By Joe Freeman
OKLAHOMA CITY (TNS) — Ouch.
One day after suffering a demoralizing defeat in Dallas, the Portland Trail Blazers followed it up with an even more painful loss in Oklahoma City, falling 120-111 to the Thunder Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
As bad as Sunday’s loss was, Monday’s could prove more costly.
It not only dropped the Blazers (33-23) four games behind the Thunder (37-19) in the Western Conference standings, but also handed the Thunder a victory in the season series, which gives them a postseason tiebreaker. With 26 games left, the Thunder suddenly have a commanding edge over the Blazers in the chase for the third seed.
It’s only February. The All-Star break is still two days away. But considering how close the West has been this season, one can expect a frenzied finish where the difference between one or two playoff seeds — or even home court advantage — is razor thin.
“You want to split (a season series) — at least — with a division opponent,” Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said. “If it comes down to who gets the last home court (seed), you want to at least split. That was taken away from us today. So, for that reason, you put a little bit more on it. Tough loss.”
The Thunder handed the Blazers that tough loss in no-doubt-about-it fashion, as Paul George looked like an MVP, Russell Westbrook made NBA history, Raymond Felton stuck it to his former team and a player you might never have heard of had a breakout night.
George was electric from the opening tip to the final buzzer, putting on a show in front of a sellout crowd that routinely serenaded him with “M-V-P” chants. He entered the game averaging 38.2 points per game in February and somehow managed to one-up himself, bludgeoning the Blazers with 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
He was, at times, unstoppable, which has pretty much been the case against the Blazers all season. George is averaging 40.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.7 steals in three games against Portland, shooting a healthy 50 percent from the field, including 57 percent from three-point range, ravaging Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and anyone else the Blazers send his way.
As the Thunder have racked up those three victories against the Blazers, the man with two first names has been the catalyst.
“Paul George,” Lillard said, when asked the difference in the series. “I think everybody in the whole arena can see that.
“He’s on a different level. After watching him over the last 10 games or so — I catch a lot of their games — that dude, he’s MVP. If they keep this up, he’s MVP.”
It took George’s dominant performance to upstage history as he wasn’t the only player to record a triple-double against the Blazers.
Westbrook finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, recording his NBA-leading 23rd triple-double of the season and 10th in a row, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record for consecutive triple-doubles.
The Thunder’s bench also saw a surprising boost from Felton and Deonte Burton. Felton, the former Blazers point guard who still hears boos when he visits the Moda Center, scored 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting. And Burton — who had scored 49 points all season heading into Monday’s game — scored a career-high 18 points off the bench, making 7 of 9 shots, including 3 of 5 three-pointers.
Lillard recorded 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but battled through poor shooting all night — he made just 9 of 22 shots — and Jake Layman added 17 points off the bench for the Blazers, who dropped to 10-15 on the road this season.
THEY SAID IT
“It was unreal,” Blazers forward Evan Turner said of George’s performance. “Everybody is going crazy for Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and James (Harden). And no disrespect … they’re unbelievable. Paul is the best that we probably went up against all year. He’s at a completely different level. It’s hard to even explain.”
FIRST HALF TO FORGET
The Blazers sabotaged any chance of a victory with a first half to forget, adding an ugly layer to Sunday’s hideous fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks.
After scoring just nine points and shooting 19 percent during a late-game collapse in Dallas, the Blazers picked up right where they left off one night later. With Lillard and McCollum misfiring all over the court and the offense sputtering in their wake, the Blazers offense looked nothing like that the high-powered unit that had averaged 118.5 points over its previous 14 games.
The Blazers missed six of their first seven shots and never really found their groove. And, surprisingly, it was their prolific guards who struggled the most.
As the Thunder built a first-half lead as large as 20 points, Lillard and McCollum couldn’t buy a bucket. Lillard made just 1 of 10 first half shots, including 1 of 4 three-pointers, and McCollum made just 4 of 15 shots, missing all four of his three-point attempts. They combined to score 16 points. Without them — or perhaps because of them — the Blazers were helpless. By the end of the first half, Portland was shooting 33 percent from the field, 31 percent from three-point range and 68 percent from the free-throw line.
