Road trippin' done right in OKC


Road trippin' done right in OKC

The Blazers hit the road for a four-game road trip, and it started with a bang in Oklahoma City. The Blazers played well in the first half, taking a four-point lead into the locker room at halftime. But in the second half it went from good to great. The Blazers outscored the Thunder 34-26 in the third quarter, and pushed the lead to 20-plus in the fourth. It was a great way to start the road trip, and it may just be one of the Blazers best wins of the year.

Final Score: Blazers 117 – Thunder 106

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

All in all, THAT game Sunday night was how I expected the Portland Trail Blazers to look this season.

The Blazers were clicking on both ends of the court, shooting 50 percent from the field for the first time this season and defending key Oklahoma City players well in their 103-99 win in Moda Center. Russell Westbrook went 10 for 25 from the floor, 3 for 10 from three-point range and just 2 for 7 from the foul line in a wacky performance -- it featured five straight free-throw misses by him -- unlike his usual MVP-quality show. The Blazers won the board battle 43-32 and held the Thunder to 44.9 percent shooting.

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All in all, it was a fine game, even though the home team walked a tightrope late in the final minutes, very nearly spoiling a nice effort with shaky ball handling.

Damian Lillard played his best game of the season with 36 points and 13 assists and was stellar down the stretch.

Jusuf Nurkic joined the party, too -- hitting 11 of 15 shots and scoring 25 to go with eight rebounds and two blocks.

And really, it makes a whole lot of difference when Nurkic is on his game. He's a difference maker at both ends of the court and the way he "sold" an elbow to his face from Carmelo Anthony in the third quarter was worthy of the best the WWE has to offer -- and it led to Anthony's ejection. Nurkic went down as if he was hit by a sledge hammer -- and maybe it felt that way.

Nurkic was motionless on the floor for about a minute after Anthony's right elbow caught his face on the way up for a shot that was originally ruled a foul on Nurkic and a potential three-point play for Anthony. But with Nurkic laid out on the floor, officials looked at replays and changed the call to a flagrant 2 on Anthony, who was ejected. It may have altered the outcome of the game.

Let me say I didn't think it was a Flagrant 2 foul and nobody deserves to be ejected for such a play. Anthony was in the act of shooting and trying to draw a foul in the process. Nurkic got a little too close for his own good and got smacked -- although how hard was open to debate. It may have been a brutal shot or a love tap, it was impossible to tell from the replays -- but Nurkic sold it like Ric Flair taking an elbow from Hulk Hogan and the officials bought into it.

Anyone who has played a lot of basketball will tell you that when you go up to block somebody's shot, you take a chance of getting caught with an elbow or arm to the face. It's just what happens. And when you do take that hit, it can often be called a foul on you. But whatever. This one wasn't.

And the Blazers got the benefit. I must say, it was a physical game -- as it always is when Portland hooks up with OKC.

And we got a glimpse of the potential of this Portland team against a group that is expected to be one of the best in the NBA.

A fun game punctuated by some controversy is a wonderful thing.

Tonight's Talkin' Ball Podcast:

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

OKLAHOMA CITY – If it wasn’t the win of the season for the Trail Blazers, it was up there on Tuesday when the Blazers came back from 14 down, then held off a furious 58-point performance from Russell Westbrook to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 126-121 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jusuf Nurkic made two big baskets inside in the final minute to break a tie at 116 and the Blazers rode the hot shooting of Allen Crabbe, the superb defense of Al-Farouq Aminu and clutch free throw shooting from CJ McCollum to win three in a row for the first time since Nov. 30-Dec. 5.

The Blazers’ surge couldn’t come at a better time, as their best basketball is coming as the playoff race in the West tightens. Portland (27-35) moved to within 1.5 games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 games left. Twelve of the Blazers’ final 20 games are at home.

Nurkic continued to be a season-changing addition for the Blazers, as he finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and Aminu has proven to be a difference maker when he is healthy. He had 12 points and seven rebounds and three blocks, including two at the rim in key moments in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Crabbe led the Blazers with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting, showing an assertiveness seldom seen this season. He led a bench unit that turned the game around in the second quarter, as Shabazz Napier and Aminu led the defense and Crabbe and Meyers Leonard (12 points) provided an offensive spark.

