Intently following the game plan that came from the coaching staff out of halftime, Dennis Schröder forced Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard’s dribble towards the sideline. The Thunder had already harassed Portland’s All-Star-caliber point guard into 0-for-9 shooting in the third quarter. Now mid-way through the fourth, it was time to put the clamps down for good.
Waiting squarely in Lillard’s path was center Nerlens Noel, the man who leads the NBA in blocks-plus-steals per-36 minutes. He’s the most efficient defensive disruptor in the league. As he sat down in a stance to trap, Noel used his go-go-gadget reach to poke the ball out of Lillard’s hands, setting off a chain reaction.
“I really wanted to make it a focal point to get up on that and make it real difficult for him. We did a great job in the second half of slowing him down,” said Noel, as the Thunder outscored Portland by 6 in the second half of a 119-106 win.
Less than 7 seconds following the steal, the ball was back in Noel’s hands, in a much different position.
The look of lob. pic.twitter.com/fjbpEx94TU— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 19, 2020
After the poke-away, Schröder snapped up the ball but immediately had to spin to avoid Blazers forward Jaylen Hoard. Two more dribbles later in the open floor, Schröder scooped an underhanded pass to Chris Paul, who was streaking up the left sideline. Paul received the rock, put his head down with one hard dribble towards the rim, then skipped up into the air, tossing the ball up as high as the top of the backboard.
“I got no intentions on finishing on the fast break,” Paul chuckled after the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
“(Chris) is the only one who is going to throw it that high with that confidence,” said Noel.
Diagonally across the court from Paul stood Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo, anxiously awaiting their chance to check into the game. The Thunder was in the midst of what ended up being an extended 28-12 run, snapping the sinews off a tenuous 77-73 third quarter lead and turning it into an unencumbered 105-85 advantage in the final frame. As Paul’s pass ascended to its peak, Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo couldn’t help but stand on their toes.
In a blur, Noel came streaking in from the backcourt, right across Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo’s sightline. Noel flashed in behind Schröder, who had filled the lane to make himself available for a pass. In fact, as Paul’s lob went up, Schröder bent his knees reflexively to jump. He soon realized he had no chance to go get it.
“I was like, ‘where is he going with it?,” Schröder said, “but then I saw Nerlens.”
“I didn’t even know he was going to throw it. I saw it flying up, so I said, ‘alright, that’s for me’,” Noel grinned.
Noel spring-boarded off both feet, leaping through the middle of the lane. At the scorer’s table, Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo were also in flight, jumping in solidarity with their teammate.
“I did not know I did that,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the game. “I guess I wanted to make sure he caught the ball, so I had to jump with him to give him energy.”
Two large hands enveloped the floating orb and Noel briskly slammed Paul’s pass home, igniting pandemonium on the floor from Thunder players and euphoria in the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd as Portland was forced to call timeout.
Loud City gets even LOUDER.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 19, 2020
Here’s why pic.twitter.com/m0vDaS3c7s
“I’m just glad that Nerlens kept running,” Paul said.
As Diallo raised the roof with his hands, everyone in the building knew the same thing. That lob was a back-breaker, a game-clincher, a home-stand finisher.
“It was beautiful. A great pass, a great finish. I think that sealed the deal for the night,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
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