If Oklahoma City were the Los Angeles Lakers,the actual team to beat in the Western Conference for most of the first decade of the current century and not the popular choice of best team in the conference based on potential; and Kevin Durant were Kobe Bryant, the best player in this incarnation the NBA and not the heir apparent, tomorrow’s national news media would either fail to mention Tuesday’s game, or they’d have a ton of excuses as for why one of the top teams fell at home in a game in which their go-to guy failed to show up.
But Oklahoma City is Oklahoma City, and although Kevin Durant is at the top of the heap when it comes to up and comers, the Thunder still have a ways to go before they can be crowned the best in the west. So, because OKC isn’t the defending Conference Champions, what will Portland’s impressive 103-93 victory mean? Well hopefully it will mean that people will start to take notice of the Blazers. I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here, but this is a very good Portland team.
Beating Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City is no small feat–yes the Thunder played and lost in Dallas Monday night, but that’s no excuse. Every team has back-to-backs, the good teams are going to be the ones that win in those situations. But more than just getting the win, what was impressive Tuesday night was how they got that win. As a team.
The Blazers have a ton of guys that can get it done on offense, and they have just as many guys that want to make an impact on defense and on the glass. To get a win against a team as talented as Oklahoma City in their gym, both offense and defense have to click at the same time. And to do that you have to commit to the team game.
Tuesday LaMarcus Aldridge carried the offensive burden, recording a season-high 30 points; Gerald Wallace established Portland’s defensive strategy, holding Kevin Durant to 19 points on 8-of-26 from the field and 1-of-7 from deep; and Nicolas Batum added the glue; 12 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots, and only a single personal foul while spending part of the night guarding Durant and part of the night shadowing James Harden. But those three weren’t the only Blazers that brought their games to Oklahoma. Raymond Felton scored 12 points, dished seven assists, and turned the ball over only a single time. Wesley Matthews grabbed four steals, hit seven of his 12 field goal attempts, and gave OKC’s smaller guards a headache with his post-ups on the low block.
There’s more than that too; just take a look at the box score. Everybody that played for Portland played well, and contributed. Scott Leedy, one of Hardwood Paroxysm‘s resident Trail Blazer fans had a telling tweet following the game. He said what we are all feeling: We are at the point where we are trying to not get ahead of ourselves with this team. A few more wins like this one, and I think it’s safe to say that Portland has the tools to be at the very top of the Western Conference.
If you’re one of those people that wants to take this season one game at a time, and disparages those that decide to talk about the Playoffs five games in, here’s a stat you may want to ignore, seeing as it’s one more reason to expect big things from this group of Blazers. Tuesday Portland came in having turned the ball over 45 times in their last two games. Turnovers were an issue Sunday night in their first loss of the season. The running offense looked like it might be crashing and burning, seeing that the Blazer guards couldn’t keep possession of the rock. Tuesday night, Portland had their lowest turnover total of the season: nine.
Getting turnovers down to single digits was huge, equal in importance to limiting the Thunder to 21 free throw attempts, only four of those by Durant. But that turnover number is about more than just execution. It’s about getting better. To reach their potential, Portland has to be able to make adjustments. Splitting two games with 20 or more turnovers is both bad and good. Good, obviously because when you turn it over 20 times on the road to a running team like the Clippers you lose, and losing games highlights the need to make changes. Bad, because turning the ball over 25 times against a very good squad like Denver and winning might make a team think they can do that every night and get away with it. What Portland did Tuesday night was show that they are capable of tightening the screws, getting better execution, making better decisions, and still winning by playing their game.
There are still plenty of things Portland needs to work on. They went absolutely flat in the second quarter, and couldn’t figure out a way get scores without shooting jumpers. They still gave up too many run-outs. They struggled to limit offensive rebounds and second chance points. But, this team has proven they can address their issues, and work to get better. Improving from game to game will be a difference maker.
So Portland gets their first win on the road, and they do it in a statement fashion. Does this mean that tomorrow morning the Blazers will top ESPN’s Power Rankings? Probably not. But it does mean that this team means business. It does mean that Portland is going to be on everybody’s radar from now on. And that’s a good thing.
The Blazers are back in action Thursday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. This will be Portland’s first national TV game, and LA isn’t the team they were last year or the year before. The Blazers have a good chance to post another statement-type win, but they also have a chance to take another step back if they overlook Kobe Bryant and don’t build on the biggest win of the season so far.
Just a couple other things:
- James Harden was inserted into the starting lineup for Thabo Sefolosha, and played a hell of a game. In 40 minutes Harden scored 23 points, shooting 7-of-13 from the field, and knocking down three deep balls. Here’s the thing though, a big game from Harden doesn’t guarantee a win, the way a big game from Kevin Durant does.
- Marcus Camby had another big night that didn’t really show up in the final box score. Camby had five rebounds and seven points, but he also provided the Blazers with the kind of energy that allowed them to overcome a slow start and some flat shooting. Camby is essential to getting the crowd energized at home. He can’t do that on the road, but he can get his team fired up. That’s the type of veteran leadership Portland needs.
- Hopefully the Nicolas Batum drama is over (not that there was really any drama to begin with). His 24 minutes led all bench players, and they were extremely efficient and effective. One of the highlights of the game in my opinion came when Nic caught a pass on the wing with almost no time left on the shot clock and drilled a three-pointer without bringing the ball below his head. Nicolas needs to shoot when he’s on the court. Tuesday that’s what he did. End of discussion, please.
- Jamal Crawford never really got going Tuesday, although he did prove once again that one shot is all he needs to feel like he has the hot hand. With the depth of offensive weapons Portland has, there are going to be nights when one guy is held out because another guy is playing better. Tuesday if was Crawford; Thursday it probably won’t be. Having to score to stay on the floor will drive competition among the active roster, meaning every guy is going to have the drive to play effective offense. Hopefully the desire to play good offense won’t get in the way of winning. I sincerely doubt that it will.
- Here’s my minutes watch (and this time it’s a positive one). 14:09 and 11:35 for Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith respectively. I’ve highlighted Kurt Thomas’s minutes before, and there’s a reason for that, playing KT–I’m not sure if anybody calls him that but I think I’m going to start–effective minutes every night will help LaMarcus stay effective deep into the season. Getting solid minutes from Craig Smith, and Rhino’s minutes were very good and will get better as he gets more of them, is an added bonus, giving Portland a front court depth they haven’t had in a long time. Playing Craig Smith means no minutes for Chris Johnson, which isn’t great because that guy can help too, but Smith is the better choice at this point. He can body people up and he can finish at the rim. If Craig Smith can give Portland 11 minutes the way he did Tuesday, this team is as deep, or deeper, at all five positions than the best teams in the league.
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