Westbrook set his career-high with 58 points, and added nine assists and three rebounds, but he shot 21-of-39, which included 6-of-19 down the stretch.

Oklahoma City took at 67-61 halftime lead in a rip-roaring first half that saw the Thunder shoot 67.6 percent and the Blazers 55 percent. Westbrook had 28 points by halftime as the Blazers alternated defenders between Lillard and Maurice Harkless.

The Thunder led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, but the Blazers’ second unit opened the second quarter on an 11-0 and 14-2 run, which was keyed by the defense of  Napier and Aminu and the offense of Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard.

Notes: Damian Lillard set the franchise mark with a three-pointer in his 42nd consecutive game, breaking the mark held by Clifford Robinson in the 1995-1996 season … The Blazers announced that Ed Davis underwent successful surgery on his left shoulder on Tuesday. He is expected to be back for the start of the 2017-2018 training camp. 

Next up: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN).


Trail Blazers storm back, then hold on, to beat Oklahoma City

Trail Blazers storm back, then hold on, to beat Oklahoma City

A Trail Blazers team that has a hard time finishing games exorcised some ghosts Thursday with a late-game avalanche that buried the Oklahoma City Thunder and resuscitated some life into Portland’s playoff hopes.

Portland went on a 16-0 run – holding the Thunder scoreless from 5:42 until 59 seconds left – then held on through some shaky last minute play to beat Oklahoma City 114-109 in one of the better games at the Moda Center this season.

With a buzz in the arena to start the fourth after a fan -- Peter Crum of Beaverton -- hit a halfcourt shot to win a Toyota, the Blazers erased an eight-point deficit behind the play of Jusuf Nurkic and turned it into a 110-101 lead with 1:37 left.

But Oklahoma City came back, getting to within 110-109 after Alex Abrines hit a three-pointer – the third Thunder shot attempt of the possession. The Thunder comeback was fueled when the Blazers threw away two passes and Damian Lillard had a shot blocked.

The Blazers (25-35) finally sealed it when Lillard hit two free throws with 14.1 seconds left and Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook missed a wide open three-pointer with 8.4 seconds left.

"A good win to get at home,'' coach Terry Stotts said.

Lillard led the Blazers with 33 points and Nurkic, making his Moda Center debut, had 18 points, 12 rebounds, a career-high six assists and a career-high tying five blocks.

"Dame did what Dame does – and Jusuf was terrific,'' Stotts said. "(Jusuf) had a big impact on the game – rebounding, blocked shots, passing.''

Westbrook led Oklahoma City (35-26) with 45 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Enes Kanter came off the bench with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Oklahoma City led 85-81 heading into the fourth quarter after Lillard and Westbrook were involved in a shootout for much of the quarter. Lillard hit back-to-back three’s, which were sandwiched by a Westbrook three, setting the tone for a quarter when Westbrook scored 13 and Lillard 12.

Oklahoma City took a 60-57 halftime lead in incredible fashion when Taj Gibson heaved a 61-foot shot that swished at the buzzer. The shot was set up when Portland with 2.8 seconds inserted Pat Connaughton to inbound, and his three-quarter court pass went off the finger tips of Nurkic and into the hands of Gibson, who immediately threw a football-like shot at the rim.

Portland from the jump was as sharp and exhilarating as it had been all season and had the Moda Center crowd standing as it built a 20-8 lead behind some explosive drives from Lillard and nifty passing and footwork from Nurkic. But the Thunder scrapped back and was within 26-24 after Gibson spectacularly dunked a miss with 17.8 seconds left.

Aminu had 14 points and six rebounds and CJ McCollum had 18 points while Maurice Harkless added 10 points and nine rebounds. 

Next up: Brooklyn at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (KGW)


Blazers' fourth-quarter woes continue in loss to Thunder

Blazers' fourth-quarter woes continue in loss to Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY --  We have seen this show before, right? The Trail Blazers played the Oklahoma City Thunder on even terms most of the game,  even led them at halftime and after the third quarter, but lost the fourth quarter and then the game.

