Three-Point Shooting, Late Blazers Charge Denies Thunder’s Uphill Climb
PORTLAND – All game long, the game’s balance hung by what happened at the three-point line, and the Thunder trailed all night because of it. When Paul George buried a second chance three-pointer with 2:44 remaining, the Thunder was one tantalizingly point away from overcoming the Portland Trail Blazers’ advantage.
On the next possession, with his defender at the three-point line, Portland’s Damian Lillard returned the favor and drained a 31-foot, top of the key, three-pointer off the dribble. That bucket sparked a 7-2 closing run for the Blazers, snatching away the Thunder’s hope after George’s three-pointer has cut the lead to just one at 93-92.
In these tight playoff games, a swing of missed opportunities on just a few possessions can be the difference between a win and a loss, and the Thunder came up empty on two straight possessions after Lillard’s three and then fumbled the ball away after a defensive rebound, while Portland scored on two free throws and then an Enes Kanter driving layup to create separation. George hit another three and Jerami Grant scored down low in the Thunder’s desperate scramble, but four Lillard free throws sealed a 104-99 loss for OKC in Game 1 of this first round series.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 15, 2019
“It’s a series, the first to four. They won the first game,” said point guard Russell Westbrook. “That’s a part of the series, make adjustments, come back, play harder the next game and try to take care of business.”
Overall, the Thunder’s defense was solid, despite a rough first quarter, holding Portland to just 41.9 percent shooting in the game despite an 11-for-25 mark from behind the arc, which began with a Lillard 30-footer on just the second possession of the game. The main issue for the Thunder to resolve are second chances, as it allowed Portland to snag 13 offensive rebounds, and that involves boxing out from all five positions.
“We’re going to be in those situations,” said Adams of the rebounding. “The more I can get back to my (assignment), the better with the matchups and box outs.”
The Thunder played from behind all game long in this one, trading in two pointers from Steven Adams in the pick and roll and on post ups for three-pointers from Lillard, CJ McCollum and Seth Curry. In fact in the first half, after an 18-6 run by Portland sent everything in motion, the Blazers started the game 9-for-12 from three-point range and eventually ran the lead up to 19 points. Meanwhile, George and Russell Westbrook began the game just 2-for-11 shooting, and the Thunder had five first quarter shots blocked while taking 16 attempts in the paint.
“We got great looks, great looks all night. Tomorrow, we get shots up and get back in tune and try to get the same looks that we got tonight.”
Eventually, the momentum turned behind a defensive performance that rallied the Thunder midway through the second quarter. Thanks to an 18-5 burst, fueled by repeated paint attacks by Adams on a rolling dunk and Westbrook on driving layups and free throws, the Thunder charged back to make it a 6-point game at 52-46 with 3:35 to go in the half. On 9 possessions to end the first half and begin the second half, the Thunder had chances to cut that lead to five or fewer but came up empty.
“We were well-balanced on offense in terms of shots we got, we got downhill, we got to the front of the rim, we scored points in the paint and I thought we got really good open looks, but listen, we just didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from behind the three-point line,” said head Coach Billy Donovan.
Missed shots and turnovers, particularly offensive fouls, were the culprits for the Thunder, who shot just 39.8 percent from the field including 5-of-33 (15.2 percent) from the three-point line while committing five offensive fouls as a part of 16 total turnovers. The Thunder loved the looks that it got in the game and generated a ton of wide-open ones from Paul George, who shot just 4-for-15 from three in his first game back from a shoulder injury he sustained on Tuesday against Houston.
“We got great looks, great looks all night,” said George, who scored 26 points and added 10 rebounds and 4 steals. “Tomorrow, we get shots up and get back in tune and try to get the same looks that we got tonight.”
Still, the Thunder hung around behind a masterful and controlled Westbrook performance, as he repeatedly attacked the deep paint to either get fouled, score with either hand or dish to Adams on a roll. Westbrook finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and went 8-for-8 from the free throw line and cut the Blazers lead below that pesky 6 number with 5:35 left in the third.
“(Westbrook) was downhill, our team was downhill. We were in the paint, that’s what we want to do is that’s what we think that’s how we’ve tried to play all year long,” said Donovan. “He did a really good job spreading the ball out, find Steven, find Paul, find different guys for shots. We didn’t capitalize on the break and certainly didn’t capitalize when we had opportunities to score.”
Portland responded with 6 straight points to end the third, but the Thunder chopped the lead back down to 80-77 on a pair of makes from Nerlens Noel early in the final frame. The deficit wavered between three and five points for nearly two minutes before Kanter got fouled on a roll and then Lillard hit the Blazers’ first three-pointer since its 19-point lead early in the second period, eschewing seven straight Portland misses.
“They came out hot shooting the basketball and I thought we weathered the storm and did a good job of limiting those shots in the last three quarters but put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win the basketball game,” Westbrook said.
Down 10 points with just over six minutes remaining, the Thunder staked out another comeback surge, going on an 11-2 run by mostly holding Portland to one shot on each trip and while patiently attacking the paint. The burst was capped by George’s three-pointer, but Portland responded with the final salvo to end this one.