March 4, 2018, 3:33 am
Damian Lillard, it turns out, is human. Fortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers superstar, though, his teammates were there to pick up his slack in an increasingly-rare game he didn’t have his powers. In one of their most impressive team efforts of the season, the Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-100 on Saturday night at Moda Center.
Lillard wasn’t completely ineffective, of course; he had 20 points and seven assists, and made multiple big plays down the stretch on both ends of the floor in a close game. The incredible, all-court shot-making ability that’s marked his MVP-level play over the past few weeks was absent for the game’s majority, though. Lillard shot just 5-of-18 from the field and 2-of-8 on 3-pointers, frustrated by both the Thunder’s aggressive defense and a lack of whistle from the officials.
Fortunately, Portland was able to get a crucial win against another team fighting for the postseason regardless. C.J. McCollum led the Blazers with 28 points, also contributing eight rebounds and six assists. Evan Turner, back in the starting lineup for an injured Moe Harkless, had 17 points, making Oklahoma City pay for giving him extra breathing room beyond the arc by draining a season-high three triples.
It was the play of Portland’s bench, though, that was pertinent to Saturday night’s victory. At various points throughout the game, a different reserve provided the Blazers not just a sustained spark of energy, but also significant tangible production. Shabazz Napier scored five points in the first three minutes of the second quarter, and extended Portland’s run to 13-2 on a nifty, airborne dime to Jusuf Nurkic midway through the period. Pat Connaughton was credited with two steals and created at least that many more in what was probably his finest defensive performance of the season. Ed Davis had six points and 10 rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end, bringing his normal blend of physicality and awareness to the table en route to a game-high plus-minus of +18.
Still, another bench player was Portland’s most important against Oklahoma City: Zach Collins. The rookie scored a career-high 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including two 3-pointers on three attempts. His splashiest plays came on defense, though, where Collins spearheaded an authoritative team-wide impact at the rim that forced the Thunder in 22-of-40 shooting from the restricted area. The biggest, and most eye-popping, of the 20 year old’s two blocked shots came with just one minute and nine seconds remaining in a 102-98 game that felt like the playoffs, against one of the league’s best players.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) March 4, 2018
Collins had thrown the ball directly to Raymond Felton moments before he stuffed Paul George at the rim with two hands. He atoned for that embarrassing gaffe again half a minute later, throwing a loose ball off Jerami Grant after the Thunder’s live-wire forward had done the same to him, gaining the Blazers possession with 39.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Defense is the most encouraging takeaway for Portland here. Westbrook and George combined for 51 points, but needed 50 shots to do it. The Blazers held Oklahoma City to just 10 assists over the last three quarters. They had six steals and eight blocks while limiting the Thunder to just eight second-chance points. Portland, beginning with that second-quarter run ushered in by its bench, was the aggressor on Saturday night against a team led by the maniacally intense Westbrook and stoically powerful Steven Adams.
Yet in some ways, that was to be expected. The Thunder toughed out a win over the lowly Phoenix Suns on the road Friday night, while the Blazers got a full day off to rest and recoup after their hard-fought win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Moda Center is a real factor again, and Oklahoma City has labored in Portland for years.
But none of those caveats, not to mention the absence of Carmelo Anthony, make the Blazers’ victory any less impressive or important. They have the tie-breaker over the Thunder now, and in third place, are a full game up on the fifth-place New Orleans Pelicans for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Portland will try for its seventh consecutive victory, the most since since November 2014, on Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center – when Lillard, Collins and company will try to improve on a 37-26 record that’s the fifth-best in basketball.
Are the Blazers that good? Probably not. But the quality of a team is only as real as the games its won and lost, and Portland, suddenly, has a win-loss total better than all but four in the league. What a difference six weeks makes.