A month and half shy of the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers (39-26) found themselves playing high in the NBA atmosphere, in a game thick with implication. They could not overcome the Oklahoma City Thunder (40-25), losing in overtime, despite a herculean effort by Damian Lillard. With the defeat, the Blazers end the season series with the Thunder, swept like a kitchen floor. They currently sit in fifth place, just outside of home court advantage.
It was a heartbreaker to say the least. It cut’s deep. In a nationally televised game with 23 lead changes and 16 ties, the Thunder proved to be the better team, yet again. Lillard finished with a season high 51 points, to lead the Blazers. CJ McCollum contributed 25 himself, for a combined 76 points between Portland’s dynamic backcourt duo. Russell Westbrook and Paul George combined for 69. Jusuf Nurkic was ejected late in the fourth quarter, paving the way for the Thunder to abscond with the win.
After a two quarter dogfight, the Blazers went into the locker room at the break up by three points. During the TNT half time show Kenny Smith remarkably predicted that the Blazers would make the western conference finals against the Warriors. Charles Barkley upped the ante, asserting the Blazers would make the NBA finals, with Kenny whimsically agreeing. They went as far as to write it down on their predictions board with Charles noting his prediction about the Lakers not making the playoffs, as if to prove his point.
As the third quarter began, instead of calling the game, commentators Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan decided to argue the point, having a good laugh at the idea. Miller seemed to openly mock the Blazers while Harlan conceded the possibility, however modest it may be. It made for a rather strange spectacle, the young Trail Blazers fighting to be taken seriously, battling the Thunder on the court in a tightly contested game, ridiculed by a broadcasting crew on national television. It felt more at times, like a comedy central roast than an NBA game. I was waiting for Jeff Ross to show up and start telling $#@% jokes.
The second half like the first was back and forth until the end of the fourth when Jusuf Nurkic was elbowed in the face by Paul George in a no call, that ended in the Thunder taking the lead with thirteen seconds left. The Blazers argued about it with the refs to no avail. On the other end of the floor, Nurkic was fouled hard on a rebound by Paul George, who baited Nurkic with a bevy of words. The trap worked, with Nurkic getting in George’s face and placing his forehead against the Thunder stars. Reggie Miller groused about it being a headbutt, while the officials reviewed the play. Nurkic was gone, and with it the Blazers chances at winning. They managed to make it to overtime, after a strange ending to regulation, only to succumb to the Thunder in overtime.
The Blazers could have won this game. It is easy to place blame on the officials for their missed/strange calls, claim that Kenny and Charles jinxed them with their half time Nostradamus bit, or put it on fatigue from a two week, seven game road trip.But, in the end the fault lies with the Terry Stotts and his players. The Blazers didn’t make adjustments. They missed nine free throws. They turned the ball over 14 times. Outside of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, no one showed up. They took 41 threes, making only nine, and got destroyed in the paint 70-48. The Blazers got beat 28-16 in second chance points.
It was plain to see the the Blazers were not at their best, they made many costly mistakes. They allowed the Thunder to get in their heads. They allow themselves to become victims of circumstance. They have to be better than this, if there is any chance to advance pass the first round of the playoffs. They need to possess a winner’s mentality. They need to play smart, invest in the game, not in the officials or the opponent. This loss should remind them of the chip on their shoulder. I implore them to dust it off, shine that bad boy up, and get to digging deep.