Well sir, I can honestly say that the warming glow of Nicolas Batum’s game-winning alley-oop is still burning brightly in my mind. Even after a rugged defeat in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Friday’s once-in-a-lifetime miracle comeback has yet to dim.
How long this can go on, I cannot say. Chances are the memory will occupy all prime Blazers-related real-estate until tip-off Monday against the very same Spurs, whose fumbling giveaway was epic in its own right. But before we look forward, allow me this:
The Thunder look good.
The addition of Kendrick Perkins has given Oklahoma City a downright fearful defensive presence. They are vicious, determined, long-armed intimidators—lock-down one-on-one defenders at every position.
On offense, Russell Westbrook has become every bit as deadly a closer as Kevin Durant. And Durant showed Sunday that he doesn’t have to score to win ball-games. When Gerald Wallace caught fire and put the Blazers on his back Durant switched to him an essentially ended the run.
But it was Perkins who made the defensive play of the game—a definitive, close-the-book block that resulted in a Westbrook fast-break layup. The plays opened a this-time-insurmountable six-point lead in the final minute.
Truly, the Thunder are now well-built for playoff basketball. When the tempo slows and physicality escalates, they’ll be right there in a team’s face. They’re hard-nosed defenders and, to use the parlance of coach Nate McMillan, they execute. The offense is efficient and team-first. Add to that not one but two get-a-basket-at-all-costs, good-offense-beats-good-defense, top-of-the-league playmakers down the stretch in Westbrook and Durant. Oh, and a home court that rivals the rare electric intensity of the Rose Garden.
Nothing the Thunder might accomplish in this year’s playoffs would surprise. They’re a young, hungry bunch that has the potential to upset any of the aging top three seeds.
Of those conference leaders, the Spurs are looking a bit shaky for the first time all season. Tim Duncan is out a number of games with a severe ankle sprain. Manu Ginobili suffered a quad contusion Sunday at Memphis. He returned to the game but didn’t finish it. The timing couldn’t be much worse for the Spurs, who lost Sunday in Memphis.
That said, San Antonio figure to be well fired up when the Trail Blazers come to visit, Monday. After the Spurs collapsed against the Blazers last Friday, Gregg Popovich was so mad in the post game press conference I wouldn’t have been surprised if a vein popped out of his beet red forehead. The turnovers were quite uncharacteristic of the otherwise hyper-disciplined Spurs.
I remember watching Ginobili Friday and being astounded by his savvy and dashing ability. Numerous times I blurted out fawning praise on press row. He was killing it.
Until that last minute.
Still, the Spurs were really the better team Friday. They got easier baskets, played at their own tempo, and forced the Blazers to take shots that they wanted them to. In particular, there were far too many Blazers threes.
That said, the Blazers are playing decent basketball. After falling behind by 15 to the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Blazers stuck together and rallied on the back of Gerald Wallace, who at times couldn’t miss. He finished with 40 points, two off his career high.
Indeed, as he continues to integrate with his new team, Wallace seems to get better each passing game. On both sides of the ball he’s quickly becoming one of Portland’s most dangerous weapons. It might be worth noting that Wallace has never played for a winning team. And after seven rueful years in Charlotte, the change can not be overlooked—it’s got to be invigorating.
Marcus Camby also played inspired basketball against the Thunder. Unlike in a lot of games since returning from injury and then being move from the starting lineup, Camby has, at times, faded into the background.
Sunday, however, the veteran center was in the thick of things. He finished with 13 rebounds in 31 minutes. The rebound total tied Camby’s most since sitting out over a month with the injury. His 31 minutes were the most in that same span.
On the heels of his first-ever career buzzer-beater, Nicolas Batum went cold. He scored just six points on one of four shooting and played just 21 relatively sour minutes. The six points ended Batum’s streak of three games scoring 20 or more, a career-best.
Batum suffered a quad contusion on the first play of the game. Perkins nailed him (another sign of Oklahoma City’s newfound defensive physicality). For the Blazers to pick things back up in the midst of this brutal stretch, Batum will have to get back towards that prior streak of offensive punch.
Brandon Roy was also hurt in Sunday’s game. He tweaked his back and did not play in the fourth quarter. It should also be mentioned that Roy’s looked to be having trouble with his knees in the last two games. Though it was lost in the shuffle after Batum’s game-winner, Roy was clutching at his right knee throughout Friday’s game. On numerous occasions his winced in obvious pain and moved with a visible limp.
And in this wicked run of six-games against Western playoff teams, what exactly must the Blazers accomplish to consider a positive run?
On paper, the Blazers are favored to lose more games than they’ll win. But personally, I never find a push to be anything more than it is—certainly splitting the six-game stretch is tolerable, but not exactly a momentum and confidence builder en route to the playoffs. Most times, “moral victories” are just another way of saying “lost.”
In the six-game gauntlet the Blazers are no 1-1. To go better than .500 they’re going to have to kick things into an extra gear. The competition is such that Portland can’t afford for anyone to disappear. To a man, they’re all going to be at their best.
VEGAS LINE: Portland +4.5