The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-107, in overtime at the Rose Garden on Monday night, dropping Portland's record to 14-11.
The whistling noise from referee Scott Foster's mouth still echoed in the shocked stadium and Blazers coach Nate McMillan hadn't yet returned from orbit after leaping to protest the decision. It was already clear, right then, in the very middle of the mess, that this game was going to be a classic writer's paradox.
All anyone wants to read and talk about is the goaltending call and yet no one really wants to read and talk about the goaltending call. A deal must be struck up front. First, everything that was said about the goaltending call. In return, no researching Scott Foster/Tim Donaghy text message conversations, no writing complaint letters to the league office and no soaking rags in kerosene for long enough to read about the rest. Why? Because this was clearly the most entertaining basketball played at the Rose Garden since the 2011 playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks.
53 minutes of back-and-forth, tooth-and-nail basketball between two highly-motivated teams evaporated with six seconds remaining in regulation. Trailing 103-101, Thunder All-Star forward and 2-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant drove hard to his left from the top of the key, shadowed by Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. One of the few defenders in the league long and quick enough to recover defensively on Durant after he turned the corner, Aldridge rose a split-second after Durant, but with impeccable timing, and appeared to swat the ball into the backboard, causing it to ricochet to nearly halfcourt. The defensive play of Portland's season.
While Thunder guard James Harden gave chase into the backcourt, Foster was already swiftly moving the other direction, whistling repeatedly that Aldridge had illegally goaltended the ball by pinning it against the glass. After Foster signaled that the basket counted, McMillan erupted, shuffling and jumping to halfcourt as if his britches were aflame. Poor assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff showed off Usain Bolt speed in tracking down his boss near midcourt to protect against the technical foul. But the goaltending call stood, the score was now tied, the Blazers failed to convert on a final offensive possession and the Thunder proceeded to prevail in overtime.
The referees exited the court to such harsh treatment from the Rose Garden crowd that the miffed, deflated reactions from the Blazers afterwards seemed like a picnic by comparison.
"I'm not trying to sound rude but it doesn't really matter," Aldridge began, doing his best to defuse the questions off the bat. But the inquiries kept coming and he eventually offered a peek or two at his true feelings.
"They act kind of sensitive sometimes," Aldridge said when asked whether the referees gave him an explanation of the call on the court. "He just told me the call was done and walked away."
Aldridge, who finished with a season-high 39 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and 1 steal on 14-for-28 shooting in 44 minutes, never thought for a moment that his play was a violation.
"I timed it perfect, I put it on the glass, it didn't hit the glass first," Aldridge said. "I figured it was a clean block. The ref who called it was the furthest one from the basket so that's pretty interesting."
Interesting like the flavor of your significant other's failed culinary experiment. Interesting like Amazon Ashley Adair's wardrobe. Interesting like the fact that my best friend lives with 42 cats and recently tried to get married to one of them.
Aldridge requested the referees take a look at the tape, to no avail.
"I saw it during the game, and i was like 'Y'all should go look at it.' They get their minds set up and they go with it. Hey, you can't change their mind."
Aldridge's teammates were unanimous: It was a block, there wa nothing else to say. Like Aldridge, McMillan was annoyed, both at the call and with the lack of an explanation from the officiating crew.
"I thought it was a good block," he said, looking emotionally drained after a home game for the first time all season. "That game should have been over.
"They didn't explain it. They said it was a block and that was pretty much it. I thought that was a good block and that game should have been over... What can you do? Nothing we can do. We'll send that in [to NBA office for review]."
This season, the NBA launched NBA.com/official, a website where it has posted clarifications and explanations of controversial calls and missed calls. Perhaps Aldridge will wind up on there.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, meanwhile, did what any intelligent coach would do in his situation: he claimed ignorance and de-emphasized.
"I didn't look at it," Brooks said. "I saw it live. The referees... it's a hard game. We won the game. I'm happy we won the game. It was a tough game that could have gone either way. I don't think one call is a difference-maker. There are a hundred plays in each game, and we did a pretty good job."
There are a hundred plays in each game and there were some damn good ones in this one.
Don't let Foster distract you and don't allow those deeply upset with Foster fool you: this was the best game I've seen in person in almost 10 months.
"It was one of those wins where you come back in the locker room a little emotional," Durant admitted, beaming, after scoring 33 points and adding 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.
Russell Westbrook threw a beautiful alley-oop pass to Durant, which he powered down. Aldridge put in multiple impossible fadeaways, hitting at Dirk Nowitzki angles with Hakeem Olajuwon smoothness. James Harden slithered in tribute to Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, meandering in his unique, roundabout way to the rim for two points. Nicolas Batum's defense was rewarded with multiple charge calls -- infuriating Thunder fans -- including a near game-changing charge on Thunder big man Serge Ibaka with less than a minute to go in regulation. Earlier, Batum, who finished with 13 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals and 1 block, hit Durant with a pump fake and crossover combination, before swooping to the rim, where he finished the lay-up and drew the foul. In overtime, Westbrook rose high to snare an offensive rebound -- his knack for crashing the glass on that end is as unique a gift as there is in the NBA -- that eventually set up Durant for a dagger jumper with two minutes remaining in the extra period. Big play after big play after big play.
