• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers 111-109 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Moda Center on Friday night…

    • In some respects, this was an encouraging performance for the Blazers. They withstood 37 points, eight rebounds, five three-pointers, and 12 free throws from Paul George in addition to 31 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists from Russell Westbrook to have a chance to win at the end. That’s despite neither Damian Lillard (23 points, eight assists, 7-of-19 FGs, 1-of-8 3PTs) nor C.J. McCollum (10 points, 4-of-15 FGs) playing anywhere near their best games, too, and Jusuf Nurkic scoring just six of his 22 points after halftime. Portland, finally, received multiple performances of note from its supporting cast, beginning with Al-Farouq Aminu, who scored 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while shooting 2-of-5 from three. Moe Harkless made several splash plays defensively, Jake Layman filled it up in a surprise appearance for limited minutes, and both Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard generally acquitted themselves well against a physical, explosive frontcourt. In the end, though, the Blazers’ stars just didn’t give their team enough, not with George and Westbrook bringing their ‘A’ games and the Thunder – sporting the league’s top-ranked defense – entering lockdown mode after halftime, when Portland shot 33.3 percent overall and connected on just three of its 15 tries from long range. What a fantastic win for Oklahoma City, which came into Friday’s game having lost six straight against the Blazers, and eight straight at Moda Center. No more.

     

    • This game took its biggest turn in the final moments of the third quarter. After George gave the Thunder their first and second leads of the night with a pair of triples less than a minute apart from one another, one of Billy Donovan’s many hyper-athletic role players made sure his team would enter the final stanza on top. Nerlens Noel, having just checked in for Steven Adams, ripped Lillard’s dribble on consecutive trips with less than a minute remaining, turning Oklahoma City’s two-point lead into a six-point advantage by the time the buzzer sounded courtesy of a runout dunk from Westbrook and clear-path foul on Meyers Leonard. The Blazers didn’t come within a single possession of the Thunder again until the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, when time ultimately ran out on their comeback bid after game-tying looks from Lillard and McCollum both missed. Noel didn’t win this game for the Thunder, obviously, but made the successive defensive plays that ensured its momentum would be with the road team when it mattered most. He came up big both earlier and later, too, finishing with 10 points, five rebounds, three steals, and two blocks on perfect 4-of-4 shooting, frustrating Portland on both ends each time he took the floor.

     

    • The battle between Nurkic and Steven Adams, highly-anticipated by NBA nerds, seemed like it was over almost before it started. The Blazers’ behemoth continued his strong play of late in the first half, dominating offensively to the tune of 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting, while Adams’ most noteworthy contribution came in his team getting lit up on the scoreboard. For a time, Lillard and Nurkic were getting whatever they wanted in ball-screen action, taking full advantage of Adams sliding out an extra step toward the arc as help rotations behind the play were a beat late. But it was Oklahoma City’s foreign-born giant that got the last laugh. With Portland down 10 points just under the four-minute mark, Adams got his team two extra shot attempts via hard-fought offensive rebounds, tussling with multiple defenders in the paint. Though the Thunder ultimately weren’t able to capitalize, wasting the additional chances on missed jumpers, the sequence took nearly a full minute off the game clock – one the Blazers otherwise would have been in position to use for another shot at pulling off the comeback. Adams’ numbers, six points, 12 rebounds (five offensive), and three assists, don’t jump off the page, but he was absolutely integral to Oklahoma City turning it around defensively after intermission, and made a few crucial plays late to keep Portland at bay.

     

    • Harkless had his hands full with George, who further fortified his burgeoning MVP case with yet another awesome two-way performance. There’s just nothing the defense could have done on many of his scores; George, without a doubt, is playing the best basketball of his career right now. But that’s not to say Harkless didn’t have his moments, too, the kind that remind of the athletic dynamism he brings to the table when fully healthy. He had three blocks in this game, two on George and one on Westbrook, all of which were of the highlight variety. Most impressive were his mano-a-mano smother of Westbrook in transition during the third quarter and rear-view snatch of George’s jumper in the fourth, a play coaches all over the league should show perimeter defenders to teach textbook pick-and-roll defense. Harkless still didn’t do enough offensively, going just 2-of-9 and hitting one of his two tries from deep, but this was a game Portland sorely needed an additional dose of athletic oomph, and he was able to provide it. When these teams meet again, his impact will loom just as large to the game’s final outcome.

