The Thunder succumbed to second-half-of-a-back-to-back cliché during Saturday’s 108-100 loss in Portland.
They didn’t make jumpers after slipping by in a close win at Phoenix the night before. And they fell off during the third and fourth quarters. Of course, that tends to happen when playing the third game of a three-game road trip which also happens to be on the second night of a back-to-back. It didn’t help that Carmelo Anthony missed the contest, as well.
“I think the effort was phenomenal and you’ve got to stick with it…We didn’t shoot the ball great tonight but we competed and worked though it,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
The Thunder sank 44 percent of their shots but finished the game just 6 of 27 from 3-point land and 14 of 21 from the free-throw line. It took Russell Westbrook 31 shots to reach 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Paul George went for 21 on 19 shots but clanked on all seven of his 3-point attempts.
It means George is now just 11 of 46 (24 percent) on 3s since the All-Star break.
"We got enough. We knew coming into this what we have to do," George said. "We were ready for the challenge. We just didn’t make shots. It’s all it came down to."
It’s led to a niche narrative: should the Thunder have rested Anthony on Friday against the lowly Suns instead of Saturday during what ended up being a close game against one of the Western Conference’s best? With the playoff standings so close, the Thunder would have jumped to third if they beaten the Trail Blazers. In actuality, they lost and dropped to seventh.
Oklahoma City wants to keep the Anthony fresh. And though the 33-year-old's minutes per game are at a career low, he’s played enough games this season that his total minutes are actually on pace to be right at his career average. Still, choosing the Portland game instead of the Phoenix one actually makes sense.
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back against the streaking Blazers was a likely loss, a "schedule loss" in NBA terms. And though the 19-45 Suns are tanking, the Thunder haven’t proven they can blow by losing teams. In fact, they nearly lost to Phoenix on Friday, when they came back from down double digits to win 124-116.
OKC stacking the best possible roster for the most winnable game is justifiable — especially when keeping Anthony fresh is the priority. And that doesn’t even get into whether or not the team's injury analytics could have suggested that sitting Saturday was the more prudent move.
Playing Anthony on Saturday could have helped the Thunder in Portland. It also could have made losing both games in the back-to-back more likely.
• The foul: The Thunder have had issues with physical Portland center Jusuf Nurkic before. They popped up again during the second quarter Saturday, when Nurkic sent Steven Adams tumbling to the floor on an off-ball foul in transition.
Officials reviewed the play before calling it a common foul instead of a flagrant. They called a technical foul on Russell Westbrook, as well, following Westbrook running to confront Nurkic after he’d pushed Adams.
“It was just a transition, illegal contact, nothing further,” crew chief Ron Garretson told a pool reporter after the game. “That’s why there was a personal foul on Nurkic.”
He explained why there was a technical on Westbrook, too.
“The technical on Westbrook was for illegal contact towards an opponent during a dead ball,” he said.
Adams didn’t make much of the interaction.
“I don’t know, mate. I don’t even know how they judge ‘excessive’ or not. But especially those refs, they’re good enough to tell if it’s not or it’s whatever,” Adams said. “The game still went on. That wasn’t the big turning point.”
Adams did, however, appreciate Westbrook coming to his defense.
“He was just sticking up for his teammates,” he said. “Which is really good from him.”
Westbrook, when asked about the explanation he received about his tech, responded "I don't know. Who knows?"
• Cold brew: Energetic wing Corey Brewer got his first minutes with the Thunder when Donovan used him as the first man off the bench Saturday.
He finished the game playing just shy of 12 minutes, committing four fouls and failing to score. In line with his reputation and history, he laid himself out on the floor as often as he was vertical, and even, in moments, showed off why he’s earned the nickname “The Drunken Dribbler” during his 11-year career.
“I think that’s just because I was happy to be out there,” Brewer said. “A little too aggressive.”
The Thunder signed Brewer on Saturday. He negotiated a buyout with the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this week.
Brewer went into the game having not gone through a practice with OKC. In fact, since the Thunder were on the second half of a back-to-back, he didn’t even have a shootaround to learn terminology, schemes, teammates or any other kind of strategizing.
Donovan, however, said he wanted to “get him acclimated.”
“I did the best I could with the calls,” he said. “I messed up a couple times defensively because it’s not the same calls I’ve been used to the last couple years, but give me a couple days, a couple practices and trust me, I’ll be better.”
The Thunder will not practice Sunday, protocol following a back-to-back. They play next when they welcome Houston, owners of the NBA’s best record and winners of 15 straight, to Chesapeake Energy Arena on Tuesday.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.