Tuesday’s game had something for everybody. Pro tankers got to celebrate a loss, meaning at least Portland didn’t improve their draft position. Those in favor of developing the Blazers’ new and young talent got to see 25 minutes from Jonny Flynn, almost 26 minutes from Nolan Smith, and 26:08 from J.J. Hickson. Fans that still tune in or show up to watch Portland compete and try to win games had the third quarter, 12 minutes in which the Blazers outscored the Thunder by nine, limited Kevin Durant’s scoring, and held OKC as a team to 44% shooting, their worst shooting quarter of the night. And anybody that wanted to see highlights got their fill thanks to a lot of turnovers by Portland guards that ended up in fast break dunks by the Thunder’s better than adequate dunkers.
Post game head coach Kaleb Canales talked about the importance he and his staff place on getting the job done first on defense. In fact, almost every question he fielded in his presser led back to a failure to execute defensively. It’s nice to see Canales take defense seriously, even if implying that a little extra effort on the defensive end by the Blazers would have tipped the game in Portland’s favor is just a bit optimistic.
The Blazers’ defensive problems came from all over the court, but to be fair a lot of them had more to do with the Thunder’s ability to make things happen on offense than anything Portland did. I will say, however, that one thing the Blazers struggled with was weak side coverage on offensive rebounds. As many as three times (I’m not sure how many times exactly, but it happened enough that it was pretty noticeable) OKC missed a shot, Portland’s bigs crashed, didn’t claim a rebound, and during the Thunder’s reset of possession they lost the weak side wing. Each time that happened the uncovered man streaked to the rim for an easy lay-up/dunk following a zipped entry pass.
The Blazers needed all the help they could get on both ends Tuesday, and by giving up easy buckets they didn’t do themselves any favors. A couple of lay-ups and dunks weren’t really the difference maker in this game (that award can probably be given to the overall disparity in shooting percentages with Portland shooting 43% for the game and OKC shooting 57%), but in the future, whatever that future holds, second-effort defense is going to have to be a point of emphasis.
It’s hard to come up with anything else to really say about this game. It played out much like the last time these two teams meet just a couple days ago. Oklahoma City is clearly the superior team. They can get easy buckets on offense, they can play defense, they can turn defense into offense, they’ve got guys that can score, and their role players know their roles and play them.
I asked around a little bit post game, a little straw poll of sorts with a pretty small test group, to see how respected Blazer and NBA experts felt about the Oklahoma City Thunder. The question was, is OKC the best team in the league? My two responses were a solid maybe. OKC is deep, they make things look easy, and they have Kevin Durant. However, the two person consensus was that come Playoff time all bets are off. Russell Westbrook might still be a liability. LeBron James will probably take beating KD personally and make it his mission not to lose to him (although that would only happen should Oklahoma City reach the Finals).
I tend to agree with those opinions, and not just because they came from respected sources (here, and here in case you were wondering). Oklahoma City is good, very very good. Against Portland, they did what they needed to do in almost every situation. Yes they let the Blazers in a couple of times, especially in the aforementioned third quarter, a quarter that coach Canales said was as good as any quarter the team has played all season, but each time Portland built a run, Oklahoma City responded.
Portland’s runs made the game exciting in portions. I would love to say those runs also made the Thunder work. Unfortunately, they really didn’t. And that’s part of why I think Oklahoma City can be so dangerous. They have the ability to hit a second and even a third gear. The ability to access those higher gears at a moment’s notice when they need them in the post season will dictate whether or not they do better than the Conference Finals this season. I imagine they will.
The Blazers’ next game is another meeting with the Hornets at home after a day off. Thursday will be a real tank-test. Losing right now is like winning was back when Portland was among the top eight in the conference. You beat a team ahead of you in the standings it counts double. Now, if the Blazers lose to a team that trails them in the standings it counts double. Portland drops a notch in the win column as that opponent improves a notch.
My guess is the Blazers don’t start Haseem Thabeet, and therefore do not purposefully lose to NOLA. They may still lose, though. We’ll see how that feels if and when it happens. I’m guessing losing at home to the worst team in the conference will feel slightly worse than losing at home to the best team in the conference, regardless of what it means for next season.
One quick thing:
- A rebuild in the NBA takes varying amounts of time. OKC did there’s relatively quickly. Chicago’s took FOREVER (Jordan left for good in 1998 and Derrick Rose didn’t show up until draft day 10 years later. They did make the Playoffs in that decade between MVPs, but they also went through a couple major overhauls to get to where they are now). The Lakers basically rebuilt over the course of a couple seasons but were only out of the Playoffs for one of those seasons. Portland’s rebuild should be kind of like LA’s, not in the sense that they should expect to be able to make the jump from the bottom of the conference to the Finals in a season or two, but in the sense that they should expect to not be out of the Playoffs for long. They aren’t going to rebuild like OKC did, simply because they don’t need to draft a franchise player (they’ve got one his name is LaMarcus Aldridge) or a number two (his name is Nicolas Batum). If Portland’s rebuild ends up being like Chicago’s, well then expect it to get a lot worse before it starts to get any better. What’s the point of all of that rebuilding info? Basically it’s the long way of saying that there are some guys on this roster not named Batum or Aldridge (or Matthews) that have a chance to stay. Right now the best bet is J.J. Hickson. He had a nice line Tuesday (9-of-10 from the field for a team-high 21 points). Sure there is some questions about his consistency and his overall game, but he’s definitely got a shot here. The more guys Portland can carry over to next season who can actually help, the less likely this rebuild will be long and painful.
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