PORTLAND — The Trail Blazers could not have asked for a better setup.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a battering ram, tied for the best record in the league. However, the Thunder — which has stayed intact with the same starting lineup since opening night — visited Portland on Sunday with a short deck as two starters were out of the lineup.
Additionally in their favor, the Blazers would have a chance within the final seconds to pull even and possibly pull out another big win over a marquee opponent.
Given the Blazers’ recent home winning streak, matching up against a short-handed Thunder team plus a real chance for the victory should have been enough for another boisterous party inside the Rose Garden.
But after the 87-83 loss, the mood matched the moment.
Typically during every post-game press conference — win or loss — coach Terry Stotts opens the session with his own remarks. On Sunday, he simply asked: “Questions?” and let the reporters have at it.
The locker room wasn’t much of a lively joint either. The two flat screens remained on mute. Silence filled the room, and Wesley Matthews brooded on the chair in front of his locker, still in his jersey long after the final horn for the supplementary dramatic touch to illustrate his disappointment.
Certainly, the Blazers (20-17) wanted this one but felt they let an opportunity pass by.
“We were supposed to win it,” Matthews said. “Didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”
LaMarcus Aldridge led the team with 33 points but missed badly over the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins in an attempt that would have tied the game with 1.7 seconds remaining. Russell Westbrook rebounded, and sank a pair of free throws to give Oklahoma City the four-point lead. Even as Westbrook struggled with his shot — finishing five of 21 — the Thunder still improved to 29-8 largely due to Kevin Durant’s dominance.
“KD, you can’t block his shot,” said Nicolas Batum, who had the assignment in defending Durant through most of the night. “You don’t know what he’s going to do. You know he’s going to shoot, but you don’t know how he’s going to shoot (or) which way he’s going to go.”
Durant finished with 33 points, carrying over his performance from Los Angeles. On Friday night, Durant dominated the Lakers for season-high 42 points and the new locale on Sunday didn’t cool off his shooting.
As the Thunder went without starters Serge Ibaka (chest contusion) and Thabo Sefolosha (neck strain), Durant carried the load and scored nine points through the first quarter. Durant made three of four shots but his touch wasn’t infectious — even thought the Blazers could’ve used a little bit of it to rub off on them. Point guard Damian Lillard dished out three assists but the Blazers missed 14 shots and trailed the Thunder, 22-19.
Portland remained in striking distance through much of the second quarter, but at the 4:39 mark Batum pulled the Blazers over the top for their first lead of the game with three free throws. On the next trip down, Westbrook missed a shot and aggressively chased for another attempt but Matthews pulled away with the loose ball — with Westbrook grabbing at his feet — dribbling down court and turning around to find Batum open behind the 3-point line.
Also, Batum, who scored eight straight, hit a high-arcing fall away shot over DeAndre Liggins and the Blazers had their largest lead of the half at 41-36.
However, the Thunder recaptured momentum within the opening 2½ minutes of the second half and went on to build an 11-point lead. In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City led by 10 until the Blazers flashed one of their never-say-die moments.
Matthews switched on Durant and stopped him three straight times, even stripping the ball loose sparking a fast break and Batum’s 3-pointer for the Blazers to pull within 84-83 with just 21.9 seconds remaining.
When the Thunder’s Perkins split his free throws, the Blazers regained possession, trailing by two with 8.5 seconds on the clock.
“There were three options,” Stotts said, describing the final play, “and they defended it well.”
One of the options called for Aldridge, who caught the inbounds pass, to hand the ball to Batum. And if there was no room to get it to Batum, Aldridge had the choice to drive against Perkins. Aldridge — not trusting his left hand — opted inside to take a dribble then fade away for the 19-foot jump shot.
“I thought it was good, and it was bad. Bad shot by me. I’ll have to do better, ” Aldridge said. “I was still out further than (where) I was supposed to — I just missed it. It felt good when it left my hands but it definitely wasn’t.”
The loss snaps the Blazers’ nine consecutive home winning streak.
“We’ve had some worse ones,” Aldridge said, “but this is definitely tough to take at home.”