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Thunder vs Trail Blazers, final score: OKC shows grit, but shots don’t fall, Portland wins 108-105

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The Thunder had a chance, but like so many times this season, couldn’t put the pieces together.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

box score | Blazers Edge

The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Portland Trail Blazers at home, 108-105. In OKC’s final chance to earn a measure of respect against the Blazers, OKC started slow and finished poorly, leading the Blazers to sweep them for the season, 4-0. OKC had an outside shot at catching Portland for the 3rd seed, but this loss all but seals it, and now OKC must contend with the rest of the rabble in the bottom 23 of the West. And clearly, Portland establishes itself as the superior team to OKC in this season, as every single game bore out a similar pattern — more organization, better energy, and better late-game shot-making by Dame, C.J. and the gang.

If we were expecting the Thunder to come out hot tonight to prove they were ready to try and take a game off the surging Blazers, this notion was quickly dispelled. Less than 4 minutes in, the Blazers were on top 14-2 and OKC only had a passing interest in trying to compete. Five minutes later and the lead at 27-10, one had to wonder if the Thunder were just going to punt on this game and take it easy on their starters, capped perfectly by Damian Lillard swiping the ball from Paul George with under 5 seconds to go to put the Thunder in a 17 point hole after one.

But once again, where the Thunder ‘stars’ have struggled, the Thunder bench has refused to bend. On the backs of uber-athletic Jerami Grant and the ovoid-energizer Raymond Felton, the Thunder fought back. In fact, the pair keyed a 16-0 run, turning a 44-29 deficit into a 45-44 point lead late in the 2nd. While the Blazers temporarily regained their footing, to go into the half only down 5 was a positive sign for OKC.

And entering the 3rd, a place where OKC has had so many struggles, the Thunder defense was weathering the shooting flurry of C.J. McCollum and pushed into the lead. OKC’s scoring trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony still struggled from the field, but they ‘worked the body’ and got to the free throw line 22 times in the 2nd half alone. It appeared as if they would go into the 4th with confidence, but just as we saw in Boston, Portland used a last-second push to grab a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that ended up playing a profound effect on the game’s outcome.

The 4th quarter was a back-and-forth affair, where you could legitimately see how close these two teams are in talent. But here’s the thing, and it is no small thing. If you took all the names off of everyone’s jersey and ranked the best players in order, #1 would be McCollum, #2 would be Westbrook, and you’d have to go down to about #8 or #9 before you get to Paul George, and then down to about #11 or #12 until you hit Melo.

And that almost brings us to Melo.

Which doesn’t mean we’re going to forget Paul George, oh no. He deserves his own paragraph. Whatever altitudes he was hitting in long-ago January, post-ASW he has come crashing back to earth and is going through a horrid shooting stretch. How bad? His percentages have dropped from 48%/41% on his floor/3-point shooting respectively, all the way down to 39%/30% through 12 games in March. And they’ve been ugly too — he’s gone 4-15, 3-16, 5-12, 4-16, and 6-16, just to list a few of the worst. And they’re bad misses, the lot. He’s missing at the rim, he’s missing open threes, and were it not for his still consistent defense (though that has dropped off too), he’d be the one we’d be most worried about. It’s remarkable OKC even had a lead with PG playing so badly.

But no — this is, sadly, a Melo moment. Combined with the Celtics debacle, perhaps no other 2-game stretch has defined Melo’s reality, or maybe should I say, mortality. Coming into this season, we knew we weren’t getting peak-scorer Melo. At best...at best...we were hoping we’d get the guy who was “Olympic Melo,” the guy who seamlessly played off of other playmakers and canned open threes all game long. That was best case.

But that’s not what we have now. He can’t get to the rim anymore, that was easy to see early on. He doesn’t get superstar calls, veteran calls, or any call. We realized that by New Year’s. But as a smart veteran with impeccable shooting mechanics, we still knew...or maybe we just believed...that even though he couldn’t get shots on his own, if he worked within the offense, ran the floor, Westbrook and company would give him the open looks he’d need to shoot effectively. Give him time and space, and the instincts and mechanics would take over.

