Long rebounds caromed all over the floor on Tuesday night and for a while it seemed those second chances for the Portland Trail Blazers would be the Thunder’s proverbial Achilles heel.
The Thunder’s first shot defense and disruptiveness were good enough to overcome it, and that shined bright in the final minutes of a 123-114 victory in Chesapeake Energy Arena over its division rival.
Up seven with just over two minutes to play, the Thunder was still fending off continued advances by the Blazers in the fourth quarter when Paul George put an end to all that. Pressuring high out on the perimeter as has been the Thunder’s calling card all season George was flush up against his man when a desperate pass arrived directly in his orbit. The MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate took care of the rest, finishing off one of his five swipes in the game with a fast break bucket that forced a Blazers timeout.
“I felt some opportunities earlier in the game where I could have made plays on the ball that I didn’t. I sat back,” George explained. “I just remembered them. Those plays were going through my head. They were nonchalant reversing the ball around and I thought ‘Now it’s time. It’s time to go after them and make a play.”
“This is a team that you have to be physical. You have to pressure up. Two of the better shooters off movement in Dame (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum). I was just trying to get a body on them and be physical,” George continued. “Over time we did a good enough job to win this game.”
The lead never dropped below 9 for the remainder of the game, as Russell Westbrook (14th triple-double of the season with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists) helped pop the top off the stadium with back-to-back dunks: a monster one-handed flush in the half court thanks to a pair of off-ball screens and then a two-handed slam on a pitch ahead that put this one away for good.
In a battle of division rivals that were practically in a tie for third place in the Western Conference coming into the game, the Thunder and Blazers each battled their own brand of fatigue on the second night of a back to back. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club drew first blood though, jumping out to an 18-10 lead and knocking down 6 of its first 11 three-point attempts.
“I like playing off of back-to-backs. I think this group responds well playing off back-to-backs in the second game,” George noted.
Despite the Thunder’s hot shooting and domination in transition (OKC at one point held a 20-0 lead in fast break points), the Blazers stuck around by getting to the free throw line and putting back offensive rebounds. The box score showed a myriad of dualities - the Thunder was 8-of-14 from three compared to the Blazers 3-for-17 mark and Portland held a 12-2 edge in second chance points. The constant tension kept the game tight but the Thunder still managed to hold a tenuous 7-point lead heading into the halftime break.
To start the third quarter, the Blazers brought their best punch and it came in the form of a blistering hot CJ McCollum. The Portland shooting guard ran relentlessly off of screens to find the tiniest slivers of space and in the third he capitalized with a remarkable 21 points. That shot-making put remarkable pressure on the Thunder, but it maintained composure in part because of the combination of guys that were on the floor.
In a variation of the way the Thunder kept Steven Adams on the floor with the second unit in New York against the Knicks, tonight Donovan switched up George’s minutes by subbing him out about 6 minutes into the half and then back in with 2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, as Westbrook checked out of the game. The result was that the Thunder managed to keep one of either Westbrook or George on the floor at all times, pairing them with Dennis Schröder to ensure there would be at least two elite playmakers present on each possession.
“Whatever coach (Donovan) needs or asks of me, I’m open to trying. Whatever is going to help the team, whatever is going to help us be better, I’m all for it,” said George, who finished with 36 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists to go with the 5 steals. “I definitely thought we were clicking more. It was better rhtythm for everybody. We obviously had a lot more energy.”
As the third quarter closed and fourth began the Thunder continued to parry Blazers runs, but eventually one of those second chances bit the Thunder badly as McCollum nailed a corner three-pointer off an offensive board that cut the Thunder lead to 109-106. With the nerves brimming in the building, George and Westbrook collected themselves and knocked down 5 of 6 free throws prior to the aforementioned trio of highlight plays by the perennial All-Star duo that ended this one in style.
For the game, the Thunder forced 19 turnovers that led to 29 points, including a season-high tying 16 steals. By holding the Blazers to just 10-of-36 (27.8 percent) three-point shooting, taking 11 more free throws and turning the ball over 9 fewer times than Portland, the Thunder was able to generate more efficient offense all night long, and it paid dividends on the scoreboard and the standings tonight.
“That’s what we lean on - our size, our length, our ability to be able to make it tough for 48 minutes,” Westbrook said of the aggressive style. “It’ll eventually wear on teams.”