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Teamwork rules supreme, as Thunder fend off Blazers 125-122

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers both entered Monday’s contest with multiple gashes to fill in the rotation. Thunder center Al Horford (away from team) and shooting-guard George (7-9) were able to fend off the Portland Trail Blazers (9-7) 125-122 on Monday night.

Oklahoma City had to make some tinkering amongst the starting lineup just hours before the games tip-off. Starting guard George Hill was ruled out on a game-time decision with a left thumb injury. This threw head coach Mark Daigneault into the limelight early, his replacement– rookie Theo Maledon. This small change in the lineup may have not seemed like a big deal before the game kicked off, but once it did, Oklahoma City reaped benefits instantaneously. The Thunder made a complete 180 from their previous games in the first, taking a commanding 17-point lead by the 3 minute mark. The Blazers capitalized off a quick 9-2 run to give OKC just a ten point lead by the end of one, but the damage had been dealt.

Oklahoma City shot a remarkable 6-12 (50%) from distance in the first quarter, a shot they simply could never find in their last two games, going a scoreless 0-21 from downtown. One Blazer’s defenders took the initiative to tighten up the three, the Thunder attacked the basket, shooting 7-11 (64%) on two in the period. The Trail Blazers never got in sync in the first, shooting a poor 9-24 (38%) in the quarter, on just 1-8 (13%) from three.

The second quarter was nothing short of a meticulous round of chess, as both sides were really feeling each other out. The Blazers cut the lead to just two points a minute into the quarter, after penetrating at will on OKC’s oversized bench unit (Diallo, Williams, Jackson, Pokusevski, Muscala.) But, the Thunder fired right back to hold the lead up to eight. This lead in the second never truly budged, as both sides shot above the 50 percent mark in the period. Carmelo Anthony looking like his prime self, dropping 13 points in the quarter on 6-7 shooting, but Mike Muscala put him in check. The 29-year-old big converted on 5-7 of his triples in the first half, giving him a game leading 16 points and causing for multitudes of options inside.

The third quarter looked to be the breaking point for the Thunder, allowing the game to be tied just three minutes into the quarter, but then the game plan shifted. Oklahoma City pulled the chair on their three point efforts, penetrating at will to collect foul calls and open shots under the rim. The group efforts by a flurry of Thunder jersey kept us up by the end of the third, but not by much. Backup point-guard Anfernee Simons blew a gasket, locking in for 11 points on 4-5 shooting in the third, leaving the Thunder up just three by the game’s final quarter.

The Blazers got their first taste of the lead since the start of the game when they ran out to a 4-0 run to open the fourth. The bench unit was deployed for duties once they caught wind of losing their advantage, and gritted an 20-8 run to take back the lead with five to go. Both sides kept the ball rolling on offense and had potential momentum-shifters late off controversial foul calls, though challenges were not used. Portland knocked the game down to six with 30 second to go when Damian Lillard shot a moving triple in the grill of Luguentz Dort– and got a foul call. Before Lillard could even get to the charity stripe, Mark Daigneault used his prized challenge on the play, they turned out to be successful.

This coaching challenge rerouted the overcome of this game completely, turning the game into a free-throw contest for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went 1 of 4 in his collection of attempts, setting Damian Lillard up for 5 late points to suffocate the lead to two with just 1.5 seconds. Off a risky inbound, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander received the pass for two more trips to the line. The 22-year-old buried his first attempt and intentionally shanked his second shot, giving no time for Portland to gather and dial up a prayer– Thunder win 125-122.

For Oklahoma City, their win came from a perfect storm of inside and outside play. The Thunder out-assisted the Blazers 25-17, causing for wide open shots all across floor. The team shot 48% (40 of 84) of their shots from three, hitting 18 of their tries. Mike Muscala ran the tables outside, shooting a career high 6-10 from three, accounting for 18 of his 23 points on the night. Right behind him on triples were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley who hit three a piece. SGA dropped 24 points (8-12 FG,) off of penetrations and perimeter shots alike, while also hunting down targets for shots, with 7 assists. Darius Bazley put his shooting slump aside and went straight to business, compiling 19 points on 6-11 shooting in his 29 minutes. Center Isaiah Roby and guard Hamidou Diallo scored in double-figures off of almost all inside shots, racking up 16 and 11 points respectively.

Portland divvied up their points in large portions, with four of their players dropping over 20 points. Damian Lillard tied the team in scoring with 26 points, but only went 8-22 on shooting, having to resort to the line for buckets. Anfernee Simons also put up 26 points on 10-17 shooting (6-10 3pt) despite coming off the bench, while Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. tacked on 22 points primarily in the mid-range. One of the Trail Blazers biggest performers didn’t even crack 15 points as Enes Kanter snagged 22 rebounds (7 offensive) in the game, to go with his 13 points. Kanter’s second chance opportunities put his team in the conversation the whole way, as he created havoc inside for OKC’s bigs.

Oklahoma City (7-9) will have a chance to improve their record to 8-9 when they face-off with some familiar faces in Abdel Nader and Chris Paul Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns (8-7.)

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