How bad were the first two quarter for the Blazers? Felton — yes, him — torched his former team for 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting in 13 minutes, nearly outscoring the Blazers’ backcourt by himself.
IT WAS OVER WHEN
As bad as the Blazers were in the first half, they managed to make things interesting heading into the final quarter, holding the Thunder to 22 percent shooting in the third to slice a 20-point deficit down to 87-82.
But it proved to be a short-lived rally.
The Thunder quickly pushed their lead back to double digits and held off the Blazers the rest of the way. When George swished a three-pointer with 3:52 left, the Thunder led 111-96 and cruised down to the stretch.
THIS AND THAT
McCollum made just 5 of 20 shots, including 1 of 7 three-pointers, and finished with 13 points. After making 30 of 60 three-pointers, he’s made just 1 of 12 over the last two games. … The Thunder have won 11 of their last 12 games. … In his third game with the Blazers, backup wing Rodney Hood finished with nine points in 17 minutes. He’s averaging 10.3 points and has made 13 of 19 shots, including 5 of 9 threes, with the Blazers.
Rockets rout Mavs
HOUSTON (TNS) — For one of the few times since his rookie season began four months ago, Luka Doncic looked tired Monday night — and sounded even more so.
One night after overcoming a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Portland at home, the Mavericks and Doncic sputtered for stretches during Monday night’s 120-104 loss to Houston at Toyota Center.
Of course, the opponent had a lot to do with that — the Rockets (33-23) and James Harden continuing his otherworldly season, though he needed a late spree to stretch his streak of 30-plus point games to 30.
Doncic didn’t come right out and hint that he’s nearing the NBA rookie wall, with just one game remaining until the All-Star break, but here’s how he responded to a question about whether the season is wearing on him:
“It’s a little bit,” he said. “It’s different from in Europe, a tough season. I had a long season last year, so it’s getting a little bit tougher.”
Keep up with the Mavericks in the easiest way possible.
Doncic, coming off a 28-point, 9-rebound, 6-assist performance against Portland, finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against the Rockets — but he scored only seven points in the second half and two in the fourth quarter.
The Rockets and particularly P.J. Tucker played more physically against Doncic as the game progressed, just the latest Dallas opponent to do so.
“They’ve done it before, so I’m cool with it,” Doncic said. “I knew it was going to happen.”
This was a matchup of the NBA’s King of the Stepback 3-pointer, Harden, and the precocious Prince of the Stepback, Doncic.
Except perhaps the Mavericks and Rockets have seen their stepback juggernauts take and make so many of them this season that they have learned a few things about how to defend those shots.
Harden only made 6 of his 17 3-point attempts Monday, while Doncic went 2 for 9.
As Carlisle said of Harden, “He’s playing a different game than the rest of us are playing. It’s really an amazing phenomenon to watch.”
Coming off an MVP season in which he averaged 30.4 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds, Harden somehow has taken his game to an even higher plateau.
His 36.6-point average is so far ahead of that of the NBA’s second-leading scorer, New Orleans center Anthony Davis (29.0), that he’s all but mathematically uncatchable.
Carlisle pointed out that entering Monday’s game, Harden was averaging 40 points in the Rockets’ last five victories; and 41 points in their most recent five defeats.
“The level of consistency is crazy,” Carlisle said.
Nuggets blast Heat
DENVER — This is why the ones that previously got away have the Miami Heat in a position where a season is slipping away.
Because competing almost to the finish against a playoff-desperate opponent like the Sacramento Kings isn’t enough.
Because putting a scare into the Golden State Warriors can sour with one referee whistle that does sound.
Because playing the Denver Nuggets nearly even for a half eventually leads to wilting at altitude.
So, with Monday night’s 103-87 loss to the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center, it is now 10 losses in the last 14 games … the type of skid more easily stomached if not for those hideous earlier losses to the likes of the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.
