PORTLAND -- Three weeks ago, the Blazers blew the lead and a game in Oklahoma City simply because Kevin Durant couldn’t miss down the stretch.
On Tuesday, back in Portland, that wasn’t a problem.
The Thunder superstar, red hot until the fourth quarter, went ice cold late. He couldn’t buy a bucket in the deciding moments.
But neither could the Blazers.
And because of that, Oklahoma City was able to escape Rip City with an impressive 98-95 win, strengthening its recent stranglehold atop the Western Conference standings.
OKC can thank its late-game defense.
Using its length and some cranked up intensity, the Thunder clamped down.
After rookie CJ McCollum hit a floater with 5:45 left to put Portland up 89-87, the Blazers went 1-of-8 to close out the game.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland’s two All-Stars, went a combined 1-of-17 in the second half.
Overall, Aldridge went 5-of-22, with Kendrick Perkins disrupting his flow the entire night.
“Forcing them to shoot tough shots and challenging them at the rim,” Durant said. “That’s the name of the game for us.”
Down the stretch, OKC’s offense wasn’t much better, with Durant missing all three of his shots in the final three minutes and committing a nearly deadly turnover with 12 seconds left.
But they did enough.
Reggie Jackson, after a disastrous 0-of-9 start, got hot late in the third quarter, scoring all 17 of his points in the final 19 minutes, making seven of his last 10 shots.
And he made two of the game’s most crucial plays, a driving layup to tie it with 2:10 left and a drive and kick for a wide-open Jeremy Lamb corner three to put the Thunder up for good.
“He made some tough shots in the paint,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Jackson’s 17 second-half points. “A lot of them were contested.”
The Blazers, meanwhile, had some makeable looks in the closing moments. They just didn’t put them down.
Aldridge missed a 20-footer from the top of the key with two seconds left and, after a pair of Jackson free throws, Damian Lillard missed a game-tying three from the corner. A nightmare end to a nightmare night for the Portland stars.
“I just couldn’t throw a rock in a lake tonight,” Aldridge said.
Despite Durant’s aforementioned late-game struggles, he was the main reason OKC was in position to win it.
Durant finished with 36 points and 10 rebounds, making 15 of his 28 shots, but looked a bit gassed at the tail end of his 38 minutes.
Jeremy Lamb added 19 efficient points on 8-of-11 shooting off the bench.
With the win, OKC improves to 42-12 on the season, moving four games ahead of the Spurs atop the West and already owning the tiebreaker with San Antonio.
The Thunder is now 2-2 against the Blazers this season, with both of those wins coming without Westbrook in the last three weeks.
Throughout the game, there was competitive barking between the teams. And after, there seemed to be a bit of animosity brewing between the contenders who matched up four times before the All-Star break.
“We respect this team, they respect us,” Durant said postgame. “But we don’t like this team and they don’t like us. That’s point blank.”
“We don’t care to like them,” Aldridge said when told of Durant’s quote. “We’re not trying to make friends out there. We’re trying to win games.”
Too bad we won’t see these teams battle again until the playoffs.