Thunder Rises Up in 2nd Half, Holds on for Victory – OKC 111, POR 109
PORTLAND – All season long, it’s been Russell Westbrook’s defensive discipline, eschewing the chances to gamble, that have led him to become the NBA leader in steals per game. Tonight, however, with 6:10 to go in regulation during a dead heat division matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, Westbrook saw his moment to take a risk.
As Blazers guard Damian Lillard curled around a screen 30 feet from the rim and thought about taking a three-pointer, Westbrook’s eyes locked in from 10 feet away. Lillard thought better of the shot, pulled the ball down and turned his back to Westbrook. That was a mistake. Westbrook saw his moment to gamble, picking Lillard’s pocket and streaking up court for a layup to put the Thunder up 103-95 with 6:07 remaining.
“That’s my defense, that’s what I do,” quipped Westbrook after the game. “I defend at a high level every night, and I take pride in it.”
A minute and a half later, Westbrook took control with a show of basketball IQ on the other end of the floor. Being heavily harassed by Lillard on the wing, Westbrook leveraged the pressure to his advantage, sitting down in the post and baiting a double team. As soon as Blazers Center Jusuf Nurkic crashed over, Westbrook fired a pass to Steven Adams for a monster one-handed flush.
“I had a few one-on-one post-ups, they wanted the double, so I heard (Nurkic),” Westbrook described. “Steven was positioned in the right spot, and once they doubled, [it was an] easy read.”
And then there were these two...
Do the voting thing. Every day pic.twitter.com/zREerWBXL3
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 5, 2019
One possession later, Westbrook again posted up on the block and hit a fading jumper to push the Thunder lead out to 107-97 with 3:51 to go. The point guard finished with 31 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, scoring 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting after halftime.
“He tried to get downhill and he made some really good passes and got some guys some shots,” Head Coach Billy Donovan explained. “He got his areas a few times and made some of those shots. I think he did some good things.”
The Thunder’s final big spurt to create the separation it needed for an eventual 111-109 victory over the Blazers came on the back of a 19-7 run that was fueled primarily by the disruptive play of reserve center Nerlens Noel. Just as the Thunder finally took the lead for the first time since the first half behind a pair of Paul George three-pointers, Noel got his length and activity in the game by poking the ball away from Damian Lillard on perimeter switches twice in a row, then stealing the ball in transition from Nurkic. After being in the passenger seat for most of the game, the Thunder’s energy was revitalized late in the third thanks to Noel.
“I look forward to those opportunities (to switch) and I try to maximize on every single one, no matter who it is,” said Noel. “I try to utilize what I have, my abilities, counteractive to their strengths, and I know that (Lillard) is a rare, quick-release shooter. You gotta stay up in him, with that first step as well. I just try to play the game as smart as I can and make it easy for my teammates so we can get easy buckets in transition.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 5, 2019
The tide was turning in the third quarter, the only one the Thunder won outright, due to the Thunder’s improved coverage on the back side of its pick-and-roll defense. In the first half, Donovan’s club did a nice job of stopping the ball and defending Lillard and CJ McCollum from the three-point line, where they went 3-for-14 in the game.
The problems came on rolls by Nurkic, who scored 16 of his 22 points in the first half. Starting in the third quarter, however, the Thunder did a better job of containing Nurkic’s rolls to the rim by sending the weak side defender over earlier to confront the bruising Bosnian center up higher in the lane to prevent easy finishes at the rim.
“Lillard is an amazing shooter, same with McCollum, and then they find the pocket passes really well,” Adams explained. “One of the problems that was happening is that Nurkic actually sets screens. Not many bigs set screens, so it kind of puts you behind when you try to blitz to try to get it out of their hands, then they hit the pocket pass and that’s why you were seeing Nurkic rolling and he was making decisions from there.”
“We kind of cleaned it up in the second half more of pulling right over and just letting them spread to the weak side help,” Adams continued.
“Steven Adams did a terrific job in pick and roll coverage tonight,” said Donovan. “Once we did a better job of pulling over and adjusting to (Nurkic’s roll), that helped. Then Steven’s individual post defense on him was really good in the second half.”
The improved second half defense forced the Blazers into just 15-for-45 (33.3 percent) shooting after halftime, including just a 3-for-15 mark from three-point range. That set the stage for the closing four minutes, where the Thunder hung on for dear life to its 10-point lead.
Like in Dallas less than a week ago, the Thunder’s troubles in the final minutes began by sending Portland to the free throw line. Already in the bonus with 5:27 to go, the Thunder was behind the 8-ball, and made matters worse when it fouled the Blazers three out of four possessions following a timeout with 3:51 remaining in the game. Westbrook once again hit a post-up jumper, giving the Thunder just barely a bit more cushion but an iffy foul call sent Lillard to the line for three shots with 43.8 seconds to go, but he made only two.
Westbrook missed a jumper, and with the Thunder up just two it was incredibly tense inside the Moda Center. Lillard drove left and missed a bank shot off the glass, then McCollum had a chance off the carom and missed a jumper. The loose rebound floated high, nearing the 7-foot Nurkic’s fingertips. George, a rebounding fiend this season, got there first and deflected it into the hands of Jerami Grant to regain the precious possession. Two George foul shots later put the dynamic forward at 37 points as the Thunder arrived at a victory to move to 25-13, a season-high 12 games over .500 and tied for the most wins in the Western Conference.
“Just got get the ball. Don’t put it in their hands. Don’t put it in the official’s hands,” said George. “Something that we have control over. Let’s control our own fate. That was my mindset going down that stretch. Just go get it.”
The win was also the Thunder’s first in Portland since 2014, which Westbrook later revealed was an added bit of mental charge heading into the game. The Thunder approaches every contest the same, and Westbrook is the first to champion that identity, but it was clear that a win in Portland was an itch for Westbrook and his teammates. Just like they did in the final moments to eke out the victory, the Thunder scratched out that itch tonight.
“I thought about that yesterday when I landed,” Westbrook said of breaking the streak. “It’s a personal thing for me honestly.”
“We haven’t won here in a while,” Westbrook added. “I know Nick [Collison] is at home, if he’s watching he’s probably happy that we won.”
Highlights: Thunder 111, Blazers 109