The Heat, it could be argued, have played some of their best sustained ball at times during the first four games of this five-game trip that has produced only a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Because when the competition is severe, as it was Monday night, with center Nikola Jokic pacing the Nuggets with 23 points and 12 rebounds, good isn’t good enough.
This time there was no heartbreak, as was the case with a dribbling violation went uncalled a night earlier against the Warriors Kevin Durant at the game’s most crucial stage.
Because this time, unlike when Josh Richardson scored a career-high 37 points against the Warriors, there was no one up to the heavy lifting for the Heat.
Instead, with scoring still a struggle, Justise Winslow led the Heat with 15 points.
Bucks bully Bulls
CHICAGO — Believe it or not, the Bulls lead the NBA in a positive statistic.
Granted, it’s only over a small sample size of five games. And granted, the Bulls only went 2-3 in that stretch thanks to porous defense.
And, yes, the good offensive vibes ended with the Bulls’ franchise-record 11th straight home loss, a 112-99 decision to the Bucks, which featured 38.5 percent shooting and a streak of 18 straight games scoring 100 or more points ending.
But the Bulls entered Monday’s matchup with the Bucks with a league-best offensive rating of 121 points per 100 possessions over their previous five games.
“We’ve simplified our offensive selections. We’ve played more out of flow. And we put in a multiple ballhandler system in the last 30 days where we designate that certain guys can handle the ball off the board and bring it. Other guys have to honor that by running, spacing, giving them a lane,” said coach Jim Boylen, who presented the statistic in his opening media remarks at the morning shootaround. “You’ve seen what (Lauri) Markkanen has done with the ball in his hands. It’s not only energized him to do that but to rebound, to get it and bring it. He has even said he has gotten a feel of the ball more, which is good. Zach (LaVine) can bring it. KD (Kris Dunn) can bring it. Obviously, RoLo (Robin Lopez) doesn’t bring it. So there’s some role definition which has happened in this process, which is healthy. Otto (Porter Jr.) is a guy who can bring it too. He has very good ballhandling skills and decision-making.”
The Bucks’ decision-making often ended in a good option — getting the ball to Giannis Antetokounmpo. He finished with 29 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists, often guarded by Markkanen in a fun matchup.
Markkanen shot just 6-for-21 in posting his fourth straight double-double for the first time in his career, finishing with 20 points and 17 rebounds.
“He’s a tough cover for sure,” Markkanen said. “He can do a little bit of everything. I take it personally, but of course it’s a team problem. I was trying to take his drive away. I know he prefers right. But he can go both ways so it’s difficult.”
The Bucks led 100-97 before scoring 12 straight points. Eric Bledsoe scored 12 of his 19 in the fourth.
The Bulls entered Monday with 18 straight games scoring over 100 points, the second-longest streak since the 1990-91 season. They had scored 120 or more points in three straight games, tying the second-longest streak in franchise history.
The offense that Boylen slowed to a crawl when he took over for Fred Hoiberg before letting it run is showing some signs of life. Now, the next step is having it translate to victories.
“The game is a lot more open,” LaVine said. “We got a lot of firepower. We’ve just had a lot of injuries so it’s about building that chemistry. But the way we played in Brooklyn is the way we can play every game.”
That night marked one of the Bulls’ best offensive performances of the season. Otto Porter Jr., acquired from the Wizards in last week’s trade for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, spaced the floor with shooting and also served as a willing passer.
Of course, the flip side to all this is the Bulls’ poor defense. In that same, five-game span in which the Bulls’ offense clicked, the defense ranked 25th by allowing 118.2 points per 100 possessions.
“I worked for Tom Izzo for a long time. He was 80-20 (percent) defense to offense until Christmas. Then he would flip it. You know the success he has had in the tournament and his late runs,” Boylen said of the Michigan State coach. “I think when I got the job, we were probably 80-20 defense, rebounding, transition. Since that point, we’re maybe 60-40 offense to try to get guys acclimated.”
