By now you've been over every single angle of the admittedly-blown goal-tending call that cost the Portland Trail Blazers a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder two nights ago in the Rose Garden. You've seen the camera angles, heard the howls of protest, and you realize fully that the standings now say, "Portland: 14-11" instead of "Portland: 15-10" when for the last few years Western Conference playoff standings have been bunched with a single game or two making the difference between high seeds and low. That's the obvious cost of this blown opportunity.
You also know that of all the public people in all the internet world I am the last to blame outcomes on officials. I am happy to point out multiple offensive rebounds given up to the Thunder, offensive possessions with no clear shot because of poorly-executed sets, shots that should be made with eyes closed not going in. Therefore let me state publicly that I am not complaining that the Thunder were unworthy to win that game. They played well. They did what they were supposed to. That cannot be taken away from them. And the message to the Blazers remains: give the extra effort so that your fate is never in the hands of the officials. That's the biggest take-away point for the team going forward.
But before we leave this issue entirely, we need to note that there are hidden costs to this event beyond the obvious divisional and conference standings.
Every season and every career have moments that define them. This is particularly true of critical seasons in the careers of emergent superstars. However it's defined, superstardom is build around repeated effort and repeated victories. It's proven over time, not granted in a moment. But that scrolling timeline is peppered with defining moments when players take the step from star to team leader, from team leader to all-time great. Who can forget Bill Walton blocking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Clyde Drexler serving a facial to Detroit? These moments defined careers, bringing these Hall-of-Famers into the public consciousness, stamping the label "Chosen One" on them in a way that could not be gainsaid.
I'm not suggesting that LaMarcus Aldridge is ready to be labeled a Hall-of-Famer, nor that Monday's moment was as critical as the Walton or Drexler plays just mentioned. Both of those happened in the playoffs, for one thing, and at a Conference Final or NBA Final level. But before those moments happened both Portland and the league saw plenty of transcendent snapshots from those two stars. The table was set for the Ultimate Defining Event by the earlier play and its acknowledgement by teammates, opponents, league observers, and fans. In some ways the day that Drexler became Portland's unquestioned leader was as important as the day he threw down that jam in the Finals.
Who could argue that Blake Griffin had just such a moment last week with the dunk against Kendrick Perkins? Before that it was Griffin and Paul, Paul and Griffin. Now you KNOW who's coming to town and who's going to lead that team to the Big Time Lights (provided that happens). You're waiting for Griffin. You're anticipating the next explosion. His teammates are too. They're going to rally around him, depend on him, draw their confidence from him. If and when he gets to the late playoffs the stage will be set for his Big Moment, for his career to be defined, and for his teammates to rally around that play to victory. And you know what? If that Big Moment--say another dunk--happens to involved a little bit of a charge over a defender whose feet are planted that's not going to be called. The whistles will be mute because everybody, including the refs, are going to be watching for the Big Time Event and that's all anybody is going to see. (See also: Michael Jordan pushing off on Bryon Russell in 1998 long after he had hit the game-winner against Craig Ehlo in 1989.)
LaMarcus Aldridge also had that Griffin-esque moment against the Thunder Monday. The game was down to, in effect, one meaningful possession. The opponent was the greatest scorer in the game today, a guy totally unstoppable by mortals. Durant got the drive he wanted and the shot he wanted. And Aldridge, without help and without mercy, snuffed him out. The layers of meaning here are manifold. This may have been more of a defining moment than Griffin's because Blake already gets plenty of hype whereas Aldridge toils in relative obscurity. One of the main questions surrounding Aldridge has been whether he's a big-time player, a true team leader. With one swoop of his arm LaMarcus declared to his teammates, Portland fans, and the world that he could be trusted not just for stats but to make the plays necessary to propel his team to victories. And he did it on the defensive end. He showed the power of defense in general and his own in particular...a critical lesson and assurance for any team trying to become great instead of just good. This was the rallying point. This was the moment where everybody pointed to LaMarcus and said, "He stared down the giant and took him out, saving all of us. We can get behind him and he won't let us down." This was the eternally-repeated SportsCenter highlight. This was the All-Star lock moment. This was the exact instant when everybody looked at LaMarcus Aldridge and said, "He has become more than just a player. He is The Man." This was the moment that made not only the Thunder, but everybody in the league, wonder if playing the Blazers was safe as long as Aldridge's sneakers hit the floor. This was neither the first nor the last pivotal moment of Aldridge's career, but it was a darn-hard-to-replace chance to take the next step into a possible evolution to superstardom.
