On Sunday night in the Blazers’ 108-105 win over the Thunder, every Portland starter who took a 3 made one. As a team, the Blazers shot less than 30 percent from 3, yet they still made more long-range shots (nine) than the Thunder (eight). Carmelo Anthony took five 3s and made none. Paul George took seven and made none. Zip. Zero. Nada.
OKC was down 18 at one point and still took this game to the wire. It was yet another testament to the team’s still-flammable, yet often disappointing, offense (see: the Toronto game). The Thunder’s ability to flip the switch is both a luxury and an indictment. But that the Blazers won on such a poor shooting night is yet another reason to believe in their strong backcourt—yes, Shabazz Napier included. And their inside-out game when Jusuf Nurkic plays up to tough competition is the type of complement that gives credence to their contender status.
OKC-Portland was a sizzling, energetic display that looked like it belonged in May and not March. Case in point:
Here are some lessons we learned from the electric 48 minutes:
Carmelo Anthony Is a Liability
It was fitting—perfect, really—that the first field goal the Thunder made on Sunday night came by way of an alley-oop from Russell Westbrook to Steven Adams and that the team’s last attempt was a missed 3-point shot by Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook and Adams’s teamwork was one of the chief reasons the Thunder were able to overcome an early 18-point deficit, while Anthony’s chucking was likely the reason the Thunder weren’t able to actually win a heavyweight bout between two of the West’s top four teams.
In the final five minutes of the game, Melo put on a bizarro clinic on how to make your team lose a close game. He missed four 3s, was torched on defense multiple times, threw a bad pass that resulted in a turnover, and was outworked to a rebound by Jusuf Nurkic. It was sad to watch. Look at this shot chart:
If Anthony is not providing offense while already being a detriment on defense, what is he good for? Is there a headbanded-players quota I’m not aware of?
As Sunday night’s game showed, playing Melo against springier teams that will allow him to shoot is not ideal. Plus, like the Blazers, they’ll just target him on the other end repeatedly. That doesn’t bode well for OKC’s playoff future. The longer, younger, and more athletic Jerami Grant is a far better defensive option than Melo (Grant was a plus-12 against the Blazers and added 17 points off the bench; Melo was a minus-15), but Melo is still logging more than 30 minutes per game and using 23 percent of OKC’s possessions. Billy Donovan can’t be blind to this fact, so even though Melo continues to get his time to the detriment of the Thunder, it’s fair to ask if that will hold come playoff time.
An Engaged Jusuf Nurkic Gives Portland a Stronger Edge
In a pregame interview on the Blazers broadcast, Nurkic was asked about his matchup with Steven Adams. Nurkic called him “the big guy” and said simply he was going to try to get “some boards” from him. That he did. Nurkic finished with two more rebounds than Adams, including four on the offensive end, and added 17 points.
This Lillard x Nurkic pick and roll duo is very underrated..— BIH SPORT LIVE (@BIHSPORTLIVE) March 26, 2018
Jusuf Nurkic with 17 points and 12 rebounds tonight vs. Thunder!
Only one of Nurkic’s shots came from outside the paint. Everything else was right at the rim. He was also a plus on defense, where he tallied two steals and two blocks; Portland finished with a 10-rebound edge and scored six more points in the paint than OKC. CJ McCollum poured in 34 points, and Damian Lillard had 24 points but didn’t have to “take over” the game like he typically does, in part because Nurkic stepped in and filled the spots that mattered down the stretch. The Blazers with a serviceable Nurkic are a team worth believing in. But with an engaged Nurkic, they’re a team worth fearing.
Paul George Has Regressed, Which Doesn’t Help Either
If this game was Melo’s washed case being played out over 48 minutes, then it was simultaneously a quizzical window into George’s value. He shot 0-for-7 from deep, barely mustered two assists and two rebounds, and got half of his 16 points from the free throw line. He was a minus-17. March has not been kind to George, who had his best two scoring months of the season in January and February. In the past 12 games, George has shot 37.9 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from 3. He’s taking fewer shots than he did in February (when he shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep), but about the same amount of shots he took in January (when he shot 48 and 40.6 percent).
Melo’s seeming steep decline is a problem, but combining that with a paltry game from George (the two have gone 0-for-22 from 3 in the past two games) exacerbates the team’s issues and allows it to devolve back into what it was last season: Russ against the world with Steven Adams as his sidekick (five of Adams’s field goals on Sunday came from Russ assists). And last year’s strategy was good for only 47 wins and a first-round exit, a result that would be a severe disappointment for this year’s team.
A Series Between the Two Teams Would Be Must-Watch TV
I realize that we’ve reached the portion of the season where every good game between two playoff teams elicits “Give me seven games of this!” reactions. So, now that I’ve pointed that out, let me just say: Can we please have a seven-game series between these two? Some work—or lack thereof—would have to be done for this to end up as the 4-5 matchup, but it could happen.
I began this season thinking that a Wolves-Thunder series would be a perfect first-round matchup, but now that the Blazers have more or less become what we thought the Wolves could be, I’m ready for Portland-OKC. Make it happen. We are all Zach Collins: