OKC lost another close game tonight, 102-99 to Portland. The game was a rock fight with both teams struggling to score most of the way through, until Portland buried five straight 3 pointers (three of them courtesy of OKC’s tormentor Damian Lillard) late in the 4th quarter to take the lead for good and drop the Thunder to 1-4. Here are three key takeaways form this game:
1. Prime Nerlens
Nerlens Noel started this game with Steven Adams out, and he came up big. I was surprised the Thunder got Noel back this year, as I was certain some other team would snatch him up to be their backup center, or even to be a spot starter. Noel showed why I had that fear tonight- he was very effective, notching 15 points and 14 rebounds. Several of his points came on missed shots that he followed and timed perfectly to jam back just as they came off the rim.
He was also solid defensively, moving his feet well and helping OKC barricade the rim, as they held the Blazers to just 26 points in the paint on the night. He also showed a few of his usual flaws- the screens he sets aren’t as solid as a true screensmith like Adams, and the ball bounced off his hands on interior passes from his guards more than once. But overall, Noel was solid.
2. Death by Three
The Thunder, as I wrote yesterday, have been very lucky to start the season, with opponents shooting just 23% on wide open threes despite OKC giving up a ton of wide open attempts. Their luck ran out tonight, as the Blazers hit 17 of their 35 shots from deep. And OKC deserved it. Their guards (with the exception of Terrence Ferguson) routinely died on screens, giving Lillard and CJ McCollum room to pull up from 3 or get going downhill, drawing help and setting up open shooters.
Last year the Thunder had guys who were long and fast enough to slide as helped defenders and recover to shooters. This year they do not- Danilo Gallinari is way too slow to handle that, and as a result Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazemore had multiple wide open 3’s. The Thunder have clearly prioritized defending the paint over the 3 point line, which can be an effective strategy, but they have to be better than they were tonight.
On the other end, OKC was a pitiful 4-27 from deep despite creating a lot of good looks. Prized free-agent center Mike Muscala was a brutal 0-6, and if Muscala isn’t hitting threes, he brings you very little value.
3. Not Dead Yet
Chris Paul was excellent tonight, scoring 21 points on just 10 shots. He got to the free throw line 11 times, swished a couple classic mid range jumpers, and added 5 assists. He was once again at the controls in crunch time, and did enough- getting to the line multiple times and diming up Noel for a dunk- to keep OKC in it.
But 3 is more than 2, and six late 3 pointers from Portland overcame a decent showing by OKC’s crunch time offense. Still, after a rough start that had people questioning how much he had left, this was a very encouraging performance from Paul.
Other quick takeaways:
- For the first time, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got some minutes as the sole point guard with both Schroder and Paul on the bench. He was surrounded by OKC’s other youngsters- Terrence Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, and Nerlens Noel. SGA slung a couple nifty corner passes out of the pick and roll in this group, only for Bazley and Ferguson to pass up 3 point attempts to drive the lane and promptly turn the ball over. But those were very nice passes, and hopefully SGA will get more chances as the lead guard as the season continues.
- Terrence Ferguson had another quiet offensive game (4 shot attempts in 35 minutes of play time), but did an excellent job when defending Damian Lillard. That defense meant Dame was quiet scoring all night (though he did rack up 13 assists), until the fourth quarter, when he swished three clutch 3 pointers over four possessions to put Portland back in the lead. Great offense still beats great defense, but don’t overlook that Ferguson did play great defense against one of the most dangerous guards in the league
- Every year, the NBA gives the officials a few “points of emphasis” that get called extremely aggressive for the first month of the season before they regress to being called the same way they’ve always been called. This year it appears to be travels, which led to a stretch early in the 4th quarter where the officials called 4 travels (2 on each team) over 5 possessions. Booooooo!
- Hamidou Diallo had a double-double, partly thanks to a play where he rebounded his own missed shot 4 times in a row before finally tipping it in. Even with those missed tips, Diallo had 12 points on 5-9 shooting. He has turned himself into a legitimate rotation player- now he just needs a jump shot.
- SGA (13), Gallinari (15) and Dennis Schroder (17) all had the same number of points a shot attempts. That’s about par for the course for Dennis, but Gallo and SGA are usually more efficient than that. OKC, already extremely short on scoring options, will be hard pressed to have many good offensive games when both those guys are struggling.
- OKC ran up against the shot clock multiple times tonight. They still need to get into their sets faster.