In place of Darnell Mayberry’s traditional postgame nuggets…
The Thunder fought off the Blazers for a gutty 98-95 win in Portland on Tuesday night. Here are five observations:
1. Late-game defense - With another ho-hum 36 points and 10 rebounds, Kevin Durant got them there. He had some help, particularly from the bench, but he strapped the Thunder on his back for most of the night and carried them into the final minutes. And that’s where he went ice cold. He went 2-of-9 in the fourth quarter and missed his final three shots. But the Thunder defense was there to drag this win to the finish line. Kendrick Perkins was good on LaMarcus Aldridge and everyone else teamed up to contain Damian Lillard. The Blazers two All-Stars went a combined 1-of-17 in the second half (1-of-17!!) and Portland missed seven of its final eight shots. The game entered the fourth quarter tied at 80, an offensive shootout that remained anybody’s game. In the final 12 minutes, OKC snatched it with a bruising defensive effort, winning the 18-15 slugfest.
2. KD too easy - He won’t admit it, but fatigue may play a factor in Durant’s late-game misses. He has played the most minutes in the NBA this season. Plus, his turnovers are resurfacing as an issue (eight on Tuesday, averaging 5.2 this month). But man was he good for the first three quarters. He went 13-of-19 shooting in the first 36 minutes, firing in impossible fadeaways and shredding the Blazers lanky defenders with swift blow-bys. Check out Blazer stopper Nicolas Batum’s quote in this Oregonian story:
Batum on Durant: “He is the best one-on-one player in the league now. I used to say Melo, but I say him now because he can score from everywhere. The post was his weakness but now he has it … I can’t say it was a weakness, he never had a weakness, but you didn’t have to think about it. He has that now.”
3. Roller-coaster Reggie at it again - Lately, with Reggie Jackson, the wild swings have been night to night. Great one game, terrible the next. But on Tuesday, Reggie bypassed the day-to-day roller-coaster. He decided to flip the switch in-game. The Thunder’s interim starting point guard was brutal in the first 29 minutes, going scoreless on 0-of-9 shooting. But then, midway through the third quarter, he broke free for an easy dunk. And the floodgates opened. In the final 19 minutes, Jackson went 7-of-10 shooting, scoring 17 crucial points and keying two of the game’s most deciding plays. He had a layup with 2:10 left to tie it up and then, moments later, nailed Jeremy Lamb with a perfect pass for a corner three that put the Thunder up for good. It wasn’t a steady night, but Reggie was there when OKC needed him.
4. Bench difference - If these two meet for a potential playoff series, the Thunder’s gaping advantage in bench play may be the X-factor. Even without Reggie Jackson, who, later this month, will be comfortably back in his Sixth Man role, OKC’s second-unit was great on Tuesday night. Jeremy Lamb went 8-of-11 for 19 points, Nick Collison was 4-of-4 for nine points and Derek Fisher was his steady self. Meanwhile, the Blazers (who, admittedly, were down Mo Williams) had little reserve help. Rookie CJ McCollum had 15 points on 12 shots. Nobody else really contributed. Dorrell Wright (remember him, Thunder fans?) has been essentially pushed out of the rotation and Portland has to rely so heavily on its starters. That was a problem Tuesday night — every OKC bench player had a positive plus/minus, every Portland one had a negative — and could become a bigger issue come playoff-time.
5. Bad blood - There was a lot of chirping, a little flopping, a lot of bumping and plenty of physical play. It was a fun night — an emotional game — that capped a competitive season-series between two of the league’s elite (2-2 split). And after it was all over, there seemed to be a tad bit of animosity between the (budding?) rivals.
Kevin Durant on the Blazers: “We respect this team, they respect us. But we don’t like this team and they don’t like us. That’s point blank.”
LaMarcus Aldridge when told of Durant’s comment: “We don’t care to like them. We’re not trying to make friends out there. We’re trying to win games.”
I wouldn’t mind six or seven of these come late May.
TRAVEL GUIDE: Portland - My second stop in Portland, but this one wasn’t on the wrong end of a back-to-back with Sacramento. So I got a chance to explore it a bit more. The arena atmosphere is fantastic. It’s consistently labeled one of the best in the league and that’s for good reason. Considering the stakes, drama, performances and finish, this was probably the best in-game experience of all the 15 or so road games I’ve attended this season. And the city has a cool vibe. The weather was decent for mid-February (50 degrees, rainy) and downtown was interesting. I hit up the world famous Voodoo Donuts (get the Dirty Old Man if you ever go) and then, on a recommendation from Magic beat writer Josh Robbins, had lunch at Portland City Grill. It’s on the 30th floor of the city’s tallest building. Fantastic view of the Portland skyline:
-Thunder starters not named Kevin Durant in the first half: 48 minutes, 0/12 shooting, two points, six fouls, combined plus/minus of negative-57. Ooooof was it a bad collective performance. But they played well in the final 24 minutes.
-At one point, Kendrick Perkins drilled a baseline jumper in the middle of a Thunder run — his only basket on the night — and gave the Blazers bench a ‘don’t leave me’ staredown like he was Dirk Nowitzki in the midst of a hot streak. Gotta love it.
Here’s the GIF of Perk Nowitzki dropping the J:
-Derek Fisher is now 19-of-34 (56 percent) from three the past nine games.
-Scott Brooks got a technical pretty early in the first quarter. And minutes later, after a questionable call, he was vehemetely protesting again. It got me to researching: Has Scott Brooks been ejected before? And man, you’ll never guess what I discovered:
Flashback 1994, Rockets-Sonics playoffs series: After a few Nate McMillan elbows, a scrappy Scott Brooks has had enough and gets into a tussle with the future Seattle/Portland coach. The two are tossed. In this archived Seattle Times story, Brooks says this postgame: “It wasn’t real smart on his part. All I was doing was pressuring him on defense. You know, they had a big lead. There’s no reason for him to throw three elbows at me. That’s the bottom line. I don’t know what he was thinking.”
-After he was called for an offensive foul in the first quarter for pushing off on Nicolas Batum, Kevin Durant yelled, among other things, ‘that’s a flop!!’ at the refs. He was given his ninth technical of the season (third most in the NBA).
-Funny moment: Later in the game, Serge Ibaka was handed a technical for arguing. But when the ref made the call, from a certain angle, it looked like he pointed at Durant, which would have meant an ejection. This crew of pretty inebriated Blazers fans in front of me were SO SURE it was on Durant, they started group high-fiving, yelling, basically declaring the game to Portland. And man was it funny when they realized it wasn’t on him. One dude was in denial, yelling for two minutes “That’s his second, he should be ejected.” Comedy.
-Thunder notebook: LeBron James again complimentary of Kevin Durant’s game
-The Thunder’s lead in the Western Conference is essentially five games. They are up four on the Spurs in the standings, but hold the tiebreaker.
-Up next: Lakers on Thursday. Tip at 9:30 CT on TNT. Last game before the All-Star break.