By DWIGHT JAYNES
There were no miracles this time.
The Portland Trail Blazers, mired in another one of those games where statistics seemed to say all night they couldn't win and trailing by 10 with three and a half minutes to go, very nearly pulled off another amazing comeback Sunday night in the Rose Garden before falling 87-83 to the Thunder. Portland was outscored in the paint 48-30 and outshot 45.1 percent to 36 percent. In the paint, the Blazers were just 15 for 36 -- failing to finish numerous opportunities at the basket.
Yet, there they were late in the game in position to steal a win in the same fashion they did against the Miami Heat last week.
Nic Batum hit a 25-foot jumper to bring Portland to within a point with 21.9 seconds to go in the game and then Damian Lillard poked the ball away from Russell Westbrook in the backcourt to set up Batum, who had the ball on the left wing, leading a two-on-one with Wesley Matthews against Kendrick Perkins. But Batum took off on the wrong foot and a little early, before badly missing a layup. Perkins rebounded, was fouled and managed to make one free throw to hike the OKC lead to two points.
Still, the Blazers had a chance. They opted to inbound to LaMarcus Aldridge, with the slow-footed Perkins on him, out near the three-point line. With plenty of time, Aldridge kept the ball and rather than drive to the basket, settled for a fallaway jumper from about 20 feet. Aldridge said later he was being overplayed to the right side and didn't feel comfortable driving to his left. Whatever -- the shot he attempted hit nothing but air.
This one wasn't in the cards for the Blazers. They defended the Thunder pretty well but could never solve the Oklahoma City defense. Even without two starters -- Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha -- the Thunder were too good for Portland. This is an outstanding team on a mission. It defends with purpose and clarity. And, oh yes, there's a guy there named Kevin Durant, who is pretty good, too.
The game provided an interesting matchup between Lillard and Westbrook that basically erased both players. Lillard had a poor shooting night, hitting just three of 14 shots en route to nine points to go with nine assists. But if Lillard had an off-night, Westbrook was horrendous by comparison. He hit just five of 21 and threw up some very ill-advised attempts.
And this was another game that highlighted the void on the Portland bench. Against the elite teams, it's very difficult most nights for the Blazers to play with one of their Big Four on the bench. If Matthews, Batum, Lillard or Aldridge goes to the sidelines, the Blazers begin to bleed immediately against the very best teams. Substitutions are a nightmare in these situations as Terry Stotts does his best to shuttle the right combinations on the floor to hold the fort while key guys are getting just a few minutes off.
That's a difficult way to win games and it's incredible how well the Trail Blazers have done under such circumstances as Stotts mixes, matches and tap-dances his way through ticklish situations. It will be interesting, too, to see how this loss affects Portland. Last season, in early February, Portland was four games above the .500 mark, just as it was Sunday night, and lost a hotly contested game against OKC after a lousy goaltending call. That defeat sent the Trall Blazers on a tailspin that lasted the rest of the season, actually.
I don't expect that to happen again, this team is too resilient for that. But it's something to keep in mind.