PORTLAND — Russell Westbrook wrestled a rebound away from Noah Vonleh and Jusuf Nurkic and screamed, “That’s Mine!” He was trying with all his might to make something, anything happen for his team. The Thunder just didn’t have it on Sunday night in Portland, but that didn’t stop them from putting up a fight until the bitter end.
The Thunder lost 103-99 to the Blazers in a wacky, strange game that featured an ejection for Carmelo Anthony on a play that was initially ruled an and-one layup in the Thunder forward’s favor. Anthony drove into the lane from the left wing, braced himself for contact with Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and flipped in a layup behind his head, and was awarded a foul call too. In the process of the layup, Anthony’s elbow contacted Nurkic’s face, prompting a review and eventually, the ejection.
Besides the ejection there was plenty of other drama in the game. In the first half the Thunder fell behind early due to some stagnation on offense and an inability to get stops on the defensive end. But Donovan’s group charged back with a 13-7 burst early in the second quarter to make it just a four-point deficit heading into halftime. Still, the Thunder was struggling on the glass and in its attempts to protect the paint, agenda items that didn’t get completely resolved in the second half.
“It’s year one for this team,” forward Paul George said. “It’s a new nucleus and a new roster. We’re playing against teams that have been together for a while, so it just comes down to chemistry. We’ll learn, we’ll figure it out and we’ll keep the show rolling.”
The Blazers went up big at around the time of Anthony’s ejection, building a 75-58 lead towards the back end of the third period. That’s when Raymond Felton took over for the Thunder, as the backup point guard scored 11 of his season-high 15 points in the second half. The steady veteran point guard knocked down a three, scored on jumpers in the lane and carried the Thunder’s second unit until Westbrook and Paul George could check back in.
“The third quarter got kind of mucked up a little bit with the stoppage of play and all the stuff that was going on there,” Donovan explained.
“Raymond did a really good job and had a lot to do with us making a comeback. He played really well,” Donovan continued. “His leadership, his stuff on the floor, he has a great presence out there.”
From there it was a tight game through much of the fourth quarter as the Thunder chipped away at Portland’s advantage, but it could never get over the hump. There were some backbreakers midway through the quarter – a tough foul call on an and-one jumper by Nurkic and a Thunder turnover when there were chances to make it a one-possession game.
“Midway through that third quarter they had control of the game. We fought our way back to give ourselves a chance, which was encouraging on the road,” Donovan said. “We never really had a chance on a possession to tie it or go up.”
Eventually the Thunder did get within striking distance, but the Blazers had an answer by generating points on six of its final seven offensive possessions of the game. The daggers came on two CJ McCollum three-pointers, and a pair of Damian Lillard driving layups when the Thunder’s pick-and-roll defense got caught a step slow.
“(Lillard) is good with the ball. Obviously because of his ability to shoot off the dribble, when you’re back trying to contain him, it frees him up to shoot threes,” Donovan reviewed. “When he’s coming downhill at bigs, it’s hard for bigs to keep him in front. It’s really challenging. He did a good job coming down the stretch of getting downhill.”
Westbrook (25 points) and George (27 points) made plays and hit shots on offense down the stretch to keep it close, but when Westbrook missed three free throws with the opportunity to pull back to within one, that sealed it.
“We put ourselves in position to fight back and try to win the game,” Westbrook added.
The Thunder’s road trip to the west coast continues as the team flies to Sacramento, where it will practice on Monday and play the Kings on Tuesday.
By the Numbers
11 – Steals by the Thunder’s defense as it forced Portland into 21 turnovers
28-15 – The free throw attempts discrepancy in the game in Portland’s favor
50 – Shooting percentage for the Blazers on the night, aided by 48 points in the paint
The Last Word
“I was pleased with the way our guys rebounded and fought our way to the end. We got within a possession a couple of times and had an opportunity and couldn’t finish it out…We just need to become more consistent on both ends of the floor trying to execute.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan