This one will both hurt and haunt the Thunder.
With a chance to secure yet another party-starting victory on New Year’s Eve and avenge a loss to a division rival, Oklahoma City blew a 16-point lead and watched Portland steal a 98-94 victory on Tuesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The blown lead wasn’t the worst part.
It was the mental mistakes, the missed opportunities and the mind-boggling decisions.
And, of course, those back-breaking missed free throws.
Oklahoma City, the league’s second best free-throw shooting team, missed four freebies in the final three minutes, each one allowing the Blazers to keep the Thunder at bay for just a little longer until time ultimately ran out.
With the Thunder trailing by two with 2:34 to play and trying once again to rally for a wild fourth-quarter win, Reggie Jackson went 2-for-4 from the stripe, Serge Ibaka went 1-for-2 and Kevin Durant split a pair.
Durant hit the first of two with 8.2 seconds remaining, bringing the Thunder within 96-94, but missed the second. Ibaka, however, had a point-blank tip-in opportunity that rolled off the rim. It squirted right into the hands of Durant, who again missed a wide-open jumper in the lane.
Three chances for the Thunder to trim or erase the deficit.
“My teammates told me if I was contested that I probably would have made the shot,” Durant said of his missed jumper. “I’m sure that’s going to replay in my mind for the rest of the night.”
Before that sequence, the Thunder squandered a chance to win it in the closing seconds.
Thabo Sefolosha had just made two free throws to pull the Thunder within one with 23.6 seconds remaining. The Thunder intentionally fouled Blazers point guard Mo Williams, who stepped to the foul line and missed both free throws. But the Thunder couldn’t corral the rebound despite two Thunder players getting their fingertips on the ball. Portland recovered and Wesley Matthews put the Blazers back up by three and set up the Thunder’s final offensive sequence after a pair of free throws.
It was just the second home loss for the Thunder (25-6) and the end to the Blazers first two-game losing streak of the season.
Durant scored a game-high 37 points with a team-high 14 rebounds but scored just one point in the decisive fourth quarter.
It was a tough finish to what had been a terrific night.
Durant came out scorching, scoring 16 points in the opening period and making six of his eight shots and both of his 3-point attempts.
At the other end, Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge tried his best to keep pace and pick up where he left off in that memorable 38-point outburst in the first meeting between these two on Dec. 4, a game the Blazers won by seven.
He made his first three shots, all long jumpers, and five of his first six shots for 10 points in the period.
But the Thunder scored the final six points of the quarter to take a 30-24 lead.
A similar run to end the second quarter gave the Thunder a 12-point lead at the break. OKC pulled away with a 12-0 run late in the period, turning a four-point advantage into a 16-point cushion with 1:49 left in the half. It was the biggest lead of the night for the Thunder, and it came on, of course, a jumper by Durant.
But the Blazers battled back despite playing its second game in as many nights, and in the end they replaced a bitter two-point loss at New Orleans with something sweet.
Portland came in leading the league in third-quarter scoring at 28.4 points per game, 1.3 more than any other team, and they showed why when they outscored the Thunder 29-24 in the period to pull within seven heading into the final frame.
After shooting just 36 percent through halftime, missing 16 of 19 3-point tries, the Blazers came out of the locker room and buried four of 10 from downtown in the third period.
Oklahoma City’s offense then ran into a rut.
Durant’s hot start fizzled by the time the fourth quarter began, and questionable lineup choices left the Thunder with few other options.
The most egregious was an inexplicable substitution pattern for Reggie Jackson.
While the Blazers were cutting into lead, trimming it from 11 to three in just over three minutes, Jackson remained on the bench. By the time he checked in, the Blazers had wrestled away momentum and not even his six fourth-quarter points were enough to help.
“We didn’t play as consistently as we like to play a two-way basketball game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “But those are things that we know we can get better with. These are all correctable issues tonight. It’s nothing to do with our guys. Our guys are competitors, and I thought they gave everything they had and we just didn’t come up with a win.”