The good teams are proficient at both ends, and the Bulls are far from that description. Porter’s arrival should at least help a starting unit that has lost defensive-minded players like Justin Holiday by trade and Chandler Hutchison and Wendell Carter Jr. by injury.
“I hope to bring my talent, my versatility, a little bit of a veteran knowledge and my attitude for winning to this team,” Porter said. “I definitely want to bring more than just 3-point shooting. I want to bring my overall game. Defensively, I pride myself on being able to guard multiple positions. Just bring that here.”
The Bulls’ marketing slogan is “Run With Us,” referencing the youth of the rebuild. Now, the trick is to keep the offense running while solidifying the defense.
Wolves stop Clippers
MINNEAPOLIS — Getting healthier at guard, but playing without a sick Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves hosted the Los Angeles Clippers in a game as close to must-win as one might imagine at this point in the season.
And so, with a tweaked starting lineup that included both Dario Saric and Luol Deng, the Wolves went out and did just enough in a 130-120 victory.
Using a monster 33-5 run that ran from late in the second quarter until midway through the second, the Wolves seemingly took control of the game, ultimately going up 23 points with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
The Clippers responded with a run that pulled them within 119-115 with 4 minutes left.
But, out of a timeout, the Wolves scored six straight to take control for good.
It was important because the Clippers are currently the eighth seed in the West, holding the conference’s last playoff spot. A loss would have put the Wolves six games back from the final playoff spot in the conference with 26 games to go. As it is, that gap is now four games.
This despite an amazing, off-the-bench, 45-point performance by the Clippers’ Lou Williams, who was trying to give the Clippers (21-27) their second comeback from 20 or more points down in their just-concluded five-game road trip.
Karl-Anthony Towns, again battling foul trouble again, scored 24 points with 10 rebounds. He scored on consecutive possessions out of that time out as the Wolves (26-30) regained control of the game, ending a three-game losing streak.
Jeff Teague scored 18 points with 10 assists. Dario Saric had 19 and Dieng, making just his second start in two seasons, scored 12 points with nine rebounds. Derrick Rose scored 22 off the bench.
The Wolves scored a season-high 33 points off the Clippers’ 21 turnovers.
Rose and Jerryd Bayless were both back from injury and Teague was in his second game back.
Coach Ryan Saunders went with a starting lineup of Teague, Towns, Josh Okogie with Saric and Deng. It was Saric’s second start of the season, Deng’s first.
At first, it didn’t go well, with the Clippers jumping to an 8-0 lead and Sarich picking up two quick fouls, sending him to the bench for Taj Gibson. Gibson proceeded to score 10 points over the next 10 minutes to lead the Wolves, who immediately went on a 19-5 run to take a 19-13 lead on Gibson’s basket with 4:20 left in the first quarter. The Wolves took a 29-25 lead into the second quarter.
The Clippers opened the second quarter on a 27-16 run to take a 52-45 lead on Gallinari’s free throw after Bayless was called for a technical.
But, over the final 3:54 of the quarter the Wolves went on an 18-3 run, one fueled by Clippers turnovers. Rose had six in that span, including a twisting layup at the end of the half. Deng had two steals and end-to-end drives and Towns had four points.
By the time the half ended the Wolves had scored 26 points off 14 Clippers turnovers. They had a 26-4 edge in that area and a 13-8 edge on the break.
That run continued into the third quarter. Starting with 3:54 left into the second, the Wolves out-scored the Clippers 33-5 over the next 6 minutes and 18 seconds, taking a 78-57 lead on Towns’ basket with 6:18 left in the third.
That lead grew to 23 — at 87-64 — before the Clippers clicked into gear, in a big way. With Williams scoring 12 points the Clippers ended the third quarter on a 27-12 run to pull within 99-91 entering the fourth.
LOS ANGELES — A year and a half ago, the idea that the Los Angeles Lakers defense was struggling because Lonzo Ball was out might have been a hard sell.
