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'We just stayed the course': How the Thunder figured out how to win in Portland

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PORTLAND — Thunder center Mike Muscala’s 3-pointer in the final seconds of the game fell through the hoop to almost complete silence.

There were as many empty seats as people in the lower bowl of the Moda Center as the Thunder put the final touches on its 108-96 win over the Trail Blazers on Sunday. The victory came just a week and a half after OKC was blown out in the same building.

“I think it’s good for us to be able to compete the way we did,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

“Obviously, the last time we came in here we were really beat handily, really from start to finish. We did get it back to nine (points), but we never were really in control of the game. We were just constantly fighting an uphill battle, so it was good that we were able to come into a tough place and play and find a way to win the game.”

The last time the Thunder came to Portland, it lost 136-119.

The last time the Thunder came to Portland, the Trail Blazers made their first 12 shots.

Not this time. On Sunday, Hassan Whiteside made the Trail Blazers' first shot. Then Portland guard Damian Lillard missed a 3-pointer. Thunder guard Abdel Nader drove to the rim, drew a foul and tied up the game with free throws. Lillard turned the ball over.

“Man, we just stayed the course,” Thunder guard Chris Paul said of OKC’s defense. “It was team defense. Shout out to Lu Dort who came in and just played hard, used every last one of his six fouls.”

OKC allowed Lillard just eight points in the first half. Among those guarding the Blazers’ star point guard was Dort, a rookie making his second NBA appearance. He played 20 minutes off the bench, with the Thunder wing depth thinned by injuries. His time on the court was cut short when he fouled out in the final five minutes of the game.

While the Thunder guards took turns matching up on Lillard and sharp-shooter CJ McCollum in the first half, OKC’s own floor general, Chris Paul, worked his magic on mismatches.

In the span of less than a minute, Paul swished a 3-pointer over Skal Labissiere and took on Carmelo Anthony one-on-one. He crossed over Anthony and drained a contested midrange step-back to give the Thunder a 33-27 lead early in the second quarter.

Paul scored 16 points in the first half, double his first-half production a week and a half ago in Portland. OKC led by as many as 18 points before the intermission, rather than trailing the whole way.

If the second quarter belonged to Paul, the third belonged to Lillard. The Portland point guard scored 16 points in the third quarter alone. With 5:24 left in the period, Lillard drained three consecutive free throws to complete the comeback and give Portland a 66-65 lead.

But the Thunder, on a mission to right its past wrongs, tempered the Blazers momentum before the third quarter ended. Lillard’s production cooled to just two fourth-quarter points. He finished the night with 26 points on 24 shots.

“Just be a little bit higher on the screens when he was coming off,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said of the adjustment OKC made on Lillard. “And then we just threw different bodies at him to give him different looks, try to make him as uncomfortable as possible.”

By the time Gilgeous-Alexander headed to the free-throw line with 1:43 left in the game, Blazers fans were heading for the exits in droves. His two makes gave the Thunder a 13-point lead.

This wasn’t the game they had watched a week and a half ago.

Related Photos
<strong>Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during Sunday night's game in Portland. [AP Photo/Steve Dykes]</strong>

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during Sunday night's game in Portland. [AP Photo/Steve Dykes]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-8ebfc376a8eb78851a06715c381ccb10.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during Sunday night's game in Portland. [AP Photo/Steve Dykes] " title=" Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during Sunday night's game in Portland. [AP Photo/Steve Dykes] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony during Sunday night's game in Portland. [AP Photo/Steve Dykes] </figcaption></figure>
Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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