I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that it wasn’t the play of Russell Westbrook that gave Oklahoma City the advantage Sunday night, leading to the Thunder’s third straight win over the Blazers this season. Yes the former Bruin had the rare double dagger on two of OKC’s three final offensive possessions, but although Russ may have been the difference down the stretch, he wasn’t the overall difference maker.
I bet you’re thinking I’m going to say the play of Kevin Durant put Oklahoma City over the top. Not a chance. KD had a decent game, but was mostly shut down by Gerald Wallace for the second half Sunday night. In my opinion, the Thunder beat the Blazers because of their length inside. Neither Kendrick Perkins, nor an emergent Serge Ibaka were the difference on their own, but the combination of those two, along with the play of Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison was simply too much length for Portland to handle.
As of this point in the season, Portland basically has two big men, Marcus Camby, and LaMarcus Aldridge. A great front line, but a thin front line when you consider that neither has a back-up. Sunday night, Portland’s perimeter defense was strong enough to force Oklahoma City into contested jumpers on many occasions. OKC is a great jump shooting team, with guys like Westbrook, Durant, James Harden, Eric Maynor, and Daequan Cook having the green light whenever they are on the court, but even the best jump shooters miss sometimes. The Blazers gave up too many offensive rebounds, allowing for too many extended possessions. The best example of Portland failing to finish defensive possessions and derailing their strong and commendable comeback attempt came late in the fourth quarter. With a minute and 47 seconds remaining in the game, and the Thunder lead cut to two, Marcus Camby sent away a Russell Westbrook shot attempt at the rim, Kendrick Perkins grabbed the blocked shot, and converted it into a lay-up plus a foul. Perkins missed the free throw, but more importantly, the Blazers missed the chance to convert a stop and tie the game.
But it wasn’t only on the offensive glass that the length of the Thunder big men waylaid Portland’s efforts. Perkins, Ibaka, and company also spent most of the night crashing the defensive boards. Too many times, the Blazers were limited to one and done possessions. We all know that Portland needs to shoot a high percentage to win, and when they don’t, they need a little help through offensive rebounds. Sunday night, the Blazers struggled to get those extra possessions that they’ve thrived on, and that extend runs and finish comebacks.
Along with the length of Oklahoma City, Portland was unable to get some of their more important offensive pieces going. The heroes of Friday’s win, Andre Miller, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews, all struggled offensively. Matthews and Batum combined for only three made field goals. Andre Miller wasn’t much better, hitting only four of his 13 field goal attempts. Rudy Fernandez didn’t help much, missing his only two shot attempts, and Brandon Roy, though effective when in, left the game early with an injured back. Two Blazers did have fantastic offensive nights. Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge combined for 60 points, but two hot Blazers can’t make up for five cold shooters.
Speaking of Wallace, Sunday was his best game of his short time in a Blazer jersey, his best outing of the season, and very nearly a career night. Beyond all that, he showed just exactly what he can bring to this team, on both ends of the floor. Wallace is an excellent slasher, and though his shot isn’t textbook, he has the ability to get hot and knock down jumpers. More than that, he can take over a game with his offense and his defense at the same time. Portland has been without this kind of player for a long time. If Portland were to have won Sunday, the talk would undoubtedly have been about the advantages Portland will have in the Playoffs because of Crash. The Blazers didn’t win, but we should all still talk about it.
Sunday night I watched the ESPN broadcast, and I, along with a few vocal Twitterers, couldn’t help but notice the obvious Thunder bias of the national broadcast team of Jeff Van Gundy and Dan Shulman. I want to spend just a few moments looking at this very interesting phenomenon, and why it seems to get the goat of so many Blazer fans, me included. First of all, it’s impossible for most Portland fans to not hear pro-Durant talk as anti-Oden talk, and as a group, we’ve heard enough of that to last a lifetime. In that same line, one of the frustrations of Portland fans comes from the fact that two years ago the Blazers were receiving the same kind of hype that is currently surrounding OKC. Portland obviously has had problems that have kept them from reaching their potential, and Oklahoma City has supplanted the Blazers as the League’s young darlings. There’s certainly an element of bitterness that comes with that.
There’s more to this discussion, obviously, but much of it boils down to the need in the NBA for story lines, and season-long narratives. Portland, at this point, has a story line, just as every team in the NBA does. Unfortunately that story line has become that the Blazers are the team that gets injuries, and fights to overcome those injuries. Comparatively from the standpoint of the league and ESPN, the Thunder narrative of being the up-and-coming world beaters lead by The Next Big Thing 1 and 2 trumps the feel good story of a bunch of injured guys trying to stay healthy and scrape together wins. It’s not great for Blazer fans, but its the way it goes sometimes. What we can do, is hope that Portland keeps winning this season, takes a Playoff series, and shows that they have grown from the young team that could beat anybody led by two young talents on the rise, to a mature team, led by vets that can compete against the monsters in the West.
Portland should be able to overcome Sunday’s loss, knowing that they didn’t play their best, and were right there in the end. In order to keep the city of Portland from having collective heart failure, the Blazers need to get at least one win on this trip in order to get closer to clinching their third straight trip to the Post Season. Portland has their first shot at that win Monday night in San Antonio.
Just one quick thing:
- All four teams that are trailing the Blazers in the race for the Playoffs were in action Sunday night. As of this writing, New Orleans was trailing the Los Angeles Lakers in LA, the Memphis Grizzlies had beaten the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets had fallen to the Heat in Miami, and the Suns were leading the Dallas Mavericks. I’m not sure how that changes the standings in the West, but like I’ve said before, if you haven’t been watching the standings every day, now is the time to start.