Recap: Oklahoma City Thunder fall short against Portland Trail Blazers in 4th again, lose 98-94

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder could not end the year on an upswing, falling to the Trail Blazers for the 2nd time this season.

Box ScoreBlazers Edge recap

The Oklahoma City Thunder fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers on New Year's Eve, 98-94. In a game that was similar to the two teams' first go-round, OKC controlled much of the first half, but then their offense faltered down the stretch and the Blazers were able to overcome a double digit lead and pull out the win. The loss marks the first time that the Thunder in their OKC incarnation have lost on New Year's Eve, and they now fall to 0-2 against the Blazers in the regular season.

For the 2nd time this season against the Blazers (and the 2nd game in a row) the Thunder used aggressive defense, fast breaking offense, and an ornery Kevin Durant to jump on the talented Blazers squad early. Portland was playing the 2nd night of a back-to-back, and in their first game they had suffered a loss to the Pelicans. The Thunder looked to use the same technique they had against Houston, playing fast and aggressive and wait until Portland's energies dropped. Through a half it appeared to work.

The Thunder held strong in the 3rd right up until the very end of the quarter. Sitting on a double-digit lead, the Thunder saw Portland score, block a Steven Adams dunk, and then watch Nicolas Batum hit a long 2-pointer as the quarter ended. The tide turned for the worse in the 4th, as the Thunder offense could not find any sort of rhythm or make a shot. In total, OKC went 4-20 from the floor and only a single basket in the final 5 minutes of play. OKC compounded it by missing free throws, failing to grab defensive rebounds, and Durant missing a wide open 9 foot jumper that would have tied the game.

Kevin Durant led all scorers with 37 points and also grabbed 14 rebounds, but failed to make a single shot in the 4th quarter. He was followed by Serge Ibaka, who finished with 17 points, but he too managed only a single point in the 4th. The Blazers were led by Lamarcus Aldridge once again, who finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds.


What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?

In consideration of how I might think of what was an incredibly frustrating end to both a game and a year (but not a season!), I kept coming back to a word from Hebrew language, which is "selah." This word selah is used in Hebrew music and poetry, and loosely translates to, "Pause, reflect."  So as the howlers from both sides of the game have come out (and oh, have they come out), my reaction has been to slow down the thought process, pause, and really reflect about what we saw happen on the Thunder's home court.

There are, by my estimation, 5 teams that have a realistic shot at contending for the championship this season. Two of them were playing in this game tonight, each with their own disadvantages, but none-the-less enough talent and competitiveness to beat the other. The Blazers are not the Raptors. The Raptors loss was a lazy one, but this loss should not have been terribly surprising. Without being at full strength, the Thunder were already at a disadvantage, both in their starting lineup as well as their bench. Therefore I would have thought/hoped that, at a disadvantage and facing one of the best, OKC would have played with a heightened focus and discipline in order to overcome the talent gap. Their failure to do so was a material factor in the outcome.

Losing to teams never surprises me anymore in the NBA. It happens all the time. We've seen the Thunder on both ends of the spectrum and it will happen again. What we should glean from this loss though is that OKC, as good as they appear to be, still have some issues to sort out. Especially against the league's best, they have to realize that in order to win, they cannot have the mental lapses at the ends of games. The margin for error is ever shrinking, and if OKC wants to do better down the road against not only Portland but the Spurs, Pacers, and Heat as well, they have to clean it up.

What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?

The Thunder lost this game because of two primary factors:

1) Kevin Durant could not disengage from the perimeter.

In one of Bill Simmons' best columns, he wrote about the 10% rule. This rule states that every player, no matter how historically great, every player has weaknesses. In Durant's case, he really only has one weakness left. His weakness is that he can be guarded when he is 30 feet from the rim. We saw it quite a bit last season when Russell Westbrook was lost, both in the Houston series and especially against the Grizzlies. What defenses do when they have to shut down Durant is they start guarding him 30 feet from the rim and dare anybody else to try and take advantage of the remaining matchups.