Ball came into the NBA with many doubts about his defense. But in his second season, Ball made his presence felt on the defensive end, and the Lakers have missed him dearly since he suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain last month.
They began the season with the goal of being a top-10 defensive team and made progress toward that goal. In November, their defensive rating was third best in the NBA, at 103.4. In December it was ninth best, at 106.7.
In the past nine games with Ball sidelined, their defensive rating has been 119.6, third worst in the NBA.
“He allows us to switch a lot,” coach Luke Walton said. “If they want to run any pick and roll minus the center, the 1-5 pick and roll, we can just switch it. And we feel confident Lonzo can guard most of the other players there. We have Lonzo picking up full-court the other team’s point guard. He’s great at instincts, getting deflections. A lot of the schemes don’t change, but our aggression and a few of the switching schemes change without him out there.”
Ball’s rehabilitation has been going well. He’s begun running on an underwater treadmill and is progressing toward running on an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill.
Ball initially thought he’d broken his ankle in the Lakers’ Jan. 19 game in Houston, but the X-ray revealed no fractures. He was on crutches for less than a week and was able to remove his walking boot shortly thereafter. An MRI the next day confirmed a ligament tear, which was expected to keep him out four to six weeks.
Ball hasn’t traveled with the team or been on the bench at home games, instead focusing on rehabbing. He’s been missed.
“Getting Zo back into the mix is going to be one thing,” Kyle Kuzma said after Sunday’s loss. “He’s had a hell of a season defensively and we kind of feed off of him. He’s picking up 94 feet, getting stops all over the floor, making great defensive instincts.”
HART SHUT DOWN
Josh Hart had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee Monday and will be sidelined until the Lakers re-evaluate his condition after the All-Star break this weekend.
The second-year guard has been dealing with tendinitis in his knee for weeks. It’s a condition that bothered him in college, too.
“I think it was just everything this summer,” Hart said two weeks ago. “Didn’t really take too much time off this summer — did summer league and I took like a week off and I was right back in the gym — so I didn’t really let my body rest too much during the summer when you’re supposed to let your body rest.”
Free-agent forward Markieff Morris has been cleared to play, according to his agent, Rich Paul.
Morris has been sidelined since Dec. 26 with a neck injury he sustained when the Washington Wizards played the Lakers.
The Lakers have interest in signing Morris, according to two people familiar with their plans. Morris, 29, has played 34 games this season and averaged 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 26 minutes.
Pistons win again
DETROIT — The Detroit Pistons game plan was apparent from the opening tip. And it worked.
The big man tandem of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond pounded the Washington Wizards inside the paint for a combined for 63 points and 26 rebounds in helping the Pistons to a 121-112 victory at Little Caesars Arena on Monday night.
The Pistons (26-29) won their fourth straight game and remained in possession of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
The team’s newest addition — shooting guard Wayne Ellington — struggled in his Pistons debut. He scored two points on 1-for-8 shooting in missing all seven 3-point attempts.
The Pistons still were 15-for-36 from 3-point range with Reggie Jackson (four 3s, 16 points) and Luke Kennard (four 3s, 15 points) leading the attack.
The Wizards (24-33) were without point guard John Wall, who is out for the season with a left Achilles tear.
The Wizards also lack size.
And Griffin took advantage.
He powered inside for 31 points and narrowly missed a triple-double in adding nine rebounds and nine assists.
Drummond continued his dominant play with 32 points, 17 rebounds and four steals.
Wizards guard Bradley Beal scored 32 points to go with 10 assists.
The Pistons have won six of their past nine games.
It was the Pistons’ second victory in three games against the Wizards this season, allowing them to take the season series and gain the playoff tiebreaker if the teams finish with identical records.
The game was sparsely attended, but one of the newest Pistons excited the crowd late in the first quarter.
Beal found big man Bobby Portis streaking to the rim with only Thon Maker in the way of a dunk.
Maker rose with his left hand and met Portis’ right-handed dunk attempt at the rim, drawing a loud cheer.
Jabari Parker grabbed the loose ball and hit a cutting Jordan McRae, but Drummond challenged the shot, forcing a tough layup attempt.
Ish Smith corralled the rebound and took off on a one-man fastbreak. He was fouled with 0.4 seconds left, and the cheers grew louder.
Smith made both free throws and the Pistons took a 36-27 lead after the first quarter.
Maker later took a shot to the mouth while setting a screen. He lost at least one tooth and his mouth was left bloody.
He had to leave the game, returning to the bench near the end of the first half. He received five stitches to his upper lip.
The Pistons acquired Maker before last week’s NBA trade deadline.
Cavs dump Knicks
CLEVELAND — After Larry Nance Jr. found Collin Sexton for a layup in the second quarter, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson got off the bench and raised both arms in the air.
Such are the little victories in a Cavaliers season that started to unravel with Love’s toe injury in the exhibition opener.
With the Cavs hosting the New York Knicks in the second installment of the Battle for Zion Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena, one had to stress the positives in Cleveland’s 107-104 triumph. The Knicks lost their 17th consecutive game, a franchise single-season record.
After Jordan Clarkson’s 3-pointer with 3:24 remaining put the Cavs up 105-98, the Cavs went over three minutes without a point and Luke Kornet hit back-to-back 3s for the Knicks. Sexton connected on two free throws with 17.4 seconds left for a 107-104 lead that proved to be the winning margin. New York’s John Jenkins missed and Dennis Smith Jr. rebounded, but missed a 3-pointer from the corner just before the buzzer sounded.
For the Cavs, the most encouraging sign was the performance of Love. Playing 16 minutes in his second game back from Nov. 2 surgery on his left foot, the five-time All-Star forward scored 14 points with nine rebounds and an assist.
Sexton led the Cavs with 20 points and three assists, and Nance scored 15 points with 16 rebounds and four assists, recording a double-double in his career-best sixth consecutive game, the high by a Cav this season. Clarkson contributed 15 points and six rebounds.
The sloppy game marked by airballs — the Cavs’ Marquese Chriss was generously given a goaltend call on one — featured two of the three worst teams in the league, with the Knicks 10-46, the Phoenix Suns 11-47 and the Cavs 12-45. The teams with the three worst records each have a 14 percent chance of securing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery and presumably select Duke freshman Zion Williamson, but the Chicago Bulls are also in contention.
Love’s progress could complicate matters.
Shooting 4-for-10 from the floor, 2-for-6 from long range and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, Love helped the Cavs open a 63-48 lead at halftime. The Cavs shot 13-for-20 in the second quarter, including 4-for-8 from 3-point range.
With Love getting in for just six minutes Friday at Washington, Cavs coach Larry Drew said Love would probably see two stints of action, but he got three.
Drew wasn’t sure if Love would play Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets, the Cavs’ last game before the All-Star break.
“We’re just going to kind of closely monitor him. We’re not going to be in any kind of a rush to get him out on the floor,” Drew said pregame. “The last thing we want at this particular point is any type of setback. Right now everything is moving in a positive direction. He’s feeling good as far as the foot is concerned. He’s not complaining about any type of soreness.”
The Cavs were without Cedi Osman (sprained right ankle) and centers Ante Zizic (lower back soreness) and Tristan Thompson (sore left foot). But some of the newcomers acquired at the trade deadline showed they might be able to help the Cavs’ win total — or thwart the tanking strategy.
Guard Brandon Knight and forward Chriss, picked up from the Houston Rockets in the Alec Burks’ deal, combined for 23 points. Chriss scored 14 points with seven rebounds, and Knight, who made 3-for-3 beyond the arc in his debut Saturday at Indiana, added nine points on 3-of-5 shooting. He’s now 6-for-7 on 3s for the Cavs.
The night was not as kind to guard Nik Stauskas, signed for the rest of the season on Monday after being traded three times and waived once in a six-day span. Stauskas missed his first four shots and went 1-for-9, including 1-for-7 from deep.