Do you know the scene at the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? The two title characters are riding along when Rosencrantz, here played by Gary Oldman, stops to pick up a coin. Flip after flip, thecoin turns up heads. As in, only heads. It can only go on so long before the two start to become a bit puzzled:
For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the quarter is a sign that reality has shifted off its kilter, and the normal rules no longer apply in the universe. With every passing Blazer game, I am beginning to feel a little bit more like Rosencrantz.
Last night, the Blazers trailed the Mavericks by 21 points in the third quarter. J.J. Hickson was on his way to a maddening 26 points and 15 rebounds, and LaMarcus Aldridge was rolling; otherwise, the Blazers couldn’t buy a bucket. When Terry Stotts shifted to a small lineup featuring Luke Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic, though, the Blazers cut the lead to six headed into the fourth, and regular observer had the same thought: “Again?”
For a couple games, I had a reasonable running tally of how the Blazers were doing in close games; they were, say, 10 and 1 in games decided by six points or fewer. Now, I have no idea. There have been too many for me to keep straight, and too many of them have been wins for me to make sense of it. Back to Rosencrantz.
Now, I know the Blazers’ games are not governed by the same probability of a coin toss, and in fact they lost a whole bunch of these close games in their six-game losing streak two weeks ago. But for the moment when Rosencrantz’s coin is in the air, we’re existentially in the same place. The Blazers can’t come back again. They can’t find a way to make another final minute insane. There are rules governing these sorts of things, aren’t there? But when the coin hits the palm, the rules seem invalidated again.
Last night, it took LaMarcus Aldridge’s first three of the season. It took five straight points from Sasha Pavlovic to piece together a comeback run. It took Ronnie Price drawing a charge on O.J. Mayo with four seconds left and what seemed like a wide open layup. Perhaps it’s best expressed this way: The Blazers seem to continually be in positions where every small, infinitely unlikely thing has to occur for them to even stay competitive. And it keeps happening.
After 76 straight heads, Guildenstern says to Rosencrantz: “Consider. One: Probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two: Probability is not operating as a factor. Three: We are now held within un-, sub-, or super-natural forces.” These are the sorts of conversations you have with yourself at 10:30 after the Blazers have made a fool of you again to sneak out a one-shot win. Un-, sub-, or supernatural forces. When they lose, it makes sense—this team is so thin and so jump-shot reliant that a host of rational culprits can be found after just about any loss. Hell, Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, and Nic Batum finished a combined 12 of 37 last night, so you wouldn’t have had to squint too much to make sense of this particular loss. But instead, they won, and I’m sitting here contemplating probabilities and my own susceptibility to the availability heuristic trying to piece together a sensible narrative to explain a 23-22 record, and another win over a team with playoff hopes.
In the Blazers’ case, it seems that even more than boring old probability is working against them. Every win seems to throw the franchise’s short-term goals into more confusion. Losing, we could understand. You might be losing because you’re playing younger players or have a new coach or are improving your draft stock. There are any number of good reasons for the Blazers to be losing, and a few benefits they might luck into by dropping the odd game here and there because of those reasons. But the way these wins keep piling up? These crazy-making, joyfully improbably wins? Like Guildenstern says: “A lesser man might begin to question his faith. At least in the law of probability.”