PORTLAND, Ore. -- It’s not that the Thunder should still be the SuperSonics, it’s that the Trail Blazers could be the Thunder.
It’s hard to forget the Thunder’s roots when they play a big Northwest Division game within driving distance of Seattle, just as with Kevin Durant in town, it’s hard not to imagine what the alternate course the Blazers could follow if they had picked him over Greg Oden with the first pick in the 2007 draft -- or if Oden and Brandon Roy could have functional knees to give Portland a duo to match Oklahoma City’s Durant and Russell Westbrook (with LaMarcus Aldridge in Rip City to boot).
In the alternate universe, the maturing Trail Blazers would be hitting their stride and possess the best record in the Western Conference, the way the Thunder (19-5) do now. Instead, the cold facts have the Blazers (14-11) in fourth place in what’s become the toughest division in the NBA, and one spot out of the playoffs after Monday's 111-107 overtime loss to Oklahoma City.
Even if Aldridge is fulfilling the best-case scenario projections for his talent, the Trail Blazers, as a team, aren’t maxing out. That’s because they aren’t taking care of the gritty parts of the NBA, such as winning on the road or, in this home game, boxing out on the defensive boards.
Fortune favors the most determined, and while the Blazers fans had every reason to be upset about a bad goaltending call on an apparent clean blocked shot by Aldridge on a Durant layup, they’d be remiss in ignoring what enabled the play to happen: a failure by the Blazers to grab the rebound on three consecutive missed shots by the Thunder.
That set up Durant’s drive to the hoop, and Aldridge’s block that quickly smacked off the backboard and back toward midcourt, only to be ruled a goaltend and tie the game at 103.
“I timed it,” Aldridge said. “I knew he was going to go to the basket, shoot with his right hand, so I timed it perfectly. I put it on the glass. It didn’t hit the glass first.”
The Blazers still had a last possession, still had enough time for Nicolas Batum to drive down a wide-open lane, only to veer away from the basket and have his layup swatted by Westbrook.
And let’s not forget the Blazers were at home for the overtime period, playing on a court where they’d lost only once in their first 12 home games. But the Thunder, cheered on by a small group of fans wearing old Sonics jerseys and calling them by their birth name, outscored the Blazers 8-4 in the extra period.
“Regardless of calls, we still had an opportunity to win that game if we do the things that are necessary: rebound the ball, offensively you execute, you attack, you put the ball in the basket,” Nate McMillan said. “Normally, the fourth quarter -- certainly in close games like that -- it’s going to come down to making plays. They made the plays.”
So now the Blazers are 14-11. Nine of their losses have come on the road, including in Detroit and Sacramento. If the Blazers are still struggling to grasp the basics of being a great NBA team (step one: win at least half of your road games), the Thunder are close to mastering it. They’re 10-4 on the road, and they just pulled out a victory in one of the league’s most challenging venues.
“We are not where we need to be,” Scott Brooks said. “And I think anytime you play i n a hostile crowd like Portland and play the game we played, it’s going to help. No matter how old or how young you are, you always need games like this.”
Truth is, the NBA needs more games like this -- at least the first 47 minutes, before the officiating came to the forefront, when it was just two young and fast teams going at it, producing 13 ties and 12 lead changes, plenty of full-court action, and the occasional back-and-forth between Aldridge (who finished with 39 points) and Durant (33). But Aldridge didn’t have a Westbrook riding shotgun, producing a stat line of 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Aldridge didn’t even have Ray Felton, who missed the game with a foot injury. (I know “foot injury” is a sensitive word combination in Portland.)
This would be a great playoff series if the Trail Blazers can grab the eighth seed. They’ll need a little more determination, some better late-game execution, a little more of the moxie displayed by the Seattle SuperSon—er, Oklahoma City Thunder.