With Damian Lillard resting and four starters, he gave the Portland Trail Blazers Oklahoma City Thunder Good shot in front of the Moda Center crowd tonight.
The starting lineup of Ryan Archdecono, Chidon Sharp, Matthys Thibul, Trendon Watford and Drew Ebanks catapulted to an early double-digit lead, before engaging the Thunder in a back-and-forth fight for 48 minutes. In the end, the effort came up short and Portland fell 118-112.
Sharpe looked amazing in a lead role, scoring 29 points. Nasser Little played every game great with 28 points. Shay Gilgos Alexander continued his killer run against the Blazers this season with 31 points and OKC completed a 4-0 sweep of the regular season.
In their second show together, the Portland Trail Blazers’ unconventional starting lineup (maybe called a tank squadron) got off to a solid start against the equally young Thunder.
After a pick-and-roll opening play by Ryan Arcadekono with Drew Eubanks resulted in a perimeter swing and Matthys Thibault missing 3, Portland focused on fielding its new key playmakers: Sharp, Trendon and Watford. On the Blazers’ next possession, Sharpe took a pass from the backcourt and dribbled down the left wing to dig a three-back. Confidence and the green light reminded viewers that it was the first choice to sign up for this unit. He then drove Watford into the bucket for two points before working up the high post on the next possession to hook with a right hand over a smaller defender.
A few possessions later, a Thunder spin in the fairway led to a breakaway dunk of Matisse Thybulle. Add a free throw and Portland jumped out for an early 10-3 lead.
The Thunder subtracted several 3s in the opening few minutes and only managed to hit one – a theme for most of the opening quarter. The Blazers, packed into area defense, were making a concerted effort to block the paint and force the Thunder to beat them from the bow. In the first quarter, OKC couldn’t do that.
Meanwhile, Portland’s replacement lineup is on fire from downtown. Watford, who were looking very strong at first with 6 points on 3-4 shooting, went into the locker room with an ankle limping around the 5-minute mark with the score 14-9 Blazers. His absence seemed worrisome, given Portland’s lack of playmakers. But the Blazers clawed their way to an even bigger lead. Thybulle and Kevin Knox II hit three consecutive home runs to extend the lead to 22-14. Later, Knox and Little’s three consecutive home runs in the final minute pushed the lead to 12. Knox hit three times off the bench in the opening period.
OKC has moved in and attacked the paint. Shay Gilgos-Alexander especially excelled in this category, but the Blazers did well not to let OKC go crazy. And at the end of the day, 3s beat 2s like rocks over scissors. Blazers led 37-25 after the first period.
The Blazers maintained their momentum in the second quarter with fewer results. They shared the ball well and attacked the offensive glass. Walker led a second chance charge while Little and Keon Johnson took over to aggressively attack the paint, resulting in false calls or dismissals for the open three (Johnson, who reached the edge and dropped about 3 seconds, played a solid game). This quarter, the Blazers didn’t achieve the open appearance at the same rate. Some unfortunate stumblers plagued the Blazers’ momentum, too. Walker’s third corner, potential and 1 from Johnson and an exploding layup from Knox all looked good before going out. This, along with more production from Thunder in transition – with the help of some Blazer transformations – tightened the game up again. Once the lid popped off the basket for OKC’s 3s, Control began shifting steadily into the Thunder. Isaiah Guo, who came alive with three seconds in the quarter (part of five triples in the half), downed two in a row to take the win 10-0 and build up a 55-49 lead.
Later on, a missed dunk by Eubanks resulted in a deep Pulling 3 out of Joe was nothing but net. The 5-point swing makes for a good quarter: good hustle and process led to good chances, but the Blazers couldn’t finish and OKC took advantage. But to the Blazers’ credit, it didn’t fold. They took an OKC punch in the first half, the deficit swelled to 8, and they stayed connected. A lot of that has to do with Sharpe.
