-paint battle that they lost 56-42. Down the stretch, Oklahoma City’s tenacity inside opened them up for long balls that they hit. Isaiah Joe started off hot and ended the same, and his contributions spotting up from outside were paramount to OKC’s win.
The Blazers will play the surging New Orleans Pelicans tomorrow night at the Moda Center. The Pelicans struggled mightily without Zion Williamson in the lineup over the last two months, but have rebounded with a current four-game winning streak. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. PT.