Against the Blazers, Durant was running roughshod through their defense, getting inside the arc and to the rim with ease, finishing with 22 points in the 1st half on 11-17 shooting. However, in the 4th quarter when the Blazers staged their comeback, they took a page out of the Grizzlies' playbook and started locking up Durant far outside of the arc. Nic Batum was the primary defender, and he's a great candidate because he is long and lanky and he played KD very physically, denying the ball and forcing it out of Durant's hands. The result was twofold - Durant missed all 5 of his shots in the 4th, and the only guy left who could create a shot was Reggie Jackson. Jackson did convert a few times and kept his team in the game, but when it came time to get Durant in a good position to score, OKC could not do it.

This Durant weakness is a problem, especially since Westbrook is out for a while. Scott Brooks must get on a better page with Durant about how he is going to disengage from the perimeter defense when they use this tactic, because they're going to keep seeing it until the strategy is broken.

2) The Thunder failed to do all the little things

When the Thunder are playing against other teams that are their competitive peers, the degree to which the little things matter is amplified. This too is a callback from past Thunder failings. In particular, I recall Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. In that game, the league's best FT shooting team missed an uncharacteristic 7 free throws, 2 each by Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden. They lost by 4 and never made it back to their home court.

On this night, the Thunder missed another 7 free throws, with Durant Ibaka each going 1-2 and their best FT shooter Jackson missing 2-4. They lost by 4.

On top of that, the Thunder managed to fail to secure a defensive rebound after 2 missed FT's by Mo Williams, which would have given them the ball and the chance to win the game with a 2 point basket. Finally, after Durant missed the 2nd of his two FT's, Ibaka missed a tip at the rim and Durant missed a wide open jumper that could have tied the game.

The end of the game was a tight affair, without question, and both teams managed to make small errors that could have resulted in a loss. However, each and every time the Thunder could not convert what was handed to them. Think of it this way - the Thunder had MULTIPLE game deciding plays, and they came up short on nearly every single one. Portland is one of the best in the league. There is precious little margin for error against them, and the Thunder made too many when it mattered most.

What was a key statistic to understanding the game?

From a statistical perspective, if you were to just peruse the box score you might very well think that the Thunder came out of this thing with a win. They shot the ball better, gathered in more rebounds, turned the ball over only 10 times, and at one point held a 16 point lead. There are still a lot of positives that can be taken away from this game, in particular how aggressive the Thunder looked in the 1st half.

Unfortunately, the 2nd half was a different story, and what is most alarming is that OKC's defense still held up, never really allowing the Blazers to get into an offensive rhythm. The problem was that they allowed Portland's defense, which is statistically one of the worst, to limit them to only 30 points in the 2nd half.

To be sure, Westbrook on the court can cure a lot of what ails them, especially in his ability to drive to the rim. However, as noted above, Durant's inability to disengage from tight perimeter defense is going to be there regardless of whether Westbrook is on the court. This game should give OKC plenty of things to think about going forward, and fortunately nearly all of them are correctable.

What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?

The Thunder still maintain a slight lead in the Western Conference standings, but most important, they are now down 0-2 against the Blazers, their in-division rivals. At stake is home court advantage in the playoffs, and right now the Thunder are behind the 8-ball.  OKC plays Portland twice more this season, so they could still potentially finish at 2-2, but unfortunately the next two games are going to be played before Russell Westbrook's expected return after the All-Star break.

With suddenly so much riding on this regular season series, the Thunder lost an opportunity tonight to even things out. The fight for the #1 seed is probably going to come down to the final weeks of play, and I fear that we are going to beg the question in April - what if OKC had held on tonight?

***

Sherman's Awards

Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 37 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal

Thunder Down Under: Jeremy Lamb, 10 points, 6 rebounds

Thunder Blunder: Derek Fisher, 4 points in 19 minutes of play

Thunder Plunderer: LaMarcus Aldridge, 25 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks

***

Next game: vs Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, Jan. 2 @ 7PM CST

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