The Thunder fell to the Trail Blazers on their home court in game 4, 111-98. In a game that echoed so many of the Thunder’s low points this season, they could not take advantage of both their early defensive energy or Portland’s poor shooting, and found themselves trailing big without much of a blueprint to turn things around. The Thunder now face elimination in Portland, down 1-3 in the series.
If you were to create a carbon copy of this game, you’d swear you saw nearly the exact same thing play out about 20 times during the regular season. Despite the Thunder theoretically knowing the Blazers really well, not only because they played them 4 times but beat them 4 times, there was barely a game plan in place to attack Portland’s defensive weaknesses. To be sure, their backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have played consistently sound defense, particularly against Russell Westbrook, but the Thunder have not done much of anything either this game or the series to make it more difficult. And when OKC was able to configure a defensive mismatch, they’ve simply missed the shots, from Paul George on down.
The end of the first half was a microcosm of everything that has made this year’s Thunder both tantalizing yet so disappointing. The teeth of their defense had sunk into the Blazers, and with 2:31 remaining after a Westbrook three, the Thunder were sitting on a 7 point lead, similar to game 3. But despite holding Portland to only 13 points on 5-19 shooting in the quarter, and with the Thunder themselves outshooting them and hitting 4-7 from three, OKC’s focus fell off a cliff. They turned the ball over twice and Westbrook missed three consecutive contested shots with nary a pass mixed in, and a struggling Blazers squad rolled off 11 unanswered points to take a 4 point lead into the half. It was an astonishingly inept — and yet familiar — ending to a half where OKC, despite shooting reasonably well, could not string together any sort of competent offense that looked something other than street pick-up ball.
The rest of the game’s sequences got me to thinking about energy. I’ve used this illustration before — in talking with various military fighter pilots over the years, they would tell me one of the basic rules of combat flying is to understand how to maintain your energy in flight. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how refined your flying skill is; your jet will lose energy, then altitude, and then you’ll be in a world of hurt.
So it has been all season long with the Thunder, and particularly their defense. OKC’s defensive abilities, I will contend to the end, are first rate. It is instinctual yet strategic, aggressive, forces mistakes, and can reduce an offense to rubble. The problem is, defensive effort takes a LOT of energy. It requires constant mental focus, reacting and recovering over and over again, and then there are times when you do everything correctly, and the offense still either makes a shot, grabs an offensive rebound, or gets the foul call. Even the best defense still fails some 4 out of 10 times. In all, it’s mentally and physically draining.
Which is why, if a team such as the Thunder is going to rely on it, they have to make it work at the other end through competent offense. Otherwise, all the effort is lost, you may not have a lead that your defense offers you, and now you’re completely exhausted as well.
Intentional or not, I don’t know, but that appeared to be the Blazers’ game plan. Despite shooting poorly and the Thunder defense seemingly devouring them, they just plugged along and allowed the Thunder to really do whatever they wanted to do offensively, knowing that it would be more driven off of that defensive energy rather than focused execution. Portland’s gamble was correct. As a result, the Thunder simply wasted opportunity after opportunity to build a significant lead, and in the blink of an eye the small lead they had built was gone. And now, mentally drained, Lillard & co. went to work on them for the triangle submission.
There isn’t much left to say at this point. The Thunder have multiple advantages across the board (fun fact — Enes Kanter actually played more minutes than Steven Adams, which tells you everything you really need to know about this series’ collective strategy for the Thunder), and they’re not maximizing hardly any of them. As a result, their season will most likely end in two nights, and we all can see it coming.