The ball got into the paint and then a baseline pass landed in the hands of Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu. Wide open in the corner, Aminu, a 40 percent three-point shooter this season, only had to line it up and fire.
It was one of two three-pointers in as many possessions for Aminu, whose long jumpers broke open a nip-and-tuck game into one that the Portland Trail Blazers completely controlled the rest of the way. The flurry of six points capped a 12-0 Blazers run midway through the third quarter, an immediate response to the Thunder’s quick 12-4 burst to re-take the lead. It was the last time the Thunder would threaten the rest of the way.
Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club never got closer than seven after that Blazers burst, and Portland really poured it on in the fourth quarter, when Shabazz Napier, starting in place of Damian Lillard, ripped off nine straight points while the Thunder managed just two missing 4-of-5 shots during the stretch. In general, this was a game where the Thunder's defense didn't dictate the action and force its opponent where it wanted, but rather seemed to chase the ball throughout possessions, falling a step behind with each drive or pass.
The problems all started early on for the Thunder, as two quick offensive put backs to start the game for Jusuf Nurkic and a 30-point second quarter that included a 7-0 burst heading into halftime gave the Blazers confidence. Difficult, contested shots that didn’t drop in the first quarter for the Blazers suddenly fell, as CJ McCollum seemed to hit from everywhere on the floor, and Nurkic knocked down jumpers too, showing his outside touch.
“With defense, it is not going to be one thing,” Donovan explained. “[In] Phoenix, it was at the three-point line. Tonight, it was back cuts, layups and deep paint shots. It is always a variety of different things, it is never just one thing that bites you. There is a lot of things in order to play good defense.”
“They just outworked us, plain and simple,” forward Josh Huestis added. “They came out swinging and we didn’t respond. We got dug in a hole that we couldn’t get out of, we tried to make a couple comebacks, but that just wasn’t there tonight.”
On offense the Thunder didn’t do itself any favors in the early going. Despite shooting 9-of-18 in the opening 12 minutes, Donovan’s club turned the ball over 7 times in the first frame, and as a result led by just two.
Paul George scored on back-to-back three-pointers to help maintain the lead early in the second quarter as he played with the reserve group, but some clunky offense and an inability to contain the ball or stay disciplined on defense led to a parade to the foul line for Portland. By halftime, the Blazers had already attempted 19 free throws, including nine in the final 5:21 of the second quarter.
“Coming in to start the game, I didn’t think that we really set any kind of tone defensively or offensively and then for most of the first half, it went back and forth and was close. We were fortunate, I think, to be down by four at the break,” Donovan said.
The rhythm and confidence gained by getting so many free chances to shoot and seeing the ball swish through the net was enough to keep Portland humming into the second half. As the Thunder tried to make runs to slash into the lead, they were continually swatted away, leaving Donovan’s club on the hunt to get back to .500 in the Northwest Division on Wednesday night in Minnesota.
“We have the opportunity to go out and face another opponent and put this game behind us,” forward Patrick Patterson said.Highlights: Thunder vs. Trail Blazers
By the Numbers
12 – Assists for Russell Westbrook on the night, in addition to 22 points and 9 rebounds
46-34 - Points in the paint deficit for the Thunder, as the Blazers attempted 7 more shots in the lane
53.1 - Shooting percentage for the Blazers on the night, including a 10-23 mark from the three-point line
The Last Word
“Anytime that you give a team confidence in the beginning of the game, they are going to start hitting more shots. Confidence is such a big thing in this game and if they see something go in early, then they start hitting the hard shots. So we have to take away the easy ones at the beginning and we can solve that problem.” - forward Josh Huestis