Media Row Report: Blazers 77, Thunder 89

New starting lineup?  Same slow start.  The Portland Trail Blazers dug themselves a 15-2 first quarter deficit before dropping another home game, this time to the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder 89-77.

On paper, the Blazers' new starting lineup made for simpler match-ups with the Thunder's personnel.  In reality, there was no matching the energy and determination of this young, talented group, who carried themselves from start to finish like a team destined for the playoffs.  From focused warmups to the early double-digit lead to the intense defensive effort to their well-honed offensive gameplan, the Thunder made Scotty Brooks look like a Coach of the Year contender.  They also helped their best player, Kevin Durant, look like a future league MVP.  

Durant was the headliner as he usually is, tallying 33 points, 11 rebounds, an assist and 2 steals in just 34 minutes.  "Last year when I played against him, he didn't play like that," Nicolas Batum told me after the game. "He improved a lot. His handle, his shot, he's the best scorer in the league right now."  

Batum, who started for the first time this season, shared defensive responsibilities on Durant with Martell Webster.  While the pair did an adequate job encouraging Durant to settle for jumpshots, the first time All Star caught fire in the second half, going for 19 on an array of jumpers and dunks that draw audible "oohs" and "aahs" from the Rose Garden crowd.  It was the 25th consecutive game that Durant has scored more than 25 points.  

Batum's self-assessment of his defensive effort was pretty harsh.  "I didn't do my job on Durant. I just let him play. I didn't get physical enough on him. I just let him play. He got more than 30 points so I didn't do my job. I didn't body him, I gave him too much space."  After the game, Webster seemed to indicate the takeover performance had been essentially inevitable. "He's been on a tear. He's playing good. He's putting the ball in the hoop. That's his expertise," Webster told me. "You just have to hope to contain that guy.  You just have to have him take a jump shot that's contested and hope that he misses."  

Oklahoma City's commitment on the defensive end was as important as Durant's offense tonight.  The Thunder were content to allow the Blazers to bomb away from deep, where they struggled to a pitiful 3-20 (including 0-11 from the bench trio of Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless).  For a young defense, they were remarkably successful in clustering around and confusing LaMarcus Aldridge.  Aldridge was limited to 15 points on just 10 shots and he committed 4 turnovers.  Although they gave up a career-high 14 points to Dante Cunningham, the Thunder didn't allow a single second half point to Nicolas Batum, they held Martell Webster to just 3 points total and they did a solid job of not putting the Blazers on the free throw line (just 14 attempts for the game).  All in all, the Thunder held the Blazers to 77 points on 77 shots.  

It looked and felt like a playoff-quality defensive performance.  "When I played them last year, they were a different team," Batum told me. "They're a playoff team."  Webster didn't completely agree. "We let them look that way. Tip our hat, they played a great game but we made it a little easier for them."  So what was it about the Blazers attack that made the Thunder defense look so good?  Lack of ball movement?  Too much settling?  Too many turnovers? "Couldn't tell you. Can't tell you, man," Webster admitted to me while shaking his head. "We definitely couldn't get the ball to LaMarcus like we wanted to tonight. Not a lack of energy, not a lack of effort, it's just execution."

As for the starting lineup both Webster and Batum said they were comfortable in their new roles.  "It wasn't any different. The two and three are interchangeable, " Webster told me. "Whenever me and Nic got into any point where we had to switch, we would do that. It really didn't feel any different. I don't mind what the starting lineups are, I just go out there and play." 
 

Batum was actually replaced in the second half starting lineup by Steve Blake, despite scoring more than half of the Blazers' first quarter points. Nate McMillan chalked that decision up to the team's flat start. "We weren't getting scoring," McMillan told reporters. "They packed it in on LaMarcus with that group and basically I felt like [with] Blake being on the perimeter we could make passes, we could execute some offense and possibly spread the floor." On the night, Blake went 0-5 for 0 points and 3 assists in 23+ minutes.