The Thunder are a top-5 offensive team. They boast three All-Star caliber players with elite shot-creating ability and budding reputations for late-game shot-making. During his pre-game media availability, Brooks made very clear his vision of his team.
"We want it to be a fourth quarter game," he said. "We like playing fourth quarter basketball games. We think we've gotten better at closing games. We've got guys who can hit big shots."
Quietly, the Blazers are now a top-5 defensive team in the NBA. That rating bolstered in part by some truly unusual blowouts at home but it's also evidence of a team that can lock down any team in the league on a given night. Not every night, but on any given night.
From the 11:03 mark of the fourth quarter to the 2:05 mark of the fourth quarter -- nearly nine minutes of crunchtime, the Thunder juggernaut managed just six points total, watching an 89-83 lead turn into a 101-95 deficit. Portland's best defensive unit -- Jamal Crawford, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge plus a big man -- was the key to that 18-6 run. During the stretch, the Thunder were hit with multiple offensive fouls, they settled for deep shots time and again, they had their blocked shots and they went one-and-done too often for comfort.
"I'm the smallest guy on the court at 6-foot-5 so that's pretty cool," Crawford said about Portland's closing lineup, after he finished with 18 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 turnovers in 44 minutes after starting for the first time in place of the injured Raymond Felton. "We can do some things."
It wasn't the first time the lineup has made a serious impact on a game, and it won't be the last. And if you're looking for an explanation for McMillan's emotional frustration, that stretch of play is the reason his britches were aflame at Foster, the reason his body seemed so drained afterwards. Because it's one thing to feel jobbed on a call. It's another to feel jobbed on a call after you just watched your team, which has folded over and over already this season, play possibly its best two-way stretch of crunch time basketball of the year. That's not a gut punch. That's an attempted gut punch that wound up landing a foot too low.
Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who finished with 18 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, said McMillan's post-game message to the team was simple: "We gave away that game."
There's truth to that, without question. After the dominant mid-fourth quarter stretch, Portland reverted to a significantly lesser version of itself. The Blazers missed a number of chances opportunities to close the door, they couldn't get multiple crucial defensive rebounds and they botched a key overtime possession without getting off a good shot. Aldridge, who was dropping jaws on press row throughout much of the game, wound up shooting 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter and overtime, forcing a number of tough shots over Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who seemed to push him further and further out to the perimeter.
"We're developing that," McMillan said, when asked if his team is lacking a true closer on offense. "That guy is LaMarcus, he's the guy we're going to play through down the stretch. That is something he'll get more opportunities to do. I thought he was doing some good things for us. We had pretty deep post position and now we have to make the plays. We had our shooters on the floor. We've got to make plays to win games."
If a frustrated McMillan provided cover for his superstar, he didn't pull punches everywhere else, calling out his team's inability to rebound as instructed and its collective failure to make offensive plays down the stretch. He saved his harshest criticism for Batum, who had a chance to provide a winning margin on Portland's final offensive play in regulation. Batum's running lay-up attempt was blocked by Westbrook at the rim.
"You can't finesse that ball," McMillan said, his voice edging close to disgust. "You've got to dunk it. If you finesse it, you give the officials a chance to let the play go. If you go in there and you dunk it or attempt to dunk it, especially when you have an open drive like that, you put the pressure on the officials to make the call. You have to power that. I've talked to Nic about that."
The play was designed identically to a sideline out of bounds play used against the Utah Jazz in a similar late-game situation last week. Aldridge received the ball at the top of the key with a decision to make: hand off to Batum, who rubs off of him, or keep the ball and work his man.
"Coach is thinking with Nic's length and speed, getting some momentum running at you," Crawford explained. "He's long, he can cover a lot of ground, Coach thinks Nic can get to the basket or get fouled."
In Utah, the play saw a handoff which ended with Batum crashing to the floor with a bone contusion in his right knee. On Monday, Batum again received the handoff according to plan, turning the corner into the paint with an unobstructed path to the basket. As he is wont to do, Westbrook flew in high to get a piece of the shot attempt. An All-Star play, pure and simple.
"You can't go in and get small," McMillan said, mimicking with his arms the act of shrinking from contact while in the air. "I thought he went in and got small... Clear lane, good execution, you have to finish it."
"He's got confidence in me and I have to give it back to him," Batum said of McMillan's decision to run things through him on that potential game-winning play. "Of course [I'm frustrated]."
It's not the damaged pride of a blowout defeat or the embarrassment of a lackluster no-show. It's the torture of a victory just beyond the grasp; the agony of a series of coin flip plays going against you again and again; the helplessness at an arbiter's decision that seems incomprehensible to the defeated party. A loss like that will always hurt the most.
