Welcome back to wonderland.
There are the great mysteries of the universe like how to artificially create an environment for nuclear fusion or how Taco Bell makes functional Doritos taco shells, and then there is this game. It was a bleak, miserable experience until it wasn’t. The finish was thrilling and magnificent in the way that’s almost getting redundant around these parts. I can remember a moment as late as the tail end of the third quarter when I looked at the score, saw the Blazers trailing by about 7 or 10, and genuinely wondered how they could possibly find a way to close it to a one possession game, let alone steal a win (and this game was a theft of the highest order). The way that Oklahoma City was playing and the way that Portland was playing, there simply did not appear to be any kind of avenue to victory. Then it happened and I still can’t really understand how. Sometime during the game, a tweet from Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey scrolled through my timeline in which Morey stated his New Year’s wish for people to finally understand that a possession in the first half is as valuable as a possession in the second half. Morey is basically an accepted genius at this point and the sentiment of his wish corroborates just fine with the general laws of mathematics. But I still think that he might be wrong. I don’t want to be the creationist arguing against evolution (#neverthat) but the Blazers played three shitty-to-kinda-shitty quarters and one outstanding quarter. Yet somehow they won.
Nicolas Batum lived the full range of the human experience in his 38 minutes of run at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. He spent much of the game chasing the echo of the ghost of the shadow of Kevin Durant, as Durant scored 36 points through the first three quarters. Durant is brilliant and could probably hang 36 on somebody while locked in a barrel hurtling over Niagara Falls, but Nico deepened his frustration with an outright horrible night shooting the ball, finishing a barren 1-7 from beyond the three-point line. Remember that “1” though, we’ll get back to it. Like the rest of his team, something happened to Batum in the fourth quarter and I cannot explain it. I’m neither a shaman nor an astrophysicist. He looked hungry and motivated and focused and all the other stuff that coaches in movies like to implore their fictional players to be. He harassed Durant with newfound energy, bothering him and putting his body and soul into conflict, and Durant could muster only one point in the entirety of the fourth quarter.
To pick out one defensive play as a turning point for the win might be reaching too far, but it did feel like a symbol, or at the very least it was so awesome and potentially overlooked that I just want to share it with you anyway. Midway through the fourth quarter, after the Blazers had cut the lead to just three, Batum found himself out on the perimeter against Durant, as he had for most of the game. Not wanting to concede an inch because against Durant, inches become feet become, “Here’s 40 points, fly home safe,” Batum pressured Durant and managed to poke the ball away. Unfortunately, as Nico burst out to gather a steal and start the break the other way, the ball fell right back in the hands of the Thunder, now with Batum way out of position trying to get back into the play. Responding to the urgency of the now-wide open Durant, the man guarding Serge Ibaka in the left corner sprinted out towards Durant at the top of the wing. Batum, sensing the pass before it was passed, ignored trying to recover onto Durant and instead sprinted all the way from his position out by midcourt, behind all of the action, to get to the corner as the ball arrived in the hands of Ibaka for a three-pointer that was all of a sudden not wide open anymore. Ibaka, sensing that Batum might have closed out too hard, tried to put the ball on the floor but again, Batum recovered with perfect balance to deter a drive and force Ibaka to launch an ill-fated fadeaway 18-footer, which of course Batum again contested perfectly. Then a few plays later, Nico drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to put the Blazers up by two with just 3:24 on the clock and let the fine people of Oklahoma know what Normandy is all about. Calvados and dagger jumpers. Come visit.
Of course, the Blazers couldn’t just wrangle a lead in the final minutes and see out a win. Portland led by four with 48 seconds left when the Thunder’s Reggie Jackson managed to draw a shooting foul on Wes Matthews. Curiously, Jackson appeared to wave off an open Kevin Durant who looked to be shouting for the ball and reading his resume while holding a poster of Thunderstruck, before Jackson opted instead to attack the Portland defense on his own. Jackson would make one of two, before the Blazers’ ensuing possession managed to include a missed three-pointer from Matthews followed by an enormous offensive rebound by Damian Lillard, followed by a more enormous and puzzling blind-side steal from Thabo Sefolosha, followed by Lillard getting called for a foul trying to reach back for the now-loose ball, followed by Thabo Sefolosha making two free throws. Once again, hearts were evacuating via throats as the Blazers lead had been trimmed to just one. The Thunder then fouled Mo Williams, a normally good free throw shooter, but in his ongoing campaign to hook the city of Portland on Schedule I drugs, missed both free throws. Somehow though, the Eega Beeva himself, Robin Lopez, found his way to the offensive rebound as he always seems to do and tipped it back to Aldridge, who passed it quickly to Wes Matthews. Matthews hit his two free throws, and after Durant split one of two, caught a miraculous offensive rebound that caromed right back to him, and equally miraculously missed the 8-footer to tie to the game, Damian Lillard corralled the ball and hit more free throws to put the Blazers up four and seal the most unlikeliest of wins.