Oklahoma City and Portland found themselves in the same boat on Monday.
Both were coming off Sunday games. The Thunder lost in L.A. to the Clippers while Damian Lillard went off for 39 points to guide the Trail Blazers to victory over the New York Knicks.
Lillard wasn’t his best thanks to Lu Dort’s suffocating defense (26 points on 8-for-23 shooting), but he still hit a couple fadeaway shots late to a) pull Portland within two points and b) remind us all that he remains an assassin, even when he’s off the mark for three quarters.
Lillard would not be waving bye-bye to the Thunder this time. Oklahoma City emerged and held on to beat Portland 125-122 on Monday night.
First Takeaway: The Future Is Now
The Thunder was without starting point guard George Hill, who sat out Monday with a thumb sprain. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault inserted rookie Theo Maledon into the starting five.
The 19-year-old Maledon was joined in the lineup by 22-year-olds Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Isaiah Roby, 21-year-old Luguentz Dort and 20-year-old Darius Bazley.
This spurred all of us to scramble for the nearest NBA history book or online search engine to see how young OKC’s starting five was on an all-time level.
Daily Thunder writer Brandon Rahbar looks like he has done the homework.
Perhaps you thought the youth of the Thunder’s starting five and the presence of Carmelo Anthony starting alongside Damian Lillard would spell trouble for OKC.
You thought wrong.
Maledon and SGA together on the floor enhanced Oklahoma City’s passing attack to the tune of 10 assists to just two turnovers in the opening quarter. The Thunder also made six 3-pointers and even opened up a 17-point lead in the period.
It appears Oklahoma City’s first quarter struggles were a thing of the past. For one night, at least.
All it took was a starting lineup old enough to contend for an NCAA basketball championship.
Second Takeaway: Portland’s Poor Perimeter Play
Oklahoma City entered Monday’s game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the National Basketball Association at 32.3 percent.
(Sidebar: What’s even wilder is that the Dallas Mavericks, who are 29th in the NBA, are just a tad better than the Thunder from three – 33.1 percent – and they have Luka Doncic on their team.)
The Blazers are a middle of the pack team defending the three (15th in the NBA), but they didn’t look anything like that Monday night. The Thunder took full advantage of the Blazers' sleepy-eyed defense.
Oklahoma City made 45 percent on 3-pointers (18-for-40) Monday with many of them coming via the super-wide-open variety.
Mike Muscala nailed a career-high six threes off the bench. SGA and Darius Bazley canned three 3-pointers apiece. Even the rookies, Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski, each hit two from outside.
On the flip side, Oklahoma City’s 3-point team defense was stellar against Portland, who made just 14 of its 41 3-point attempts.
Third Takeaway: They’re Just Playing
Monday’s win was an incredible display of perseverance by Oklahoma City.
The Thunder went up 17 points in the first quarter before the Blazers battled back to cut its lead to two points with Lillard resting early in the second quarter.
Portland then charged out of the halftime locker room to tie the game at 72 and 77 separately, but the Thunder held firm and took a three-point lead heading to the fourth.
A Carmelo Anthony jumper put the Blazers ahead 95-94 in the final period, but the Thunder returned serve and built an 11-point lead halfway through the fourth.
When Lillard caught fire late in the game, Gilgeous-Alexander’s free throws with seconds on the clock were enough to seal the deal.
As often as things were starting to fall apart for OKC Monday, I couldn’t help but think having veterans on the floor like Al Horford and George Hill would have been great to calm the younger guys down.
But no. It was the young guys who kept it together late all on their own.
You know what that is? Growth.