What was McMillan's halftime message to Batum?  "Just to be ready to be back on the court,"  Batum told me.  Indeed, the Blazers as a group must get ready quickly to get back on the court as they face the Suns in Phoenix tomorrow night.  McMillan seemed more than a little bit concerned about whether his team would be able to pull itself together in time.  He tried not to elaborate.  "I don't want to go there," he said multiple times when questions were raised about the players' focus and attentiveness before this weekend's All Star break.  

Later, he went there anyway. "Tonight we embarrassed ourselves," he concluded, shortly before sighing loudly on his way out of his post-game press conference.

Random Game Notes

  • I can't ever remember an NBA head coach attributing a loss (in part) to his team's pre-game imbibing of energy drinks.  See Nate's anti-Red Bull comments below.
  • Five was the number of the night for Steve Blake.  He went 0 for 5 from the field and had 5 stitches on his chin after colliding with Russell Westbrook's elbow while defending a first quarter jumper.  His wife tweeted, "he's had 15 stitches in his lip, 10 in his head, 5 over his eyebrow, now 5 in his chin. He's pretty used to stitches in his head!"
  • Martell Webster took a vicious fall during the second half and landed hard directly on his back.  The team said officially he suffered a "back contusion." After the game Webster shrugged it off and is expected to be a go for tomorrow night in Phoenix.
  • KP2 made it down for the match-up between his former team and his adopted team.  Here are his five thoughts.
  • I had a brief but interesting chat before the game with Oklahoma City's Assistant Coach of Player Development Dwight Daub.  Daub oversees much of the Thunder's pre-game routine, including Kevin Durant's.  What caught my eye was this bungee cord contraption. Astute readers with incredible memories may recall this picture of the LA Lakers' Luke Walton using one to warm up last March.  The device is actually called a Core X System; here's the product's official website.  The product consists of four straps (one for each arm and leg) and stretch cords that provide some tension.  Players extend their arms while walking, dribbling a ball or catching a pass and the cords provide resistance.  Initially, given the placement of the leg wraps, I thought this device was used to stretch out ligaments or muscles around the knee area.  I was completely wrong.  Daub explained that the device is really about working out the abdominal muscles.  Each step or outward arm extension requires extra exertion from the athlete's core/abs.  NBA scouts often talk about core strength as being a major plus, especially for guys who are trying to swing positions or who absorb a lot of contact while driving to the hoop.  Daub says 8 Thunder players, including Durant, currently use the device on a regular basis. He said that he picked up the device on a tip from the Lakers coaching staff.  As a team, the Thunder go through about 30 of them a year. Players are encouraged to take them home for personal workouts and many use them year-round as part of their strength programs.
  • Kevin Durant's pre-game warmup routine had all of the best elements of LeBron James's without all of the worst elements.  Although he wasn't particularly hot while warming up, it was a pretty captivating performance.  His eyes were locked in and his manner was no-nonsense as he worked through standstill shots, game situation shots, and pull-ups off the dribble. He even practiced squatting into his sweep through move (a little trick that earned him 3 free throws during the game).  His focus was continuous and he would react with frustration just about any time he missed more than one shot in a row.  At one point, nearly two hours before the game, Durant punched a ball in disgust, sending it flying about 35 feet into the third row.   He was really, truly angry at himself for missing a meaningless warmup jumper.  After the ballboy retrieved it, Durant apologized for the inconvenience and admitted his frustration over missing the shot to the young teenager.  You can imagine the ballboy's reaction. Shock.  Watching that competitiveness and self-awareness side-by-side was pretty amazing.
  • Perhaps even more amazing was the briefest of exchanges as Durant brought his workout to a close.  As a general rule, visiting players and media typically rarely interact on the court prior to games.  If they do, it's the media who initiates the conversation and not the other way around. Generally speaking there's a glass wall between the two groups, at least until the players return to the locker room and are briefly available for questions. An important corollary to this protocol: the better a player, the more likely he is to keep to himself and the more likely the media is to respect his privacy during warm-ups. That's just how things are done.  So imagine my surprise when Durant saunters past Dwight Jaynes and me.  We are, as is custom, watching his team warm up intently but without intruding.  Out of the blue, Durant offers a "How y'all doin' tonight?" as polite and genuine as can be. It goes without saying that it takes a lot to impress Dwight , who has been to more than 1,000 NBA games in person.  I would venture to say that even Dwight was impressed by this unusual and unsolicited politeness from one of the league's best.  I certainly was. The determination, the personality, the likeability, the effortless scoring, the developing leadership. He is the real freaking deal.
  • The one knock?  Durant's Thunder have taken the mantle from the 2008-2009 LeBron James-led Cavaliers as the team with the most intricate and coordinated celebrations as they take the court.  Durant has high-fives for every single person on the bench (awesome), four different choreographed handshakes (pushing it) and a teammate dusting off his shoulders (that's where i draw the line.).   In his defense, they live in Oklahoma.  

