Originally Published: February 11, 2014

1. Kevin Durant Gives Thunder Edge On Blazers

By Danny Nowell | TrueHoop Network

PORTLAND, Ore. -- At the end of three quarters, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder were tied on Tuesday night. At the end of four, the Thunder had survived a final minute full of lead changes and agonizing reviews to eke out a 98-95 road win. And at the end of four games between the two teams, they are tied once again -- not just 2-2 against one another, but tied at 401 points apiece in their four meetings.

Perhaps there are no real rivalries in today's NBA, but what's developing between Portland and Oklahoma City is starting to come close. The series has featured a game in which LaMarcus Aldridge outdueled Kevin Durant -- a close, team-oriented win for the Blazers -- and most recently, two narrow wins for Oklahoma City in which a visibly fired-up Kevin Durant has been the difference.

Kevin Durant
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant dropped in 36 points and a few choice words for Portland.

As was the case in the teams' last meeting, Durant spent much of Tuesday night's game playing with an edge, and the Blazers found themselves unable to dull it. Just as in the last meeting, Durant was issued a technical, his second against the Blazers compared to a total of nine all season. Unlike last time, when Durant slammed the door with consecutive long-distance daggers, Tuesday featured a sloppy, frenetic finish that seemed like a sustained scrum to decide the contest. At the end, the Thunder were better, and Durant -- averaging 38 points on 54 percent shooting against the Trail Blazers -- was once again the largest reason.

One new wrinkle introduced Tuesday was the major contributions from role players on each side. The Thunder have risen to the top of the NBA largely because of their improving young supporting cast, while the Blazers did more than perhaps any team to bolster their back half in free agency. For the Trail Blazers, rookie C.J. McCollum followed up a strong weekend performance to post 13 first-half points on five shots, but Oklahoma City's Jeremy Lamb topped that with a hyperefficient 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting.

And so this nascent rivalry has what any good series should: variety, a fleshed-out supporting cast and stars who can carry a drama over a long run. Most of all, though, it has the tension to keep viewers coming back. If his demeanor on-court didn't send a clear enough message, Durant was emphatic, and terse, postgame. Asked if the game felt like a postseason atmosphere, he simply said "Nah. Regular-season game."

Prompted to elaborate, considering how close the four contests have been, he offered: "We didn't have our point guard for three of them. We didn't have our whole team for three of them, and I think we held our own. We respect this team, they respect us, but we don't like them and they don't like us. That's point blank."

As is their way, the Blazers were a little more even-keeled. Damian Lillard attributed the intensity to the Blazers' respect for the Thunder's position: "They're at a level that we want to be at. When we see them, that's what we think about. They've been to the Finals, and they're always a top team in the West, and that's where we're trying to get to. When we see them, it's gonna be really competitive."

The reality is that, while both of these teams know they're in a playoff chase, the Thunder have the upper hand, even if by a narrow margin. Durant is correct to point out Russell Westbrook's absence, and the Blazers have fallen short of their torrid early-season pace as Oklahoma City seems to have found another gear amidst what might have been serious adversity. The teams have seen a subtle reversal in fortune since early season, with the Thunder now the team racking up more wins than even optimists might have guessed.

It's enough, clearly, to lend these games a little more weight, and fans can only hope this series gets a much-deserved postseason renewal. Catching himself somewhat after voicing his dislike for the Trail Blazers, Durant hedged, saying that "in all four games, both teams played extremely hard, and you gotta enjoy that kind of basketball." Though it seemed doubtful whether he did, the clear tension makes sure fans will.

Danny Nowell is part of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @DMNowell

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