The Thunder could hardly have more reason to be confident heading into Los Angeles on Thursday for the second of three showdown games this week. A week ago, it didn’t seem like that would be easy to say. But it sure felt that way watching Oklahoma City steamroll the Trail Blazers in Portland 109-95.
In a lot of ways, OKC played the best of both brands of Thunderball against the Blazers, one brand in each half. The share the ball, locked in and focused Thunder dominated the first half and finished it with 14 assists. The second half featured the one-on-one, driving and shot-making Thunder when the shots fell and the defense indeed stiffened when it counted. The result was a big lead heading into halftime, and the cold-blooded recovery in a silent road arena as the Thunder’s star players made plays at the rim and on jumpers, compiling just two assists.
The infectious effort and focus of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in particular seemed to fuel the sharpness the Thunder started the game with. Both guys were affecting the game on the defensive end, with Westbrook getting into passing lanes and Ibaka controlling the boards. Westbrook’s sharing the ball was complemented by James Harden doing the same, and they went into halftime with five assists apiece. Oh, and Kevin Durant hit all seven shots. The Blazers recovered from a horrible offensive first half (with due credit going to the active Thunder defense) to score a respectable 47 points and still be down by 18. OKC was rolling.
Harden was the difference maker in the second half. For the second day in a row, Harden’s box score revealed a scoring efficiency equivalent to stat geek Viagra. The man had 21 points on seven shots after scoring 19 points on seven shots against the Heat. When the Blazers were making a game of it late in the third and early in the fourth, Harden started getting to the rim with his familiar smooth cuts to the basket. The Thunder ended up taking control of the game with an 8-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter to go up by 17 and effectively put the game away.
Obviously, the first half was more fun to watch from a smooth, flowing basketball perspective. It was right where the Thunder left off with the dominating win over Miami. It’s the kind of basketball that shows the Thunder could win a title now. The predictable stretch of sloppier play that accompanied the less-pleasing brand of Thunderball in the second half let Portland in the game briefly. But when the shots fall, and the Thunder doesn’t forget to drive the lane, that can work. And it did. Strange to see both Thunder identities show so clearly in the same game.
But Harden’s emergence this season, highlighted by his play in the last two games in particular but also the last several weeks, shows the Thunder’s new weapon that can help them survive tight games and manage the balance between the dueling ball-stopping and ball-moving offenses. Harden has often been the de facto point guard for the Thunder on many plays, and was used as the primary ball-handler with no point guard at all on the court against Miami. The ball again went into Harden’s hands when the Thunder needed buckets in the second half of a close game, and Harden scored with frightening efficiency.
That high screen the Thunder runs for Harden is not really waning in effectiveness. Teams will adjust to it more easily in a long series, but it should still be good for points in the fourth quarter, one way or another. Harden is blossoming and learning to truly dominate games when the time is right, and its hard to see the Thunder winning a title if that’s not the case multiple times per series.
It was definitely a chemistry game all around for the Thunder by the looks of things. There was no shortage of energy plays. There were plenty of big shots down the stretch and much chest bumping when Portland called timeouts. The team is clearly feeling it and was not going to let a thinned-out Portland team take advantage of it, especially with Ray Felton sitting out.
It’s a good sign to see the kind of focus Oklahoma City displayed on what was, on paper, the smallest game of the week. A win on Kobe’s court would be an even better sign.
- To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to be Portland’s night as soon as Kevin Durant swished his first shot attempt from just inside the 3-point line. Then he didn’t miss until the third quarter and Harden barely missed at all.
- The real focus on the defensive end was evident right out of the gate. It took a few possessions for the Thunder offense to get going, but the defense was there right off of the bus.
- I love it every time Westbrook dumps to KD on a wide open fast break. He did it again later for Serge.
- Joel Przybilla went up for a wide-open dunk and got blocked by the rim. Speaking of signs it wouldn’t be Portland’s night…
- Tangent warning: I like the look of the Blazers’ court, and it reminded me of why I don’t like the generic courts the NCAA has foisted upon tournament venues. Portland hosted some early round games a couple of weeks ago, and they had the same generic court as everyone is required to now. The first few days of March Madness were more fun when CBS would switch feeds from game to game and you would see the different courts from different cities. It game the games more of a flavor on your TV set.
- KD had to take an early seat in the fourth quarter because of fouls. It made me sad.
- Every time I see Kurt Thomas, I’m reminded of Sam Presti’s coup involving him. Presti absorbed Thomas’ contract from Phoenix and took two first round picks as the tax, essentially. Then he flipped Thomas for another first round pick. One of the picks turned into Ibaka. The other was Byron Mullens, who was worth a shot. The last one was used to trade up to get Aldrich, who appears to be a rotation player in waiting. Out of the three picks Presti got in return for renting a declining, expensive player, an achievement in itself, he got a DPOY candidate and a shot at two other post players, only one of which realistically needed to pan out. Bow down.
- Luke Babbit got a haircut!
- Good to see Royal Ivey get a turn taking the Daequan Cook minutes. Lazar Hayward had been getting them. Ivey promptly drained a 3-pointer and played the type of defense we’ve come to expect from him, although he had a careless turnover that led to a breakaway dunk.
- Ibaka was a true force on the boards, especially in the first half. He finished with three offensive boards and nine total in the first half, 12 total in the game. He was in position for more offensive rebounds had the Thunder players cooperated by missing shots.
- It was a tomb in the Rose Garden tonight, or at least it sure sounded like it on TV, when the Thunder had a big lead. But the dead silence after big Thunder plays told a different kind of story about Portland fans that makes you give them respect. The combination of the sizable Oklahoma diaspora, combined with the Thunder’s increasing popularity as a national brand, means you usually hear cheers and plenty of appreciative “OOOOOOOOHHHs” on the road after big dunks and the like. You certainly hear those cheers for the national brand teams when they come to Chesapeake Energy Arena. But not in Portland, at least not for the Thunder right now. Only Blazers fans in the building, with but a few exceptions.
- Ibaka’s block on Nic Batum midway though the third quarter, his fifth of the game, was nasty. Overall one of the best blocks of the season by any player because of the combination of athleticism and timing involved in the block, and the body control to not foul.
- It was a 17-2 run, fueled by five Thunder turnovers, that got Portland back in it. The Thunder settled for jumpers that didn’t fall and got out of a good flow, if you can believe that.
- Derek Fisher pulled a Collison and drew a timely charge and also hit a 3-pointer. No turnovers. More of that, please. That’s why he’s here. A critical long ball and a drawn charge per playoff game, along with passable defense and ball control, could make all the difference in close games in May and beyond.
- Three jumpers in three possessions sent Cole Aldrich and friends into the game with a little less than three minutes to go. Hasheem Thabeet, who was drafted before James Harden in case you forgot, also came in with Aldrich and friends for the Blazers.
- A board by Thabeet led to the Brian Davis Line of the Night, brought to you in this case from Grant Long: “I think that might’ve been his first career rebound.”
Next up: Thursday night against the Lakers in Los Angeles.