Portland was outscored 34-26 in the fateful final period and dropped its record to 22-30 for the season.

Another discouraging loss for a team that can't seem to put its collective finger on what's wrong. Which makes it very difficult to repair whatever the problem is, of course.

That is becoming the story of this season.

"It's frustrating," said Damian Lillard, who led Portland with 29 points. "I do think we competed. Like I said, we didn't come out here and not have a chance to win. We were in position to win the game, once again. Like many games we have had this season we had opportunities that we didn't always take advantage of, whether that was a free throw that Russ (Westbrook) missed and then got the rebound or something else.

"And then at the other end, when we got opportunities we didn't always take advantage of them. We got open looks that we didn't knock down. Sometimes we didn't move the ball maybe the way we needed to."

In the critical fourth quarter the Thunder hit 11 of their 18 shots and Portland made 10 of 22. Not a huge difference there, really. But OKC hit three of its five three-point shots while the Blazers were making just two of nine. And coming into that period, the Thunder had hit just one of 13 from three while Portland had made eight of 19.

And of course rebounding was a problem all afternoon. A big one. Oklahoma City had a 56-44 edge with a whopping 17 offensive rebounds. The Trail Blazers were very fortunate that the Thunder had a terrible time connecting on a lot of tips and easy putbacks that would have markedly changed this game.

"I thought our defensive rebounding was a challenge all night," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We were fortunate that they missed some of their opportunities. ... But that's what they do. They are a paint team, whether it's driving in the paint or getting offensive rebounds."

The Thunder defense was also very good at protecting the rim when the Portland guards beat their defender off the dribble and got into the lane. Several times Lillard or CJ McCollum got into the paint in areas where they are usually able to finish with a reverse layup or floater, only to be foiled by the OKC big men.

Size matters and the Thunder certainly have an edge over the Trail Blazers in that department. And at just about every position.

But the real edge OKC has on every team is Russell Westbrook, who is as close to a one-man team as there is in the NBA. The Blazers kept the perpetual-motion machine from another triple-double (he had four rebounds and eight assists) but he burned them for 42 points.

"He got 34 shots," Lillard said. "When he shoots that much he's going to score."

Portland moves on to yet another difficult game Tuesday night in Dallas against the Mavericks, who won in Portland just last week.



Trail Blazers end losing streak with rout of Oklahoma City

Trail Blazers end losing streak with rout of Oklahoma City

The Trail Blazers' four-game losing streak is over, and they have their defense to thank for busting the streak.

Behind a physical and active defense, the Blazers beat Oklahoma City 114-95 at the Moda Center, keeping star Russell Westbrook in check while holding the Thunder to their second lowest field goal percentage of the season.

Mason Plumlee had 18 points and seven rebounds and Damian Lillard had 17 points and nine assists, but it was the Blazers' defense that was the star of the game as Portland held its ground inside and had active hands that frustrated the division-leading Thunder. Oklahoma City (15-10) shot 37.9 percent from the field, only the second time this season they were held below 40 percent. It was the fifth time this season Portland has held an opponent under 40 percent shooting. The Blazers are 5-0 in those games. 

Westbrook, the Thunder star who entered with averages of 31.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 11.0 assists, went 7-for-19 from the field and finished with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists. 

The Blazers led 68-52 at halftime -- the eighth consecutive game Portland has held a halftime lead -- in large part because of an interior defense that repeatedly repelled Oklahoma City's drives and held its ground against Oklahoma City big men Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. The Thunder, which entered the game ranked 23rd out of 30 NBA teams with 15.8 turnvoers a game, committed 20 on Tuesday.

The win ended a season-long four-game losing streak for the Blazers, a streak in which the Blazers (13-14) felt they could have won each game, but instead had to swallow a last-second loss in Memphi, a blown 20-point lead in Indiana and some controversial calls in a one-point loss at the Clippers. 

The Thunder led by nine early on at 20-11, but Ed Davis came in and changed the tenor of the game with stellar interior defense. He was credited with a block, but he altered several other shots and had his hands in the middle of a six minute spurt when the Blazers outscored Oklahoma City by 10.

