Blazers 103, Thunder 93
Nuggets from my notebook from Tuesday’s loss to Portland.
- Russell Westbrook and James Harden set the tone defensively from the start. Westbrook picked up his man full court, and both Westbrook and Harden supplied great ball pressure and were pests in the passing lanes. They gave Raymond Felton and Wes Matthews fits and disrupted the Blazers’ offense with their energy. The first half energy as a whole was a total 180 from the effort what we saw in Dallas.
- That tenacious defense didn’t last. More on that in a bit.
- Harden got the start tonight only because Thabo Sefolosha was out with what the team called flu-like symptoms. I’m in no position to question the injury report. And I’m certainly not implying anything here. But Sefolosha seemed much more concerned about his foot after Monday’s game at Dallas than his symptoms. Sefolosha stayed home tonight to deal with whatever it was that was bothering him.
- Harden was by far the best player on the court tonight for the Thunder. His aggressiveness attacking offensively put pressure on Portland’s defense, and the Blazers had no answer for it. Harden scored 23, three shy of tying his career high, and had six assists and four boards in 40 minutes.
- Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked after the game if this game was a test run for Harden starting down the line. Brooks seemed to take offense to the question. Here’s his response in its entirety. “I like what Thabo does for our team,” Brooks said. “I know that is a topic at times. James is a good player. Thabo is a good player. But there’s not a controversy on who starts and who doesn’t start. It’s how we play as a group. It’s how each guy performs and does his job and performs their role. James is a terrific player. He has a great sense about himself and he understands his role, and Thabo is the same way. Thabo’s one of the best defenders in the league. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t look at that. They look at ‘Well, he scores six points a game.’ But that’s not what we need him for.”
- Awful, awful shooting night for Kevin Durant. He scored 19 on 8-for-26 shooting. Portland’s second half defense was great at denying Durant lanes to the basket. But the Thunder’s offense didn’t do KD any favors to help him get going in the first half. That might sound flat out wrong considering KD was 2-for-9 in the first quarter (as many shots as the rest of the starting lineup combined) and had 13 attempts by halftime. But very few of Durant’s looks seemed to come in any sort of flow.
- With Gerald Wallace hounding him, and four sets of eyes backing up Wallace’s physical D, KD reverted to settling for jump shots. It was a disturbing sight, one I thought we were past. Durant probably wouldn’t admit it, but he looked frustrated. Even when he did force his way to the rim, he appeared more interested in looking for fouls instead of ways to finish. Each of those times, he shot stares at the refs and threw his hands up. When that started happening, you could see him headed for 8-for-26.
- Midway through the third quarter, Harden had 18 points on six shots. KD had 11 points on 16.
- Westbrook had a season-high eight assists, two more than his previous high. And I loved the way he was setting up teammates. In the first quarter alone, Westbrook created wide open jumpers for Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Harden with his probing. He was looking for teammates the same way throughout the rest of the game and showed some solid play-making ability.
- Now, back to that defense that didn’t last. First, a little background. Westbrook and Felton don’t seem to like each other. And both played extremely aggressively tonight, appearing hellbent on one-upping the other. It’s a rivalry I first noticed in the playoffs last season when Felton was with Denver. The two also had some nice battles when Felton was in Charlotte. But tonight, Felton took advantage of Westbrook’s ultra aggressiveness. In the second half, Westbrook’s pressure backfired. He gambled and gave up both driving and passing lanes. You could see Felton smiling and borderline laughing as Westbrook attempted to play physically. In the end, it hurt the Thunder, as Felton dominated the matchup in the second half.
- Westbrook had a terrible final 50 seconds in the first half. He jacked up a 3 with 45.9 seconds left, effectively killing the Thunder’s chances of a two-for-one opportunity and giving it to Portland. He then missed a driving layup but was bailed out by a Kendrick Perkins offensive rebound. And then he let another jumper fly with five seconds left. To recap. Three possessions in the final 50 seconds. The ball didn’t touch another player’s hand on any of them. Westbrook took all three shots. And he gave the two-for-one chance to the Blazers. That’s the stuff you have to analyze when examining Westbrook as a floor leader. Who cares what position he is? We can all agree he’s a terrific young guard. But sometimes, those floor general instincts just aren’t there.
