There’s a moment in my time as a Blazer blogger that I sometimes revisit in my mind. That moment came during my first season writing the Rip City Project during 2010-11 preseason. For a few seasons, Portland would play one preseason game at the Memorial Coliseum adjacent to the Rose Garden. In the lead up to the 2010-11 season, the Blazers hosted the Utah Jazz at the MC, and lost. I don’t remember the score. Nobody remembers the score. Like all preseason games, that one was meaningless.
Following the final horn, I was one of the first media members into the Blazers’ locker room. I’ll spare you the details of why that locker room session was different than most (basically the MC doesn’t have working showers), but because it was an out of the ordinary night, none of the media was in the room to talk to Portland’s newest free agent signing, Wesley Matthews.
Wesley was sitting by himself, bags of ice on his knees, and he didn’t look happy at all. His team had lost, and he didn’t care that it was a game that didn’t count that was played in an cavernous old arena without a television audience. It wasn’t my first time talking to Wesley, but it was my first time seeing how serious he was about the game of basketball.
Sunday was another one of those days for Wesley. Most guys shower first, then address the media. Wesley addressed the media in his game jersey looking like the last thing he wanted to do was talk about home close the Blazers had come to beating the best team in the Western Conference, and one of the two best teams in the league.
Annie Peterson of the Associated Press summed it up nicely:
Wes Matthews sat forlorn in a subdued post-game locker room: “Every time you lose it’s frustrating, especially when you should have won.”
— Anne M. Peterson (@AnnieMPeterson) January 14, 2013
So, what can we take away from Sunday night? Well, here’s your first take away. Kevin Durant is amazing. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum shared the duty of stopping KD. Although both had their strong defensive moments, in the end Durant’s 33 points (on 12-of-21 from the field and 2-of-9 from three) proved that trying to keep KD from scoring is not a legitimate game plan.
And here’s your second take away, evidenced by Wesley Matthews’ behavior in the post game locker room, these Portland Trail Blazers not only think they can play with anybody in the NBA, they feel like they should be able to BEAT any team in the NBA.
What does this mean for the rest of the season? Well for starters it means that maybe expectations should be adjusted across the board. This team is playing for the Playoffs, they have a chance to get there too. Most fans should adjust their expectations upward (meaning we’ll probably see less in-game development from Will Barton or Meyers Leonard and more minutes for Sasha Pavlovic if head coach Terry Stotts thinks the match-ups favor a small lineup, as he thought Sunday).
And maybe the Blazers themselves should adjust their expectations down just a little bit. Portland ended this brutal three-game stretch with one win, which is one more than I thought they would get. Take the win against Miami, even if it means losses to Golden State and Oklahoma City. Sure Sunday’s was a tough loss, but there’s really no need to get bent out of shape over a tough loss to a hot team being carried by a super hot player.
Which leads very nicely to my third take away. If Wesley Matthews was the all id response to losing to Oklahoma City, Damian Lillard was the ego. Thursday and Friday were arguably the biggest nights of Lillard’s professional career. First on Thursday Damian helped his team beat the Miami Heat, and then on Friday he played his best game of the season in front of friends and family at Oakland’s Oracle Arena. Sunday might have been Dame’s weakest game of his rookie year. Lillard struggled offensively (shooting 3-of-14 from the field and 2-of-9 from three), and spent most of the night chasing around the physical and athletic Russell Westbrook. Even if Russ didn’t have the night of his life (shooting 5-of-21 from the field and 1-of-5 from three), defending him all night certainly wore Damian out. And still, after all of that, Lillard referred to Sunday’s game as just another game. The exact same way he referred to Thursday’s huge win and Friday’s disappointing loss.
Yes Dame missed two big three-point attempts late in the fourth quarter, either of which would have cut OKC’s lead to one, and he said he would have liked to get another chance at hitting a big three and didn’t, but nothing about Sunday changed his overall demeanor. It’s a good sign for Portland fans that their young star has the exact same reaction to big wins as he does to tough losses. Combine that with Wesley Matthews’ all or nothing attitude, and you’re looking at a pretty strong core.
So my ultimate take away is this: 2012-13 is a learning season. The Blazers can be successful while learning, but their road to the ultimate education will not be without bumps. Sunday was a bump in the road. It hurt Wesley Matthews, who excelled defensively but couldn’t come up with the big shots on Sunday that he found on Thursday, which is understandable because that’s how he responds to adversity. It didn’t shake Damian Lillard, because he’s basically unshakeable.
Beating Oklahoma City would have been nice for the Blazers, but at the end of the day, it’s still just one loss. There will be more losses this season, and there will be more wins. Portland has two more chances at OKC, and maybe they’ll get them once. To be the best you have to beat the best. The Blazers aren’t the best. So for my money if you’re not the best, playing well against the best (taking them down to the last few possessions) should be just as good.
But I’m not going to tell Wesley Matthews that.
The Blazers are back in action on Tuesday against the Nuggets in Denver.
Couple of quick things:
- LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant went back and forth all night. LA finished Sunday with 33 points (shooting 15-of-26 from the field) to go with 11 rebounds. KD matched LA’s scoring output on five fewer shots. LaMarcus had the ball to tie the game on Portland’s final meaningful possession (the Blazers got the ball down four with a few seconds left to play and the game decided and Damian Lillard missed a halfhearted three-point attempt), and took probably his worst shot of the night. In his post game remarks, Terry Stotts said his final play had three options, and the one they got, the LaMarus isolation drive against Kendrick Perkins was the last choice. I was OK with the ball going to LA on the game’s key possession. LA had a great night, and a high percentage shot to send the game to OT is never a bad look. I would have like Stotts to go for the win though, especially with the way Nicolas Batum has been shooting the three in the clutch. Batum finished with 21 points, shooting 6-of-17 from the field and 3-0f-8 from three.
- There are a lot of transplants in Portland, that’s why I think so many visiting fans show up in the Rose Garden when big teams (especially from the East Coast) are in town. Oklahoma City has always been a draw in the Rose Garden. The Thunder are a divisional rival. Kevin Durant could have been a Blazer (cries). But Sunday, there was more Thunder gear in the RG than I remember. Most likely, that’s the residual benefit of playing in the NBA Finals. Also, it should be noted that there were a lot of Sonics fans in the house Sunday. If/when Seattle gets an NBA team, it will be interesting to see who draws more, the new look Sonics, or the
- Standings Watch: Portland loses, Denver wins. The Blazers slip to eighth, the Nuggets jump both the Blazers and the Rockets. Portland stands in sole possession of eighth, half a game behind Houston, and a full game up on Utah. A development to watch here is which bottom Playoff team falls out of the race? The Blazers are on that list for sure, as is Houston. Some are reaching way up and saying Golden State falls all the way out. The other development to watch of course is which team in the West currently ranked 9 and under makes the leap up the ladder. Utah comes to mind. If Minnesota can stay around .500 without Kevin Love and if Kevin Love is in mid-season form when he comes back, don’t count them out. And of course, the Los Angeles Lakers are still a thing.