• 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.
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