Nate McMillan's Post Game Comments

Guys wearing down

You know, it's hard to say after this game tonight. We were just flat. We weren't sharp at all. Mentally it didn't seem like we were here. 24 turnovers. We couldn't feed the post. We couldn't do anything tonight. Offensively we had a number of guys who had open looks but couldn't make a shot. This just wasn't sharp at all.

Guys afraid to step up late in the game

You can't lose confidence. You've got to be aggressive. When you have your shot, you got to take the shot. Tonight they just packed it in on LaMarcus, fronted him and zoned him from behind. The more shots we missed, the tighter they got. Forced guys to make shots. When you turn the ball over like that, 24 turnovers for 30 points and you're not making shots, it's going to make for a long night. 

Kevin Durant

He played within the flow of the game, he didn't force anything and he had 33 points. I thought the plan was to deny him as much as possible. He made plays. They forced some switches a couple of times and shot over the defense. He was good.

Checking out before the break?

That's hard to say. 24 turnovers, your mind is not here. It wasn't one guy. We really could not feed the post tonight. We fumbled the ball. We had some open looks that we normally knock down shots. I don't want to go there with the team. But it was bad. It was bad effort for the team.

Concerned that it will continue

Well, I hope not. The thing was tonight, let's get out of here. We have another game, we need to get better. Before the game we kind of looked like we were flat. I saw a lot of cans of Red Bull up to guys mouths. That stuff looked like we crashed tonight. I mean seriously. We were flat from the start. I was hoping that that unit I put out there would give us some spark. We got off to a slow start. We weren't sharp at all.

Do these guys still believe?

I don't want to go there. Every night for us it's getting this team ready. Getting them to believe that they can. I thought tonight Oklahoma City certainly played like they knew they were in front of us and they wanted to stay in front of us. For us we've got to stay hungry. We're going to need everybody to be sharp. Tonight we didn't get that. When that happens it's going to be tough for us to win a ballgame. 

Nic has had big first halfs, faded in the second half?

Normally he's playing off of LaMarcus or he's getting some easy baskets. He kind of plays in the flow, we're not calling a lot of plays for him so he's playing off of guys depending upon what the defense does, is where his shots come from. Tonight we're turning the ball over so guys didn't get that opportunity or have that opportunity to shoot the ball.

Why not start Nic the second half?

I thought that lineup, we were flat. We weren't getting scoring. They packed it in on LaMarcus with that group and basically I felt like Blake being on the perimeter we could make passes, we could execute some offense and possibly spread the floor. 

Same starting lineup tomorrow?

Possibly. Possibly.

How do you get guys to snap out of it tomorrow night?

We have a game tomorrow night. The break doesn't start until after that game tomorrow night. You should be ready to go after the way we played tonight. It shouldn't be hard to get yourself ready to go. Tonight we embarrassed ourselves. You should have been ready to go tonight. But you certainly should be ready to go tomorrow night.

Start of the 4th. What did you think of that line up. Bayless, Rudy

We've got to give guys a breather. Miller had played the quarter. Bayless and Rudy, that could be a combination in the future. We have to look at that. We weren't able to get anything going. I don't remember exactly what happened. I think we had some turnovers and some missed shots with that group. We wasn't able to score.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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