Got a couple of e-mails wondering about my assertion that last night's loss to the Lakers wasn't as significant (or in some ways, "bad") as the loss on Thursday to Oklahoma City. It's an interesting subject. Let's break it down...
The L.A. loss was completely about the opponent. The Blazers could have run a different scheme. The Blazers could have tried different rotations. The Blazers could have gotten back Oden and Pryzbilla and a sainted relic made from Arvydas Sabonis' toenail. It wouldn't have made a difference. The Lakers were going to win that game. That doesn't mean they will win every game this year from Portland. But last night they were the world champions, primed and focused to send a message to an upstart with pretensions who had had some success against them recently and was being buzzed about as a potential contender in certain circles. We used to see the Blazers do the same to the San Antonios and Phoenixes and Utahs of the world back in the Drexler days. The 30-point gap may have been on the Blazers. Frankly Portland gave it a good go early but it quickly became apparent that L.A. was going to outclass them no matter what. The Blazers folded at that point and that's when we saw scores run up and backboard passes for dunks. But even had they not acquiesced they were going to lose. They knew it. The Lakers knew it. Everybody knew it.
This game was indicative of nothing except that the Blazers probably aren't going to be able to take a seven-game series from Los Angeles this year (and that they certainly aren't ready to think about that kind of thing now). I'm not sure what that changed. Portland's goal this year, besides health, is making the second round of the playoffs. Part of the reason the bar is exactly at that point is the potential to meet the Lakers in that round and the unfairness of hinging your definitions of success and progress on a victory in that confrontation. That's not realistic when the Lakers are so close to their championship form and the Blazers have yet to find theirs. But succumbing to L.A. in this manner doesn't change Portland's outlook against any of the other teams in the West, as they're not the Lakers. In fact I don't see another team in the West that could have won that game last night. Like it or not, it was all about the opponent and the opponent was just that good.
Go back to Oklahoma City on Thursday now. The Blazers had them solved. The Thunder were not playing well despite getting decent shots and points from their main options. Portland built up a 13-point lead in the third outsmarting and outplaying them, sending a similar (if not nearly so dramatic) message to a team sneaking up on them. Then what happened? One of three things:
- The Blazers lost focus and/or stopped caring about the win.
- The Blazers had no idea how to close out the win, finishing off a good opponent when they're down.
- The Thunder really are better than the Blazers.
Personally I think #2 with a tad bit of focus issues added in is the correct answer. But whichever you choose, all of these have implications for Portland's fitness and readiness to seize a more prominent place in the conference. All of them show how far the team has to go, not just against a specific, brilliant opponent, but against every decent opponent. L.A. was about the greatness of the opposition. OKC showed where the Blazers still fall short. And I'll bet you a tall, cool Purple Slurpie that the hangover from that realization (and any soul-searching that's going on because of it) contributed to Portland losing confidence and cohesion so quickly last night. Had the Blazers hog tied the Thunder for the rest of that game they would have had bigger expectations and more spirit against the Lakers...more reserve to fight the onslaught. As it was, L.A. hit a raw spot the team was already dealing with, much like a fighter opening up an opponent's old wound to win a new fight.
For all those reasons, and because the severity of the second was influenced by the first, the Thunder loss was the more significant--and the worse--of the two.