NBA fans know the pre-game handshake ritual well, as do OKC backup point guard Eric Maynor and starting power forward Serge Ibaka.

Game 76 Recap: Blazers 98, Thunder 91

Wesley Matthews helped Portland overcome the Oklahoma City Thunder, and move one step closer to the post season. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian.

We’re coming down to the wire, here, and if you’re worried, or nervous, or feeling a little bit anxious Blazer fans, I don’t blame you. I’m right there with you. Friday night was yet another must win, against yet another Playoff team. To make matters worse, both the Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets won their respective contests, Friday, and so Blazer Nation had earned the right to feel a little uneasy when, down 12 in the first quarter to a red hot Oklahoma City team that couldn’t miss from the floor, it looked like Portland was headed for a loss, a three-way tie for sixth in the West, and one step closer to not being included in the Playoffs at all.

I’ll tell you who else was probably starting to feel the pressure: the Trail Blazers.  Down six at the break, after getting absolutely torched by a one-two jump shooting machine named Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Blazers came out and did the only thing they could do. They played defense. Portland struggled at times from the field, was horrible crashing the boards, and shot themselves in the foot too many times with poorly timed turnovers. The only reason the Blazers pulled out a big win Friday night, cutting that magic number from two to three with at least three games that are as close to automatic wins as a team gets this late in the season, was because they stepped up on the defensive end.

Oklahoma City, a team that was 3-0 against these same Blazers this season and quickly becoming the sleeper favorite of some reputable basketball minds to win it all, is still a very young team. Kevin Durant and his All-Star cohort Russell Westbrook are bona fide stars, on the short list of the who’s who of the NBA’s next generation, but they are still young players. Westbrook and Durant are both 22, and although they have turned OKC from a fun team on its way to a legit contender, they both can get rattled. Durant couldn’t miss early, and couldn’t hit anything late. Same with Westbrook, minus the hot start. Give the Blazers, especially the defensive juggernaut of Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace, a lot of credit for making him work, but some of Durant’s misses were open shots, that he should, and most often does, knock down.

KD is a shooter. He’s good at attacking, with great length and finishing ability, but he prefers the J, and it’s obvious why. With his height and his high and quick release he’s hard to defend. Throw in his soon to be illegal, or at least not called a foul, rip-move, and at times he can be down right un-guardable. One of the best defenses for Kevin Durant is to hope he has a bad shooting night, or he starts missing, and tries to shoot his way out of it. Friday was more the latter than the former. Durant was 5-of-7 in the opening period, and 9-of-24 for the game. KD had nine total points in the second half, and six of those came on three-pointers with under a minute to play on the night. Speaking of Durant and his deep ball; 3-of-13 for the game. He is one of the best scorers in the game, there’s no doubt about it, and when a team can limit him like that, especially following the way he came out, they give themselves a good chance to win.

Portland played in Friday’s game too, and for the most part played pretty well. The Blazers’ best stretch of the evening was between the second and third quarters, a span in which the Blazers outscored the Thunder 58-40, when the team showed the grit and fire that is going to be needed to close out this season and get to the Playoffs. Portland got a ton of energy from Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum. Nic was shuffled out of the starting lineup, Friday, with Marcus Camby back at center and Gerald Wallace at the small forward, but he took the change in stride, putting together a nice game on both ends of the floor. The move wasn’t so much of a relegation as it was an adjustment to the length of Oklahoma City; coming off the bench Nicolas still played 34 minutes, the third most on the team.

Along with the offensive and defensive energy of Batum and Fernandez off the bench, Portland’s starting five played pretty well too. Especially LaMarcus Aldridge. LA has faded some since his Player of the Month month, but Friday he looked steady underneath, and was spot on with his jumper. Post game I asked LaMarcus if its a conscious decision that he makes given match-ups if he is going to look for his jumper or look to get inside. Friday not only was the jumper bailing out the Blazers on offense, it helped to pull the Thunder bigs away from the rim, opening the lane at least some what. LA said he doesn’t really play it like that, but he does tend to go with what’s working. It’s good that he now has both of those weapons at his disposal, and when he goes for 32 it’s hard to find fault in his game. Having said that, when he gets to the point that he can go inside and outside, consistently, on a night-in night-out basis, he is going to be one of the best power forwards in the league.

If there’s one thing from Friday that should ease the tension a little bit for Portland fans, it has to be this: this game featured only four lead changes and only three ties, and three of those lead changes and two of those ties came in the first four minutes of the first quarter. That means that although the Blazers got down double digits early, they fought their way back, built a lead, and then didn’t give it up. The Blazers grabbed the lead with 5:25 to play in the third quarter, pushed it out to 12 early in the fourth, and in the last five minutes never led by less than five. In fact, from the 5:25 mark in the third, the score was never closer than plus-three for the Blazers, and that was on Portland’s possession immediately following the game’s final lead change. That’s the way to turn a game around.

Think back to that 5:25 mark of the third quarter, though. Something pretty big happened there. Nick Collison attempted to wrap up Wesley Matthews from behind, and ended up throwing him to the ground. The Rose Garden fans wanted a flagrant, or even a flagrant two and to have Collison shown the exit. The foul likely didn’t warrant either, and by choosing to call the clear path foul instead of either a flagrant one or two, the referees did the Blazers one better, awarding Portland two shots and possession. A four-point swing, flipping a one-point deficit into a three-point lead, and turning the game permanently in favor of the home team. Not Collison’s smartest move as an NBA player.

Portland’s home stand continues Sunday, but doesn’t get any easier, with the Dallas Mavericks coming to town once again.

Just a couple quick things:

  • It’s pretty clear that these Blazers are locked in to what’s going on around the league. In his post game statements to the press, LaMarcus Aldridge mentioned both the win by Memphis and the win by Houston. Those games were finished during the first half of Portland’s game. I expect he wasn’t scoreboard watching during the game, but I’m betting it was the first thing he did when he got off the court.
  • Speaking of the Rockets. Just a few weeks ago when I wrote about the team’s chasing the Blazers and that they were chasing for the bottom half of the Western Conference Playoffs, I decided to include the Suns and not the Rockets because at the time Phoenix was in the ninth spot, and Houston was tenth. As of right now, those positions are switched, and they will be for the rest of the way. So because of that, here’s an addendum of sorts to that post, and a quick look at what the Houston Rockets have left. Houston has six games remaining. Of those games, three are against Playoff teams. One of those games is at home facing the hot and cold Atlanta Hawks, one is on the road against the New Orleans Hornets, and one is in Dallas against the Mavericks. If Houston loses two of those three games, regardless of what happens with Portland, it’s over for them. This team also has games against basement teams the Sacramento Kings, the LA Clippers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. If they run the table, which is totally possible, Portland has to win two of their final six games. That is also totally possible, considering that Portland plays Golden State twice and Utah once. The best bet, of course is for Portland to keep winning. If they take care of the home court the rest of the way their in. They could also hope for a little help from some of those young sub-.500 teams. Those guys may get an early summer vacation, but playing spoiler can sometimes be pretty sweet.

Box Score

Standings

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

Tags: Blazers Kevin Durant LaMarcus Aldridge Rockets Thunder

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