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Thunder lean on defense to top Blazers

Through two seasons in the NBA, DeAndre Liggins has been a player in waiting, summoned only off the bench, never to start.

But for the first time in his career, with the Oklahoma City Thunder missing two starters Sunday at the Rose Garden, the 24-year-old guard from Kentucky was finally one of the starting five.

Fighting through nerves, Liggins was perfect from 3-point range and finished with 11 points. But on a night when defense meant more than offense, Liggins was one of the key factors in a gritty 87-83 win over the Trail Blazers.

“This was my breakout performance, my first start as an NBA player,” Liggins said. “It's a blessing. I played well today, but my thing is to continue to get better every day and try to learn.”

With forward Serge Ibaka and guard Thabo Sefolosha injured, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks was forced to roll out a different starting lineup for the first time this season. So in came Nick Collison and Liggins.

Despite the alterations, the Thunder locked down on the defensive end as well as they have all season.

They held Portland to 36 percent from the field, 29 percent on 3-pointers and their second-lowest point total of the season.

“It was one of our best defensive games of the year,” Brooks said. “It's kind of surprising, because we did not have two of our best defensive players, but that's what teams do. Teams step up and figure out ways to win. Our guys came in off the bench and did a great job.”

Oklahoma City was forced to rely on defense.

After scoring 116 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, the Thunder, who rank first in the NBA in points per game (105.6), had their second-lowest scoring total of the season — they had 84 in their season opener against San Antonio on Nov. 1.

Even the Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook fought through a horrid shooting performance, scoring 18 points but going 5 of 21 from the field and 1 of 5 from 3-point range.

“You have nights like that,” Westbrook said. “You have 82 games. Sometimes you're going to make shots.”

“(Westbrook) didn't shoot the ball well, but he had nine assists,” Brooks said. And, "his defensive game was at a high level.”

Westbrook held Portland's two-time rookie of the month, Damian Lillard, to nine points on 3-for-14 shooting.

But Sunday was a united effort.

Liggins went 3 for 3 from beyond the arc and gobbled up nine rebounds in what he called his best game since being selected by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the 2011 NBA draft.

Before the game, Brooks pieced together his lineup and wasn't sure how he'd distribute minutes. Liggins tallied 39 minutes and 36 seconds of playing time, more than even Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who scored 33 points after posting a season-high 42 points Friday in Los Angeles.

Liggins was energized, and his coach sensed it.

“I knew that's what he brings to our team; that's how he made the team from training camp on,” Brooks said. “He gives us energy every practice. You're happy for him, because you want him to have some success because he works so hard. With our team, there are not a lot of minutes. But he has been playing the last three or four games and done well with them.

“He wasn't coming out. We needed his energy tonight. I'm sure that's one of his best games as an NBA player.”

The Thunder, who lead the league at 29-8, were able to fend off one of the NBA's hottest teams and snap Portland's nine-game home winning streak. Not even the Miami Heat were able to do that when they came to the Rose Garden last Thursday.

The Thunder are 2-0 on a three-game road trip, but they will play six more games on the road this month.

They don't know how long they'll be without Ibaka, who has been suffering from a bruised chest.

But after Sunday's performance, Brooks wasn't too concerned about the possibility of being without one of the league's best power forwards.

Oklahoma City scored 46 points in the paint, and the performance of the bench, along with Liggins, gave the coach flexibility and confidence in his roster.

“We always seem to have enough energy,” Brooks said. “And if we don't, then we manufacture with the guys off the bench. Very rarely do we have games where we're disappointed in our energy. And if it does happen, I take the blame for that, because we have a team full of guys who are ready to play and just have to figure it out.”

After the game, Liggins had every reason to walk around like the king of the locker room. But In a quiet corner of the dimly lit room, he remained true to form.

Softspoken and selfless, he said, "My job is to come in and play as hard as I can. I know my role.

“My job is make an impact on the defensive end. We have enough guys who score.”




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