Al-Farouq Aminu missed the game because of a back injury, one game after he returned and started. Noah Vonleh took his place in the starting lineup and recorded five points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. Vonleh left briefly after absorbing a big fall in the third quarter that was similar to the fall that Aminu took in Memphis which injured his back.

Notes: Oklahoma City played without starting guard Victor Oladipo, who has a wrist injury. Jerami Grant started in his place and finished with 11 points ... Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis, the son of former Blazers star Arvydas Sabonis, started and had five points and four rebounds ... Former Yankees star Derek Jeter watched the game courtside with Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. 

Next up: Blazers at Denver, 6 p.m. Thursday (CSN)

I don't blame Durant for heading to the Golden State Warriors

I don't blame Durant for heading to the Golden State Warriors

Please, give me a break with all that talk about what Kevin Durant is doing to his legacy by leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Really, how can you blame him? He's a basketball player -- a free agent one at that -- free to do whatever he pleases. His legacy? Please -- that's sportswriter puffery, something active basketball players shouldn't worry about. Those same people chastising him now will pounce on him if his career ends without a championship. "No rings -- and he had a chance to leave OKC to join great teams," they would say.

I'm not even sure this is about "rings." Come on, I don't care what sort of job you have, wouldn't you rather be doing it in one of the greatest metropolitan areas in the world rather than in Oklahoma City? Of course, unless you're addicted to the aroma of crude oil in the morning.

Yeah, his OKC team came close to beating the Warriors. Again, so what? He can go anywhere he wants and I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area. And for a team that is near legendary, not only for its winning games, but for its style of play. Honestly, could there be a more fun team to play for than the Golden State Warriors?

He is going to have a blast playing in that system.

Wouldn't you do the same thing?

Thunder GM confident Kevin Durant will stay with team


Thunder GM confident Kevin Durant will stay with team

Thunder general manager Sam Presti sounds confident that Kevin Durant will remain with the team.

Durant, a four-time NBA scoring champion and the 2014 MVP, will become a free agent on July 1, and he has not made it clear whether he will stay. Presti said he’s looking forward to Durant’s decision.

“We have the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about what looks like an incredibly bright future together,” Presti said Monday. “I think you have to embrace that. You have to really lean into that in an excited way without knowing what the outcome might be. But I don’t see any reason to shy away from that.”

Players such as Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid have tweeted their desire for Durant to join them. Presti won’t be among those making a sales pitch – he figures all the necessary advertising on his end has occurred during Durant’s impressive run with the franchise. The team has reached the Western Conference finals four of the past six years, including this season, and reached the NBA Finals in 2012.

“When those conversations occur, it’s really just a continuation of a dialogue that’s been going on for eight or nine years,” Presti said. “It’s a chance to reflect and recognize that relationship and continue the conversations that we’ve had on going.”


Tough road through Oklahoma City to Finals has Golden State playing on higher level


Tough road through Oklahoma City to Finals has Golden State playing on higher level

There is no doubt Golden State is playing on a higher level than Cleveland through the first two games of the NBA Finals, having gone up 2-0 and winning by a combined 48 points.

There also is no doubt the Warriors faced a tougher path to the Finals — Oklahoma City challenged Golden State like no team had in two seasons. The Thunder led 3-1 in that series and pushed the Warriors to the brink, forcing Golden State to start executing at a much higher level just to have a chance. Cleveland rolled to a 12-2 record through a soft East, only dropping games when their focus went away for entire nights.

The Warriors are the sharper team because of it, and they are now carving up Cleveland.

“I think the Oklahoma City series definitely made us stronger,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, and we barely escaped. But I think we were able to sort of capitalize on the momentum that we built during that series, and by winning those three in a row, we’ve been able to carry it over to this series so far.”


Thunder assistant Monty Williams will not return to team


Thunder assistant Monty Williams will not return to team

Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams will not return to the team.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan made the announcement Wednesday morning.

Williams left the team after his wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash. On Feb. 9, an oncoming car crossed the center line and hit Ingrid Williams’ SUV near downtown Oklahoma City. She died the next day.