Ferocious Defense, Late-Game Shai Seals Road Win
By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter & Digital Editor | email@example.com
Game Recap: Thunder 108, Trail Blazers 96
The last time the Thunder and Blazers met, Portland put up 42 first quarter points. With that in mind, OKC brought it’s A-Game defensively from the very start and frustrated the Blazers for nearly all 48 minutes in a hard-earned road win. The victory was punctuated by a fourth quarter scoring flurry by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Even two feet beyond the three-point line, Thunder guards were lined up ready to receive Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. There was no way either player was going to get a clear look at the rim to start a possession. Time and again, the Thunder harried Portland’s two elite scorers as they tried to twist around screens. On most occasions, guards like Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schröder, Abdel Nader and even rookie two-way player Lu Dort were in the grill of their assignments, getting a hand up to contest fadeaway jumpers.
“Our guys’ activity, and concentration and focus to defend was good,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “Our guys came out with the mentality that we have to establish ourselves defensively.”
Down low, Thunder defenders were stout too. Keeping hands raised high and maintaining verticality, big men like Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel deterred Blazers shots around the rim. Forcing Portland into 3-for-11 paint shooting over the first 10 and a half minutes to start the game, the Thunder began to set the tone that nothing was going to come easy.
The Thunder’s offense wasn’t sharp either to start, but got it going with two nice spurts in the second quarter. Paul (20 points in the game) rattled off 8 straight points then Schröder (21 points) followed suit with another 8 in a row as OKC built a 49-31 lead midway through the period. Both guards got to their spots in the midrange and also knocked down three-pointers both off the dribble and in catch and shoots.
On the road in a tough environment, there was no way the Thunder was going to be able to just easily walk away with a simple victory, and the Blazers made sure of that with a 14-2 run towards the end of the second quarter then followed it up with another 13-3 scoring burst early in the third period. Lillard was electric, scoring 16 points in the period after accumulating just 8 in the first half.
Control over the scoreboard changed hands over and again in the third, totaling 15 lead changes and 7 ties for the night, but eventually the Thunder broke free with a slow-but-steady 11-6 run to close the frame. The run began on a Schröder corner three and continued with 6 free throws over the final two minutes of the quarter.
“I’m just being aggressive and shooting my open jumpers, the mid-range jumpers that I worked on a lot this summer: threes and getting to the basket,” said Schröder, who is now shooting 42.6 percent from three on the road this season after going 3-for-4 on Sunday. “Just trying to do the right thing, taking the right (shots) and letting the game come to me. When I have to be aggressive, I play with confidence.”
The Thunder’s four-point advantage heading into the fourth held steady as neither team scored for the first three minutes of the final stanza. Once again the Thunder’s defense established itself, as the Blazers went just 7-for-24 (29.2 percent) including 0-for-7 from behind the arc in the quarter. Lillard and McCollum combined to shoot just 3-for-12 in the period.
“We just stayed the course. It was team defense,” said Paul.
That four point lead from the end of the third was still intact with 4:48 to go when the Thunder called a timeout to set up a closing run. Coming out of the timeout, Danilo Gallinari knocked down two free throws, which were parried by one foul shot by McCollum. The second free throw missed, and Gilgeous-Alexander scrapped for and came down with a critical rebound. On the next possession, Gallinari dribbled around a screen by Steven Adams and buried a three-pointer, his only make from behind the arc on eight attempts. Despite a rough shooting night, Gallinari stayed engaged throughout and hit a huge one when it counted.
Lillard responded with a driving layup, but once again an Adams screen opened up a scoring opportunity for the Thunder on the perimeter. This time it was Gilgeous-Alexander who knocked down a three-pointer off the bounce, part of a 14-point fourth quarter and a team-high-tying 21-point effort in the game.
“I feel like I’m just being myself. When the plays present themselves, I just try to take advantage of them,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I guess I got it going in the fourth.”
The three made it 98-89 and kept the defense honest at the arc, setting up Gilgeous-Alexander’s next trick.
Play of the Game
To cap off the run, Gilgeous-Alexander made Portland pay on a drive too. With the ball out top on the left side of the floor, the second-year guard rejected a ball screen, went behind his back to his left hand and worked his way into the lane right past McCollum.
Seeing a lurking Hassan Whiteside in the middle of the lane, Gilgeous-Alexander got creative. Keeping the ball on his left side, he tucked in his elbow and banked in a lefty runner off the glass and in to push the Thunder’s lead out to 100-89, forcing a Blazers timeout with 3:13 remaining. The bucket capped a 10-3 spurt over a 1:35 span.
Stat of the Night100
Coming into the game, Portland had scored 100 points at home in 33 straight games, but tonight the Thunder held the Blazers to just 96 points on 100 field goal attempts. The Blazers shot just 36 percent from the field including 9-of-33 on three-point attempts.
Quotes of the Night
“It’s always good to have momentum going into the games. A big one like this in a building like this, and the last time we played here they kind of put it on us a little bit. It’s a big win for us.” –Shai Gilgeous Alexander
“Dennis (Schroder) said to (Gilgeous-Alexander) on the bench at one point, he said ‘just keep letting it come to you’ and the good thing is he never got down. That’s what fun about our team, is it’s a team effort every night. As long as we keep playing like that, I think we’ll keep thriving.”
– Chris Paul
The Thunder has no time to let this win marinate, as it takes off from Portland, heads from the Pacific to the Mountain time zone to take on another divisional foe – the Utah Jazz. With an 8 p.m. CT tip-off in Salt Lake City, the Thunder will have to regroup quickly and prepare for an opponent with brilliant guard play and a giant presence in the middle in Rudy Gobert.