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Strong Bench Play Helps Thunder Squeak Past Blazers

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Sometimes you have to just take what's yours.

The Thunder did exactly that on Tuesday night, coming from behind to beat Portland 98-95 and increasing their Northwest Division lead to five games over the upstart Blazers.

Despite the happy ending, things got off to a slow start for Oklahoma City. The Blazers jumped out to a 16-6 lead, with Durant scoring all six Thunder points. Oklahoma City's first unit looked out-of-sorts, so it was up to the B-team to pick up the slack.

And that's exactly what they did.

With 2:56 to play in the first quarter and the Thunder down 20-8, Derek Fisher nailed a 3-ball to give his team some life. It was the Thunder's first field goal since the 8:11 mark of the quarter.

Durant then went back to work, scoring six straight points to bring OKC within five at 22-17. Then the rest of the second unit got going.

Jeremy Lamb finished the first half with 13 points while Nick Collison added nine as OKC began to put up a fight. Lamb's 3-ball with 5:00 left in the half gave the Thunder its first lead of the night at 41-39, but Portland stormed back at the end of the half.

The Blazers ended the half on a 14-2 run and took a 55-45 lead into the locker room.

The Thunder found a way to hang around despite a brutal half by its starting five. Durant was the only Thunder starter to hit a shot in the first half, while Thabo Sefolosha (two free throws) was the only other starter to even score.

In fact, Oklahoma City got 54 combined first-half minutes from Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams & Perry Jones –and zero total points.

But the starters got going in the third quarter, and the result was a positive one for the Thunder. OKC scored 35 points in the period and tied the game at 80-all heading to the fourth. After scoring none in the first half, Jackson erupted for 13 points in the third to give the Thunder the lift it needed.

"That was huge for us," Lamb said of Jackson's scoring explosion.  "He had a rough first half, but we told him 'keep playing aggressive,' so he was able to get to the rim, get some easy ones, and then he knocked down some big shots for us."

And after three quarters of the two teams exchanging runs, the fourth turned into what we've become accustomed to seeing from this matchup: a knock-down, drag-out nail-biter.

Due to time constraints, let's fast forward to the final three minutes.

With 2:10 remaining and the Thunder trailing 93-91, Jackson attacked and scored again, knotting the game at 93-all. Robin Lopez answered on the other end, putting Portland back up two, but Lamb had one more big shot left in him.

Jackson found Lamb in the corner and the second-year man from UConn buried a 3-ball with 1:38 to play to put OKC up 96-95.

After a couple of empty posessions, Portland had a chance to win it with just seconds remaining. They worked the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, who got himself a clean look via a nice pump fake, but his jumper didn't fall and the Thunder held on to win it.

"We fought hard. We're a resilient team," Durant said of the Thunder's gutsy performance.  "We keep our heads through adversity, through tough times, that's just how we are."

Durant finished with 36 points and 10 boards to lead the Thunder. Lamb added 19 off the bench while Jackson finished with 17, all coming in the second half.

The win improves the Thunder to a Western-Conference best 42-12 and four games ahead of the second-place Spurs. 

The loss marks the seventh in 12 games for Portland (36-16). The Blazers, once perched atop the Western Conference, now sit in third place, five games back of OKC and just one ahead of the Clippers and Rockets.

Before the former Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City, Seattle/Portland was one of the NBA's top rivalries. And it appears that with the Blazers' improvement, some of that fire has returned.  There were four technical fouls issued Tuesday, three to OKC and one to Portland coach Terry Stotts.  

"We respect this team and they respect us," Durant said afterward. "But we don't like them and they don't like us. That's point blank."

Aldridge, who shot just 5-22 from the floor, gave the Portland media a similar response.  

"We don't care to like them," Aldridge reportedly said.  "We're not trying to make friends out there, we want to win games." 

This was the final regular-season meeting between the two (split 2-2), so any further developments will have to come in the playoffs.

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