Through 12 games this month, we got mostly bad shooting — 39% overall — but the 3-pointer was still there, hitting 40% on 6 attempts per. But this game, and this key moment, against a critical opponent at an oh-so critical juncture of this fractious season, this was a defining/defiant moment made for a 33-year old not ready to close the door on his decorated career. And on the same day where his, ahem peer, LeBron James seems to be confirming cyborg status with a breezy 37-10-8 on 14-19 shooting, wouldn’t it be nice, even fair, to have Melo step up and support his Thunder team at a time when Russ and PG were struggling mightily?

This spot right here, this was sooo important to the Thunder’s chances in a game they had to have. Up three, Blazers starting to wobble, and here comes a haymaker.

A few minutes later, with OKC now down by 2 and 19 seconds remaining, the Thunder were in similar position to what they faced against the Heat. All they needed was a really thoughtful possession that used clock and got an open look — two, three, didn’t matter — to keep their chances alive.

And this is what Donovan dialed up and, snark aside, it was a solid play. Right up to a point.

With Russ starting the drive, PG and Melo ran a baseline cross-pick. Eschewing the tie, Russ chose the right spot to pass to. Melo slid into the left corner with a blink of daylight — and that’s what we laud him for, right? The quick release and pure mechanics? — but instead of elevating against a closing defense, Melo actually hesitated. The Portland trap came hard, but there was still ample time remaining. All Melo needed to do was find an outlet and give his team another 10 seconds to create something (an optimistic idea, since the defense was scrambling), but instead of playing smart, Melo played a somber cello tune to Christmas Past.

Anthony attempted to drive to the rim, incredibly looked off a wide open George at the top of the key and equally wide open Corey Brewer in the right corner — look at the scrambling Mo Harkles; he knows he’s screwed — and instead Melo drove against against 3 guys, one of whom was Jusuf Nurkic, and instead of receiving a little bit of cosmic justice, was summarily (and unsurprisingly) snuffed out, nary even a shot attempt.

And as if that wasn’t enough of the #SadMelo movement, the Blazers’ Al-Farouq Aminu had to then go and miss the 2nd free throw that could have iced it, giving OKC one last chance. But instead of a bit of just desserts contra the Celtics debacle, we got this scrotum dragged across a cheese grater, doused in lemon juice kind of special moment:

And that’s where we are. In this year of 2018 iteration of the NBA, you can’t miss these shots. When a defense gives you a walk-up, uncontested three (let alone three of them), you make those shots. Every team in the league, from the Warriors down to the Grizzlies, have guys who can and do hit these with ease, and that makes those guys almost mediocre, most of the time. But this is all Melo has left — to be able to hit the open money shot when the team looks to him with the game on the line. And three times, with wide open looks, he didn’t come close. And this wasn’t the first time, just the latest.

In the post-game, Billy said what he said. I don’t really care. Coach-speak, at least in the U.S., is largely theater, there is maybe 5% interesting there, and everything else is signaling theory. It’s substantive garbage, just like nearly every other coach’s post-game tango (hooah!) with the media. But far worse to me, when it comes to signaling, is the message that riding with Melo in these moments sends to Donovan’s troops.

Fats, Grant, 2Pat, Abrines, even T-Ferg...these guys are all flawed. We know this. Often times they are a net negative within the rhythms of the game. But this bench mob fights, and their fight gave the Thunder — THEIR TEAM — a shot against a Blazers team that was ready to blow Russ, PG, and Melo out of their own gym. They worked their butts off to give Melo a shot, let alone three of them. And when they see Donovan continue to ride with the guy who can’t hit a shot when he’s wide open, when the entire team has banked on him being able to do that one specific thing that would result in the payoff for the everything that everyone else just sacrificed to get to that moment...

I can’t even finish the thought.

Next game: @ San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, March 29th at 7PM CST

Props to the Blazers. They’ve figured it out this year, and I love seeing that.