The Portland Trail Blazers lost a nail-biting heartbreaker to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. After fighting hard to not fall behind, succeeding well enough to build a lead in the third period, and fighting like heck to defend it through the remainder of the game, the Blazers found themselves down to a couple critical possessions to decide it. As our quarter-by-quarter recap details, a Malcolm Brogdon turnover and two technical fouls on Head Coach Chauncey Billups helped turn a one-point edge into a 111-109 defeat.
You can read the previous recap for a blow-by-blow description of the crucial moments and a general flow of the game. After that, here are other points of analysis.
Billups’ ejection at the end of the game is going to overshadow every other aspect of the evening, so let’s talk about it for a minute.
First, it was clear that, after getting trapped, Malcolm Brogdon did double-dribble. He picked up the ball against two defenders, got stuck, then put it on the floor again. He did not call timeout or, if he did, the motion came late and was unclear.
Billups, on the sideline, behind both the officials and the play, looked like he was attempting to call a timeout himself. Slow motion replays show his mouth moving with words that look like, “Time out! Time out!” He did make a motion with his hands, but, as with Brogdon’s movements, the signal appeared to come late and was made at waist level. At no point did Billups jump, throw his hands in the air, wave them around, or anything that your basic 1990’s rapper would advise in calling attention to yourself.
That is not necessarily a criticism of Billups. It’s an admission that the timeout acknowledgement would not have been automatic for the referees. They were, appropriately, concentrating on the play. The noise in the arena was considerable, no less so at court level. Without radical moves to catch their attention, the officials were not likely to notice anything outside their tunneled-in vision.
Billups’ reaction to the call was less defensible. He charged the official and began complaining, appearing to make physical contact as he did so. That would merit an automatic technical even if the coach was trying to sell them Girl Scout cookies. That alone had the potential to tie the one-point game without Oklahoma City having to convert a bucket.
This would have been bad enough, but Billups did not stop. His continued protestations drew a second technical and ejection. Just as critically, that gave the Thunder a second free throw along with the possession they earned from the turnover.
As it turned out, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would only hit one of two. Jalen Williams’ conversion on the ensuing play made the ultimate difference. But the whole situation was odd, to say the least.
Had the referees blown the actual turnover call, an explosion may have been merited. Not hearing Billups’ verbal timeout request under those circumstances was understandable.
We’ve all spent years watching head coaches jump up and down on the sidelines during critical moments to communicate their intentions. Billups saved that kind of demonstrable action for the moments after the play had been determined instead of the moments before, when his effort could have made a difference.
Three-pointers for the Blazers had an out-sized effect on this game. Portland made a season-high 12 in the first half. They’d finish 18-39, 46.2%, beyond the arc. It looked like the Thunder had read the publicity about Portland not being able to shoot. Maybe fair, but that assumes that the attempts are covered and the Blazers don’t get hot. Neither was true tonight. Only one Portland player shot worse than 33% from the arc. Jerami Grant went 4-5. The three was a powerful weapon countering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s point production.
The development of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander over the past couple of years has been nothing less than breathtaking. It’s not just that he scores, but that—despite struggling like mortal guards to create space for his shot—he is able to finish so effortlessly. It’s the inverse of Scoot Henderson, who can create space without thinking, but has real trouble finishing.
Tonight Gilgeous-Alexander posted up Portland guards, drove past them, and hit most of his open shots. He drew a slew of free throws in the process. His final stat line read: 10-24 shooting, 13-17 free throws, 33 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds.
Oklahoma City’s All-NBA guard is not just a measuring stick, but a sober reflection point for the Blazers. As much talent as the Portland franchise thinks/hopes they have, they’ve not got anyone close to the level of SGA. The road ahead is long, folks.
Athleticism vs. Speed
As the Blazers played the Thunder, a realization began to dawn on me. The Blazers are athletic as heck, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to them being fast. A couple times tonight, Portland would grab a rebound against an out-of-position OKC player, turn up the floor, and have a 5-on-4 advantage looming in front of them. Unless the dribbler was Henderson, they had trouble getting by even one defender on the run. Advantage squandered.
Keep an eye on this over the next few weeks. I’m going to. If the impression holds, Portland’s at a fairly decent disadvantage.
Scoot a Prime Mover
As we said above, Scoot Henderson has some well-publicized faults. His distance shooting is spotty. He still misses defensive plays. His layups are an adventure, sometimes bordering on ludicrous. With all that said, Henderson is starting to prove that he’s capable of carrying the Blazers to legitimate runs. When he hits his open threes, he becomes super powerful. One step of a defender towards him on the perimeter is enough to allow Scoot a near-unstoppable trip to the hoop. If he ever—and I mean ev-er—gets control of his release on shots at the rim, he’s going to be as scary as any horror movie you can name.
Henderson scored a team-high 19 tonight on 7-18 shooting, 2-6 from the arc, with 7 assists and a steal.
Jabari Walker Grows
Jabari Walker’s development has been impressive all season. Tonight he played throughout the fourth period, providing critically-timed rebounds and interior defense. He’s also showing signs of a silky, though not yet bankable, jump shot. That latter facet will keep him floor-worthy for far longer. Almost everything else in his game screams that he should be playing. Walker provided 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Blazers tonight.
Before we blame the entire loss on the final 45 seconds of the game, we should point out that Portland had plenty of goofs and gaffes throughout, masked partially by their excellent three-point shooting and their packed-in defense keeping Thunder center Chet Holmgren under control...at least a little. (8 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 assists, 3-6 shooting)
The Blazers didn’t do a great job guarding the three-point arc themselves, preferring to cede it partially in order to bottle up OKC’s interior scoring. They didn’t end up paying for it overtly; Oklahoma City shot just 7-23, 30.4%, from distance. But the Thunder got 10 offensive rebounds and, friends, a few of those came with Portland not getting out to cover a three-point shot and not getting the rebound anyway. That leads to an obvious question: what, in fact, were they doing then?
We’ll leave that for you to ponder.
The free throw battle tonight came down to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. the Blazers. As mentioned above, SGA attempted 17, rolling through the lane like a pinball through Blazer Bumpers. Portland attempted 21 as a team. Fortunately, the overall deficit in foul shots for Portland was only 28-21. Practically speaking, it made little difference. The Thunder scored 18 at the foul line, Portland 17. But those foul shots kept Oklahoma City afloat when their offense was looking like chipped tofu on moldy toast.
The Blazers had 27 assists on 37 made buckets tonight. Part of that probably came from the high frequency of kick-out threes, but that’s still 5 more assists than they average per game. Normally 56.4% of their field goals are assisted. Tonight it was 73.0%. Well done.
The Blazers face the Houston Rockets tomorrow night at 5:00 PM, Pacific.