- I can’t understand anyone who says or thinks Brooks doesn’t support Westbrook. After nearly every game, Brooks comes to Westbrook’s defense, regardless of how he plays. Brooks did it after Westbrook’s 0-for-13 night (citing three screens he set), and he did it again tonight — even when the question was about Harden. “I thought Russell had one of his best games,” Brooks said. “He left everything on the court, he made plays for us, he was moving the ball, he was defending.” Anybody who says or believes Brooks blames Westbrook for losses is bogus.
- After sitting out Monday’s game at Dallas, guard Daequan Cook returned to the lineup tonight. And he came back sporting a set of goggles. I was told just before the start of the game that they were supposed to alleviate any headaches and nausea that accompanies flu-like symptoms. I talked to Cook after the game about his health and he said he feels pretty good but still has headaches at times. He said he’ll be OK. He also told me that the goggles didn’t affect him much. “I just got to get used to them,” Cook said. “I tried to go out early and shoot today. I just got to take some time to get used to them so I’m going to come in tomorrow and get a lot of shots up tomorrow.”
- Cook’s problems in this one were much bigger than the flu or a pair of goggles. He was at the mercy of the Blazers defensively. And you knew it was going to be a long night defensively for Cook when he checked in for the first time with 4:45 left in the first and matched up. Westbrook looked over to Brooks and made sure he should switch over to Jamal Crawford. Brooks gave confirmation. But that meant Cook had to guard Felton. It was as sound of a matchup as the Thunder was going to get in what was a no-win situation for Cook. Either he was going to be on one of the league’s best spark plugs or one of the savviest, stoutest floor generals there is.
- Where Cook really got eaten up was against Wesley Matthews and Crawford when he switched back to defending his position. The Blazers exploited that matchup by going right at Cook on four straight possessions. Portland scored each time, Matthews hitting three straight and Crawford canning a 3.
- My favorite moment in this game came when Matthews tried to bully Westbrook on the block one minute later after Brooks finally got Cook out of there. Westbrook pushed back, and Matthews found that it wasn’t so easy. Westbrook eventually came up with a steal and the possession ended in a jump ball between Nazr Mohammed and Matthews, which the Thunder won.
- Referee Mike Callahan’s uniform looks too big for him. I can’t be the only one who noticed that.
- The Thunder has nobody who can guard LaMarcus Aldridge. Nobody. I did an interview with a Portland sports station this afternoon previewing the game and the host was griping about L.A. taking so many perimeter jumpers. I told him I know about 18,203 fans in Oklahoma City who would take him off the Blazers hands if it’s that big of a problem. The guy is awesome. He had 30 against the Thunder tonight and made it look easy.
- Perk picked up his second foul with 4:54 remaining in the opening period and did something very, very smart. He walked away. With the majority of the calls going Portland’s way early, Perk quickly grew frustrated with the officiating crew. But rather than gripe and get slapped with a tech, he walked straight to the bench and essentially subbed himself out before Mohammed even got up to check in.
- But in typical Perk fashion, he went toe-to-toe with Aldridge and got a double technical after pushing ensued.
- I had two straight nights of halftime act “Christopher.” He performed in Dallas on Monday. I don’t care for that act, although Mavs writers claim he’s the best in the league. I’ll take Red Panda seven days a week over Christopher. But Thunder fans got robbed. Christopher performed as Michael Jackson last night, which was halfway entertaining. And that’s saying a lot coming from me. He was back to his customary Village People skit tonight.
- Collison was the second best player for the Thunder in my book. His activity in the first half was amazing. He finished the first quarter with six points and six boards, which were six points and three boards more than the entire Blazers bench.
- Up next. Three games in three nights, starting with Friday’s visit by Houston.
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