     

    • Layman (11 points, 5-of-7 FGs, 1-of-2 3PTs in 12 minutes) had a golden opportunity to establish himself as a lasting part of Terry Stotts’ rotation while moonlighting as a starter earlier this season as Moe Harkless recovered from offseason knee surgery, but for the most part failed to take advantage. The cause of his demotion to 11th man wasn’t related to anything Layman was doing, either. Instead, it’s what he wasn’t doing, shooting, that made him lose his grasp on the first meaningful NBA role of his career. Summoned for duty with the second unit on Friday night at the expense of Nik Stauskas, who shot 24.3 percent from three in December, Layman immediately made sure his latest chance at regular playing time would be different than the others. He scored on each of Portland’s first three possessions in the second quarter, splashing a pair of mid-rangers with no hesitation and finishing a lob from Evan Turner in transition. Minutes later, Layman came off a screen from Meyers Leonard near center, caught, turned his feet, and let fly despite a defender within view. Splash. He made a similarly quick decision early in the fourth quarter, curling around a screen from Zach Collins in the corner before catching, taking one, dribble and finishing with a two-handed dunk. Layman, obviously, won’t have his jump shot locked in on a nightly basis like he did against the Thunder. But shooting at all has been half the battle for him this season, and it was extremely encouraging to watch him come out with a renewed sense of aggression in a game he knew he’d be a factor. If Layman plays well enough to supplant Stauskas for good, his presence in the rotation could loom large in terms of lineup flexibility – not just for bench units, but situational ones, too.

Fantasy News

  • Bojan Bogdanovic
    SF, Utah Jazz

    Bojan Bogdanovic was limited to scoring just 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting with one trey and six rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Rockets.

    Bogdanovic is running a bit cold right now with this being the second straight game where he's uncharacteristically shot 30 percent or less from the field. He's a .451 shooter on the season so an upward correction should be on the near horizon.

  • Rudy Gobert
    C, Utah Jazz

    Rudy Gobert was quiet in Saturday's loss to the Rockets and was limited to posting just 12 points (3-of-7 FGs, 6-of-9 FTs), six rebounds and two blocks in 34 minutes.

    Unfortunately for Gobert owners, the Rockets matchup was not a stylistically favorable one for him. This low-end line is not a cause for concern and he should bounce back soon once the Jazz face teams with non-micro-ball systems.

  • Donovan Mitchell
    SG, Utah Jazz

    Donovan Mitchell hit 12-of-24 shots from the field and 6-of-7 at the line for 31 points, seven rebounds, one 3-pointer and three assists in a loss to the Rockets on Saturday.

    Mitchell has been a top-50 play on the season, but if he's going to carry the Jazz on his shoulders moving forward, his needle should be headed in the right direction as the season winds to a close.

  • Mike Conley
    PG, Utah Jazz

    Mike Conley returned from a three-game absence on Saturday and got a full complement of minutes (34), allowing him to post 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting with seven rebounds, seven assists and one 3-pointer.

    Conley's minutes are a sign that he's got the trainers' full confidence to go full blast. He got an extra rest day (Friday) to recover from an illness, which now is clearly behind him. He did struggle with his shot tonight, but Conley should put up better lines than this moving forward.

  • James Harden
    PG, Houston Rockets

    James Harden powered the Rockets to a 120-110 win over the Jazz on Saturday with 39 points (13-of-23 shooting), five rebounds, seven assists, six 3s, two steals and one block in 37 minutes.

    Harden has looked fresh, locked and loaded ever since the ASB. He's now trending back into the top-1 conversation in 9-cat formats. Fear the Beard, now more than ever.

  • Ben McLemore
    SG, Houston Rockets

    Ben McLemore was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field, all from beyond the arc to finish Saturday with 12 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.

    Ben-Mac is a streaky shooter and he got hot tonight. The return of Eric Gordon (12 points, 24 minutes) will surely eat into McLemore's outlook for the remainder of the season.

  • Eric Gordon
    SG, Houston Rockets

    Eric Gordon (left leg contusion) returned to action on Saturday and put up 12 points (5-of-11 shooting) with three rebounds, three assists and two steals in 24 minutes off the bench.

    The Rockets made Gordon come off the bench since this was his first game back after missing three straight, leading all the way before the All-Star break. The 25 minutes are a good sign and the minutes will be there for him as long as he's healthy. That said, his not much more than a points-and-3s streamer in standard leagues.

  • Aron Baynes
    C, Phoenix Suns

    Aron Baynes (left hip soreness) saw 13 minutes off the bench on Saturday and was able to muster four points (2-of-3 shooting) and one steal.

    Baynes will need to find his way back to playing time in the mid-20s before we can comfortably recommend an add in deep leagues. Keep him on the wire while he gets his legs back.

  • Mikal Bridges
    SF, Phoenix Suns

    Mikal Bridges swiped four steals and blocked one shot in a superb effort on defense in Saturday's win over the Wolves, adding eight points, six rebounds and two assists.

    Ever since turning the corner past the midpoint of the season, Bridges has been simply awesome as a 3-and-D guy for the Suns. There's no reason at this point to think that he'll slow down or that the Suns will modify his current role and usage, so ride him until the season winds to a close.

  • Kendrick Nunn
    PG, Miami Heat

    Kendrick Nunn led the way in the Heat's 124-105 win over the Cavs on Saturday, tallying 24 points (7-of-12 FG), eight assists, two steals, one block and four 3-pointers.

    Bam Adebayo was on his way to a big game as well but stopped at 26 minutes because of the blowout, finishing with 15 points, three rebounds, nine assists, a steal and a block on 7-of-9 shooting. Nunn rode a hot start to the year to middle-round value but he's easily outside the top-150 over the last month and is only worth your attention in standard leagues if you need some scoring punch.