PORTLAND — It seemed like it was only a matter of time, with the Trail Blazers facing the short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder.
But the Blazers’ 106-89 win in Wednesday’s opener looked poised for a drama-filled finish.
The Thunder didn’t have 2014 MVP Kevin Durant as well as last season’s third-leading scorer Reggie Jackson.
So, as many predicted, point guard Russell Westbrook came out with guns a-blazing, but he did it with sterling efficiency. He scored 26 points and five assists and just one turnover.
And that was just the first half.
The Blazers were forced to put the bigger Wesley Matthews and Nicoals Batum on him from about midway through the second quarter. And that hardly slowed him or the Thunder, until the fourth quarter.
The Thunder took a 77-75 lead into the third quarter, but their bench unit that had managed to outplay Portland in the first half slowly showed their stripes.
“I thought it was good. Defensively, we couldn’t have been much better,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts on Portland’s fourth quarter performance when they held Oklahoma City to just 12 points.
What finally caught up with Westbrook and the Thunder was the time. With only nine healthy bodies, the Blazers eventually wore down the team that’s had a vice-grip on their division for the last four years.
Damian Lillard didn’t have quite as good of a start, and he said he tried not to think about how long he’d gone without scoring.
But Lillard wasn’t the only starter who avenged an disappointing first half.
Batum was almost non-existent in the first half, with no field goals, only four points and most concerning, no rebounds. Batum scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds in the third quarter.
Batum finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists and also asked Stotts for the assignment on Westbrook.
“He did a little bit of everything,” Stotts said. “It started with his defense, but he was aggressive on the pick and roll, making plays. We ran some plays with him as the facilitator.”
Then in the third quarter, Lillard made his first 3-pointer in the third quarter before eventually having to sit the much of the period with his fourth foul. That allowed Batum and back-up point guard Steve Blake ran the show.
Then with 10:35 in the fourth quarter, Lillard swished again from deep to follow up a Matthews three that gave Portland a one-point lead a few possessions earlier.
LaMarcus Aldridge was his dominant self for much of the game, scoring 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
With 5:17 left, the star of the second half and the star of the whole game connected for the play of the night when Batum hit Aldridge in transition for a thunderous alley-oop over Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka.
“I saw he was going to steal it and I thought he was going out of bounds, so I ran so he would have someone to throw it to,” Aldridge said. “Then I saw he stayed in-bounds and I was like ‘oh, God, he’s going to throw this up.”
He added: “I haven’t caught a lob in I don’t know how long. I just tried to get my steps right. He threw it perfect. I felt like I was 18 again. Just felt young.”
Off the bench, free agent acquisition Chris Kaman scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds and had a block and two assists.