The rookie led Portland with 16 first-half points with a perfect 4-4, 6-7 shot from the free throw line. It was a quiet, exemplary start, mainly because the 19-year-old was so patient, even in a leading role. He used fake pumps, a change of pace, and wicked euro steps to carve out space for the possessions of Solitude. His feathery touch was deadly inside and out. When Portland needed a bucket, as it did during OKC’s blowout in the second quarter, Sharpe nailed the team with an answer. He even took some free throws off excellent OKC fullback Luguentz Dort. The Blazers could have been in a better position had Sharpe been more aggressive in the opening two quarters.
It was a tale of two quarters in the first half, but Portland kept the connection after OKC’s big performance in the second quarter, heading into the break down 68-62.
Note: Although Watford got back into the game briefly in the second quarter, the team announced at half time that they would miss the game.
The Blazers looked a little flat coming off the middle after some empty possessions. One might wonder if lying down is coming. But a bucket from Sharpe, then a 3-pointer and 3-point play from Little, things calmed down and the energy was restored. Then, Sharpe scored a triple and the team got the lead and restored their swagger at 73-70. It was 11-0 all by Sharpe and Little. OKC timeout.
OKC’s Jedi settled out the time-out with a pontoon. The third battle followed. Little did much punching for Portland. He continued to attack the lane with physical power and remained confident in his shot, which led to success in both areas and a big quarter.
The most exciting sequence came in the middle of the quarter when Sharpe’s performance once again startled the crowd. First, Johnson and Jedi swapped three times. Then another slow move from Sharpe resulted in a one-legged banker as he faded away from defenders towards the left side. He vigorously followed this brilliant move. The next play, Sharpe broke and lost from OKC in transition and rose to the paint for a massive sledgehammer that got everyone up. Back on defense, Eubanks erased an OKC shot and found Little Sharpe back on the break for an alley ooop. Daring cool, the slam was removed from the plate after Little was called out for charging a lob. Regardless, the sequence was further evidence of Sharpe’s excellent performance and remarkable talent. The sequence also highlighted Eubanks’ great insider work throughout the game. That block was one of Banks’ six during the game, all of which are wildly varied.
The Thunder closed out the third with a shutout in the dying seconds to take a 96-94 lead going into the final frame.
The fourth quarter
Little continued his stellar game with a coast-to-coast run through traffic that looked like he rocketed early in the fourth. It gave Portland a 102-98 lead, but the Blazers offense stalled in the middle section of the quarter, with the Blazers all cold. Both offenses slowed and fell off tempo, with OKC doing a bit better. The stretch allowed the Thunder to go on a protracted 11-1 run to take control and lead 109-103 going into the final five minutes.
Portland’s struggling offense came back to life thanks to Sharpe’s mid-range jacket (the Aquarius gave him a new career high of 25 points) and Eubanks’ sixth block that led to Reddish breaking through. Cutting sequence leads OKC to 109-107.
With less than three minutes remaining, the Blazers made a concerted effort to get the ball into Sharpe’s hands and OKC made a concerted effort to stifle the rookie. it worked. The Thunder gave Sharpe the best player treatment, pressuring him with the ball beyond the three-point line and sending extra bodies his way when he attempted a drive. This pressure resulted in a foul at the top and two free throws by Sharpe, bringing the deficit to 111-109. After Jedi made a triple bag, pressing Sharpe on the next down caused him to spin a deflected pass. OKC pounced for an easy shot and led 116-109.
Thibul kept hope, pulling off a hat-trick of his own, but two missed Sharpe free throws with less than a minute left made the 116-112 deficit disastrous. Portland stalled and Sharpe pushed the pace with less than 20 seconds left, but he was stripped in the backcourt. Dort dunked the ball to make the final score 118-112. game over.
Sharpe fought admirably against OKC pressure, a terrific late-game test for the young rookie. His effort came up short – just like the young Blazers team tonight.
Look out for the analysis soon!
Blazers play a game New Orleans Pelicans Tomorrow night at home. Information submission is scheduled for 7:00 PM Pacific Time.
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