In this case, it would be a mistake to let that pain become blinding.
Random Game Notes
- Craig "The Rhino" Smith prefers the following things instead of other things, according to a jumbotron video feature: Ninjas over Pirates, Harry Potter over Lord of the Rings, Sylvester Stallone over Arnold Schwarzenegger, Superman over Spiderman, Pasta over Pizza, a DJ over a Band, Hot Dogs over Cheeseburgers and Sand over Snow. He enjoys bubble baths and showers equally.
- Before the game, feline enthusiast Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus asked me to run my "Shake" numbers for LaMarcus Aldridge this season. In case you need a refresher, "Shake" measures game-to-game scoring consistency. It's long been my opinion that great scorers are voluminous, efficient and consistent, and that we don't give nearly enough credit to the consistency factor. At KP2's request, I ran "Shake" ratings for every year of Aldridge's career and every year of Brandon Roy's career. Aldridge is not only having the most consistent season of his career, by far, he's been more consistent so far this season than Roy was during any of his 5 seasons. Pelton will have more on Aldridge's consistency on Tuesday.
- It was a funny coincidence, given that pre-game conversation, that Aldridge's season-high 39 points on Monday night represented the largest individual game "Shake" of his season. In other words, at no point this year has his scoring output been farther from his scoring average.
- Brooks said before the game that Aldridge has his All-Star vote.
- Durant took exception to some talking that Portland apparently did after the Blazers beat the Thunder in OKC earlier this year. It's not exactly clear whether he was referring to Raymond Felton's criticism of Westbrook, Aldridge's Jim Rome interview when he said he thought Portland was a top team in the West, or something else that was said privately. Anyway, his quote on the subject after Monday's game: "It wasn't really too offensive. Of course, they said they thought they were the better team, they're the best team in the West, all that stuff. It's cool for them to say. They beat us and we had to take it all. Ever since then, we've gotten better, they've gotten better. Tonight was a battle between two tough teams and I'm glad we came out on top."
- The 6-for-18 shooting from Crawford jumps out of the box score. Can't excuse it but, overall, Portland did about as well as could have been hoped in Felton's absence. Crawford on his play as starting point guard: "Only three turnovers. I think it was OK. More than the assists, I thought we had a pretty good flow to what we were doing [offensively]." Totally agree, until the last few minutes.
- Even a little offensive push from Gerald Wallace would have been big in this even battle. Instead, 2-for-9 shooting in 38 minutes.
- Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman with some very thorough and interesting game notes.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Block/ goaltend call on LaMarcus Aldridge
I thought it was a good block. That game should have been over.
How did the refs explain it?
They didn't explain it. They said it was a block and that was pretty much it. I thought that was a good block and that game should have been over.
We've got to make plays down the stretch regardless of that call. We have to rebound. If we get a rebound we seal the deal also. We've got to make plays offensively. We have opportunities, we have shots, we have to put the ball in the hole. Regardless of calls we still had an opportunity to win that game if we do the things necessary. Rebound the ball. Offensively you execute. You attack, put the ball in the basket. Normally the fourth quarter and close games like that, it's going to come down to making plays. They made the plays. They made buckets when they needed to. They got second opportunities when they needed to. And they got defensive stops to give themselves a chance to win the game.
Did you want LaMarcus Aldridge to take the shot from the block in overtime?
I thought he was pretty deep. That was certainly where we wanted to go. When you get that opportunity, you have to put it in the hole.
How do you explain the rebounding disparity?
We talked about that at the beginning of the game. You explain it by, we didn't execute it. We talked about this being a second shot team, their bigs are physical and go to the boards and Westbrook is one of the best rebounding guards in the league. I think I can recall maybe two big offensive rebounds that he had in the fourth quarter. I think one late. You've got to just always keep an eye on him when you're guarding him. The gameplan was, whoever is guarding him, when the shot is taken, don't worry about going in. Put a body on him. He came up with some big plays and they just dominated the boards.
How frustrating was the goaltend call?
Again, what can you do? Nothing we can do. We'll send that in. I thought it was a good block. They didn't call it that way and you have to go out and play.
Are you missing a closer?
We're developing that. That guy is LaMarcus, he's the guy we're going to play through down the stretch. That is something he'll get more opportunities to do. I thought he was doing some good things for us. We had pretty deep post position and now we have to make the plays. We had our shooters on the floor. We've got to make plays to win games.
Batum's last drive to the basket in regulation
That's a play where it's open. You can't finesse that ball. You've got to dunk it. If you finesse it, you give the officials a chance to let play go. If you go in there and you dunk it or attempt to dunk it, especially when you have an open drive like that, you put the pressure on the officials to make the call. You have to power that. I've talked to Nic about that. You can't go in and get small. I thought he went in and got small and I don't know if it was Durant who had the block but clear lane, good execution, you have to finish it.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter