Pass-happy Blazers take on sharpshooting Thunder
A big part of the Portland Trail Blazers' recent success was encapsulated in a play midway through the third quarter of their 109-104 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday in Salt Lake City.
In the lane, Jusuf Nurkic stuck up both hands and knocked the ball away from Jazz center Rudy Gobert for a steal that was forced because Gobert couldn't find any room to shoot against Trail Blazers center.
Nurkic immediately raced up the court, where he took a feed from CJ McCollum and finished.
Nurkic's strong play lately and Portland's ball movement have been two big keys in the Blazers winning nine of their past 12 games entering a Tuesday night road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On Monday, Nurkic had 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six blocked shots. He had four blocks in what wound up being the decisive third quarter against the Jazz, including three in a 1:12 span just before the steal from Gobert.
"We know how hard it is going to be to win on the road in this conference," Nurkic said. "It's going to be tight."
The Blazers handed out 30 assists Monday, the second consecutive game they reached that figure, well above their season average of 22.5. They have recorded 25 or more assists in 10 of their past 12 games, and they are 14-3 this season when they have at least 25 assists.
A big part of Portland's recent success sharing the ball is point guard Damian Lillard. He is averaging 25 points and eight assists over the last two games.
The Blazers produced 30 assists to the Thunder's 18 in the teams' first meeting of the season, on Jan. 4 in Portland, but Oklahoma City emerged with a 111-109 victory. Paul George scored 37 points, and Russell Westbrook added 31 points.
For much of the season, the Thunder has struggled from behind the 3-point arc, including shooting just 32 percent (8 of 25) in the first meeting with Portland. Lately, though, Oklahoma City has shown signs of turning those struggles around.
Over the past six games, the Thunder are shooting 41.2 percent from behind the arc, averaging 14 makes per game. They sank 15 of 29 (51.7 percent) of their 3-point tries Monday in a 127-109 road win over the New York Knicks.
In the season's first 40 games, Oklahoma City was shooting 32.3 percent from behind the 3-point arc while averaging 9.7 treys per game.
Backup point guard Dennis Schroder has been a part of that improvement. On Monday at New York, Schroder was 4 of 7 from behind the arc.
"It's big time," Thunder guard Abdel Nader told The Oklahoman of Schroder's shooting. "It makes our offense run smoother. Guys have got to respect him more shooting. They can't go under on pick-and-rolls. The defense, our energy picks up. I don't care what anyone says, anytime you make some shots, your defense picks up a little bit, too."
The Tuesday game marks the start of a three-game homestand for Oklahoma City while the Blazers will be playing the middle contest of a three-game road trip.
The Thunder figure to be without guard Alex Abrines for the 15th consecutive game. Abrines has been out with first an illness and then for personal reasons. On Monday, he suited up and was on the bench for the first time since Dec. 23, though Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said he didn't expect to play Abrines at least until the Thursday game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
--Field Level Media
Updated January 22, 2019