PORTLAND, Ore. -- Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic could only watch the end of his team's 129-121 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night from the locker room, having been ejected late in regulation after a pair of skirmishes with opponents in an emotionally charged game between two division rivals battling for playoff position.
Nurkic and Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook tangled late in the second quarter. They came together under Oklahoma City's basket after a failed Westbrook foray into the paint, and Nurkic tripped Westbrook (not on purpose, he said) as they started to head the other direction. That led to Nurkic's first technical -- but only after Westbrook had retaliated by shoving Nurkic over around midcourt, which earned Westbrook a flagrant foul. It also led fans at the Moda Center to boo Westbrook throughout the rest of the game, which he didn't mind.
"It doesn't matter to me," Westbrook said. "It doesn't change anything. But I would boo me too, if I were the other team."
Tempers flared again in the final 30 seconds of regulation. With the score tied at 111, Paul George drove against Nurkic and elbowed the Portland center in the face as he went up to shoot. No foul was called, and Terrance Ferguson put back George's miss to give the Thunder a two-point lead.
After needing a pair of timeouts to collect himself, Nurkic was fouled in the battle to rebound a Damian Lillard miss. He thought George hit him again and confronted George forehead to forehead, and both players drew technicals -- Nurkic's second, ending his evening.
"It's my fault because I shouldn't have put myself in that position," Nurkic said. "Especially after the second hit from Paul George -- after the whistle, he hit me in the face and I should not have stepped back towards him. That cost us the game."
Nurkic's ejection didn't immediately cost the Blazers, though that took some good fortune. With Nurkic unavailable to shoot free throws, Thunder coach Billy Donovan had the option to choose any player on Portland's active roster to shoot instead. Donovan chose Skal Labissiere, who had yet to play in the game. Cold off the bench, Labissiere missed the first free throw.
With Portland down two and out of timeouts with just 4.4 seconds left, Labissiere was instructed to intentionally miss his second attempt. As the teams fought for the loose ball, Oklahoma City was called for yet another foul -- this one sending Al-Farouq Aminu to the free throw line, where he made both tries to tie the score. After a Westbrook turnover and a missed Lillard shot from beyond half court at the buzzer, the teams headed to overtime.
"I want to see those plays," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I'd be the first one to say I'm wrong, but it was clearly a goaltending [on Nurkic for grabbing the rim] before anything ever happened. Then they called the foul and they put Nurkic to the free throw line and then he was ejected because of the technical, and then Skal misses and they call another foul on us. It was just too much."
In the extra session, Nurkic's absence loomed large. The Thunder went repeatedly at Blazers backup Enes Kanter with pick-and-rolls, outscoring Portland 16-8 in overtime to win going away. Oklahoma City overcame Portland shooting a season-high 47 free throws, also the most by any Thunder opponent this season. Both Lillard and George shot 20 free throws, surpassing each of their career-high marks for attempts.
"It was kind of weird because I planned on losing my money until I saw I shot 20 free throws," George said. "I had a lot of words for the officiating tonight, but I guess I can't say much with 20 free throws."
Oklahoma City, which had lost five out of six games, moved one game ahead of the Blazers in the crowded Western Conference standings with the Houston Rockets sandwiched in between the two division rivals. The Thunder swept the season series 4-0, but Portland players still expressed hope afterward that the two teams might meet in the first round of the playoffs. If so, expect more flare-ups after the whistle.
"It's a division matchup," George said. "There's a little bit of bad blood between all these games. I'm new to this. This is my second year being involved with this [Northwest] divisional stuff, but you get that kind of play when you're playing divisional opponents -- especially how tight us, Houston and Portland, how tight this is going down. We want it. They want it. It's going to be emotional sometime."