I would really like to start this recap by saying that Sunday’s loss to the Thunder was closer than the score would indicate, but if I’m being honest with myself, I really can’t. Portland was close to Oklahoma City in the first half, leading at halftime even, but the second half of Sunday’s game showed one of the key differences between a 50-win team that has positioned themselves to think of anything less than the NBA Finals as a bust and the Blazers.
That key difference? A team like the Thunder has so many weapons that anything less than the absolute best from any team (the Blazers, the Heat, the Wizards anybody) is not enough.
And Sunday, the weapon that killed Portland was not Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook (OKC’s top scorers combined to score an efficient 45 points on 35 field goal attempts), it was Serge Ibaka. The Thunder’s starting power forward produced much of the offense for OKC in the second half, providing a couple of big jumpers that really stalled out the Blazers in the second half.
It wasn’t just Ibaka, though, who killed Portland. Nick Collison and Kevin Martin chipped in 10 and 11 points respectively. Reggie Jackson added six points and six assists and finished +12 just for good measure. How deep are the Thunder, how hard is it to stop this entire team all at the same time? OKC had nine guys who played 10 minutes or more (former Blazer tanking All-Star Hasheem Thabeet was the odd man out of the regular rotation guys playing 9:28). Derrick Fisher played 15 minutes, did nothing, and finished Sunday +8.
San Antonio might (might) finish with the best record in the West, but Oklahoma City is still the favorite to represent the conference in the Finals (whether or not they beat the Heat is up for lengthy and lively debate).
Portland has some good things going. Winning two games on this trip, beating two teams over .500 in the process, this late in a season that has already been better than expected is a huge boost going into the last month of 2012-13. That being said, it would have taken the very best effort from the Blazers combined with some disastrous failures on the part of the Thunder for Portland to beat Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City.
The Blazers played well for 24 minutes on Sunday, which isn’t nearly enough to beat the Thunder.
Good thing for Portland fans, we’re well practiced this season in managing expectations, and hopefully we’ve learned to neither over or under react to individual games as they come and go. The narrative after losing to the Thunder is that the Blazers lost ground in the playoff race. They did lose ground to Dallas, falling to one game behind the Mavericks for 10th in the West. However, since Dallas played Utah and Utah is the team ahead of Dallas and the other team Portland has to leap-frog to get to one spot behind the Lakers, the Blazers gained half a game on the Jazz Sunday night. So all was not lost.
The Blazers get Dallas at home the second week of April and a home-and-home with Utah to close out this month and start the next one. There’s still a chance, there’s always still a chance until there isn’t. Losing to the Thunder doesn’t really change that.
In fact, and this might be a bit of a reach here, it’s probably a little bit better for the fan base that Portland didn’t win on Sunday in Oklahoma City. It would have blown up the whole idea that we should be trying to manage or expectations for the stretch run here. Sure, the playoff push is on, but that doesn’t really mean anything beyond just Terry Stotts shortening his rotation. The Blazers probably won’t jump three places in the standings in 12 games, knowing that means when Portland is finally mathematically eliminated will limit the length of our collective post-season depression.
If the Blazers had won on Sunday, but then dropped games in their last month, maybe we would be talking about Portland’s epic collapse at the end of April when other teams are playing for a title, instead of looking forward to whoever Neil Olshey can add to the roster to make this team playoff ready in 2013-14.
It’s rationalization, of course, to say a loss is better than a win for the purpose of not having our expectations falsely inflated. But that’s where I am right now with these Blazers. They’ve figured out a way to compete, which is unexpected, and if everything goes well next season they’ll be much closer to the 40-win mark come March. We need to remember that as the season winds down.
This season hasn’t been about wins a losses, we’ve known that for 70 games. It would be a shame to forget that now, especially considering that Oklahoma City is such a good team and beating them would have been a minor miracle for the Blazers.
Portland is back at home to take on Gerald Wallace and the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.
One quick thing:
- My former Rip City Project colleague Sean Highkin announced today that he will be joining the team at USA Today Sports to blog about the NBA. Sean broke into the basket-blogging game with RCP back in the 10-11 season and has been featured all over the internet since then. His work has been a big part of Hardwood Paroxysm, Portland Roundball Society, and Magic Basketball at ESPN’s TrueHoop network, and he’s been featured on the Classical. Sean’s a great writer, which I’m sure you all know, and he’s a huge get for USA Today. There’s no doubt his blogging about the NBA as a whole well be top-notch. Make sure you wish Sean a big congratulations, he deserves it!