By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City plays on most holidays. From Christmas to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Thunder usually find themselves with a seat at the table.
No holiday has been more favorable to the Thunder than New Year’s Eve. They have played on Dec. 31 every year since moving to Oklahoma City and took an unblemished 5-0 record into this season.
However, Portland didn’t care about any of that. Riding a two-game losing streak, all the Trail Blazers wanted was a win to close out 2013 and straighten themselves out. And that’s what they did as they knocked off the Thunder 98-94 Tuesday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“They made shots and they played defense,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “We had some tough breaks. We had some nice looks and didn’t make them. They beat us. We’re not going to make any excuses for it. Just have to get better from it.”
With 2:34 left in the game, Reggie Jackson hit one of two free throws to cut the Thunder’s deficit to 90-89. However, Portland’s Wesley Matthews answered with a tough layup over Serge Ibaka to push the lead back to three.
Ibaka subsequently was fouled and split a pair of free throws to cut the lead to two.
Center Robin Lopez put Portland up by four with 59 seconds left. Once again, Jackson went to the line and hit one of two, and the Blazers’ lead was down to three. Oklahoma City guard Thabo Sefolosha made two foul shots, pulling the Thunder within 94-93 with 23.6 to go.
Portland’s Mo Williams was fouled and missed both attempts, but Ibaka was unable to come up with the rebound and the Blazers gained control.
“I think that was a heck of a game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That was like playoff-intensity game in December.”
This time, Matthews went to the foul line and sank both attempts to give the Blazers a 96-93 advantage with 9.2 second left.
Durant was fouled before getting off a 3-pointer. He hit his first but missed the second free throw, got the rebound and had a chance to tie the game with a 10-foot jumper. It bounced off the front of the rim, and Portland grabbed the rebound to seal the game.
“My teammates told me if somebody had been contesting it, I would probably have hit that shot, “Durant said. “I wish I could replay that. I’m sure it’s going to replay back in my mind for the rest of the night. I wish I could have hit it for my team. We’d be in overtime right now.”
Durant led all scorers with 37 points on 12-of-26 shooting. However, he was held to one point in the fourth quarter. Much of the credit is due to forward Nicolas Batum, who shadowed the league’s leading scorer the entire night.
“I just tried to be more aggressive on him,” Batum said. “Tried to deny him to get the ball because he’s the best scorer in the league right now, for the last couple of years and the next couple of years.”
Durant also pulled down 14 rebounds. Ibaka added 17 points, while Jackson had 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Guard Damian Lillard scored 21 points and handed out 11 assists for the Blazers. Matthews added 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while Batum posted 15 points.
Despite the loss, Oklahoma City heads into the new year with the best record in the Western Conference and second best in the NBA at 25-6. Portland improved to 25-7 on the season.
“If we would have won this basketball game, we wouldn’t have been in here celebrating like we had won a championship,” Durant said. “And we’re not going to hang our heads because we lost.”
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