All of that was taken away by one whistle.
I'm not saying that LMA's teammates, fans, and league observers think less of him now than they did before. To use the vernacular he's wizard, he's smashing, he's keen. We all know that. Everybody will admit it freely. He's even going to get his long-coveted All-Star election. That was going to happen no matter what. But now when the league remembers this moment, if they remember it at all, the topic of conversation is going to be a Scott Foster whistle, not a spectacular LaMarcus Aldridge game-saving block. Now when his teammates remember this game they're going to recall a demoralizing four-point loss, not an exhilarating and potentially season-changing two-point win. They won't get to rally behind the leader who sealed their victory. Instead they'll be left with the image of their leader getting screwed at the mercy of powers beyond his control...a decidedly different lesson. Instead of being perceived league-wide as the guy who outscored and then stood up to Kevin Durant--perhaps a critical image should the two ever match up in the post-season--Aldridge will be remembered for putting up a nice stat line but eventually joining the ranks of Durant's many victims in this fine season for the Thunder.
For comparison's sake, imagine if Blake Griffin had made that block and it had been called clean under identical circumstances. Pundits and casual fans alike would be trumpeting him as a "two way player" and a defensive force. Radio hosts from coast to coast would be speculating about a Clippers-Thunder matchup in the playoffs. Speculation would begin on whether you'd rather have Griffin or Durant on your team, not in terms of scoring but for winning. The reaction wouldn't have been as great for Portland because Aldridge wasn't as hyped as Griffin going into this contest. Still, whatever buzz and momentum were there, whatever promotion of identity--self-assessed or granted by others--was in the offing because of that buzz, Aldridge and the Blazers were robbed of it.
Both player and team will get more such moments...more chances to discover whether they're willing and able to be amazing instead of just pretty good. This whistle won't define his career nor the team's fate. But it did take away a chance for both star and team to become more than they were in this moment and to travel further down the road to perceived greatness. Now if Aldridge puts another spectacular block on Durant announcers everybody around the league will react with surprise and amazement, saying, "Can you believe that?!?" instead of saying, "This has happened before. Aldridge may have Durant's number and may be just as potent of a team leader, if not player." The gulf between those two statements is vast, not only in assessment but in impact and influence on the game, team expectations, and yes, officiating. The edge the latter statement provides is exactly the one that teams like the Lakers, and now the Clippers and Thunder, carry into matchups against less-heralded foes. That edge can easily provide the difference between playoff wins and losses in an otherwise-even contest.
For a bright, shining second Aldridge and the Blazers were over that hump in a way they hadn't been since the Drexler years really. For an instant the tide had turned, bringing with it hope that once turned, it would continue to flow Portland's direction. Then that instant was pierced by the sound of a whistle, assaulted by a dramatic gesture, marred by an incorrect assessment by one of the only three people who had the power to take it all away. And they did. Like Icarus too near the sun the Blazers were brought back to earth, made again into the team of Greg Oden's broken knees, of Brandon Roy's medical retirement, of Scottie Pippen's complaining about officiating bias, of the blown fourth quarter against the Lakers in 2000, of the Magic Johnson rebound tip in 1991, of Buck Williams and Jake O'Donnell, of the Bowie leg shattering and the Walton foot collapse. Portland fans felt those pains echoed in their moment of hope robbed. Now once again they ask if a break is ever coming their way. And once again the sad realization hits: if you have to ask, it's not. Some folks get to be the cool kids, others don't even when they appear to earn it. Sometimes the difference between the two is as small as a single tweet.