The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 98-95, at the Moda Center on Tuesday night, dropping Portland's record to 36-16.
It has been a regularly mentioned point of pride for the Blazers that they have yet to lose three games in a row this season. There's a cleansing effect that comes with eradicating the "13 straight losses to end the season" chatter but, perhaps more importantly, it's a tangible result that the team can use as evidence of their improved focus and winning mentality. All sorts of factors have preserved that run through the All-Star break: A scorching start offensively set the tone, Portland has fared well above-.500 in close games, and the team's first two extended road trips back East included a number of games against lottery-bound squads and/or teams that hadn't yet pulled their [expletive] together.
One other major factor: they've kept the "carry-over losses" -- the gut punch games that can linger for days afterwards -- to a minimum. Some, and maybe most, of the credit for that goes to an injury-free season. It's easier to mentally regroup, to gameplan, and to execute with all hands on deck and little in the way of moving parts.
The question coming out of Tuesday night's loss to the Thunder, an emotional and technical foul-laden game that was fought down to the buzzer, is how well the Blazers' steadiness will be able to withstand their first meaningful rotation casualty since opening night.
The Blazers lost forward/center Joel Freeland to a sprained MCL for four-to-eight weeks and the options for replacing him are grim. All five Blazers starters have positive net ratings on the season; In other words, the Blazers score more points per possession than they give up when each of those players, individually, is on the court. Freeland is Portland's only reserve with at least 50 minutes under his belt this year who possesses a positive net rating on the season.
Freeland's mark is +0.5, which tidily reflects his overall contributions. He's done his best to hold down the fort; he certainly hasn't wowed, but he's consistently pulled in offensive rebounds, he's shown some level of progress in defending in the basket area, and he's moved from "total liability" status last year to "basically a wash" this year. That's no small leap, and he made it happen through a determined offseason development of his body and skills.
"He's definitely grown into his role this year," LaMarcus Aldridge said of Freeland, prior to the official diagnosis being announced. "Being that back-up center, blocking shots, clogging the paint, being great for us. If he's out, we have to have Meyers [Leonard] step up and be in that role."
The sentence above -- "Freeland is Portland's only reserve with at least 50 minutes under his belt this year who possesses a positive net rating" -- actually undersells the potential for danger here. At the moment, Portland's two worst reserves, with at least 50 minutes logged, are Thomas Robinson and Leonard, who just so happen to be the only two available bigs to fill in. A glance at the following top-down comparison should be sufficient to raise the blood prssure...
- Joel Freeland -- Off. Rating: 106 | Def. Rating: 105.5 | Net rating: +0.5
- Thomas Robinson -- Off. Rating: 104.2 | Def. Rating: 110.8 | Net rating: -6.5
- Meyers Leonard -- Off. Rating: 95.4 | Def. Rating 108.4 | Net rating: -13
When Robinson was benched a little less than two months ago, the conclusion here was that his early season production had been shaky enough to warrant the "Try anybody else" treatment. Although Leonard has still yet to log as many minutes as Robinson did prior to the benching, his candidacy as "anybody else" has so far been a flop. Remember, both Robinson and Leonard are putting up those numbers with Freeland in the mix; their responsibilities and the potential for mismatches will increase without him.
In the 55 minutes that Robinson and Leonard have shared the court this season, Portland's defensive rating has been 118.7 (atrocious) and their net rating has been -11.6 (awful). That's a limited sample, of course, but the results coincide with the eye test, which strongly suggests poking out your eyes rather than watching the two, less-than-polished young bigs play meaningful minutes together. The duo will need to shock the world during Freeland's absence or there will be consequences; Blazers coach Terry Stotts will need to get even more creative with his rotations, he will need to lean even more heavily on his starting big men, he will need to consider expanding his use of small ball, or management will need to seek out stopgap help prior to the deadline. All of those paths carry pros and cons which will surely make for great debate in the coming weeks.
The timing of Freeland's loss doesn't make things easier. Portland has lost its November mojo and struggled with bouts of disconcerting play on both ends while going 12-11 since late December and 3-5 in their last eight games. Even just a four-week absence would mean that Freeland is sidelined for seven games against teams that are currently in the playoff picture, and an eight-week absence would see that number balloon.
I'm not trying to Chicken Little this turn of events but rather provide a little context for the rare gloom that came forth after Tuesday's loss.
"All losses suck," Stotts said, during a brief press conference that was filled with short replies.
The actual game -- injury aside -- was a special kind of torture for the Moda Center crowd, who watched Portland give away a 10-point halftime lead, shoot 37.6 percent on the night, and come up empty on its final five offensive possessions. Fans were forced to wait anxiously through two late video reviews, and although the second one gave the Blazers a shot a potential game-winner, Aldridge was unable to deliver.
With the clock ticking down under 10 seconds, Portland ran a high screen-and-roll with Damian Lillard out top. The Thunder jumped it, much like the Indiana Pacers did last Friday, and Lillard picked up his dribble to look to beat the defense with a pass.
"I probably shouldn't have picked my dribble up," Lillard, who put up 16 points (on 5-for-15 shooting) and seven assists, told Blazersedge afterwards. "But when I picked it up I had an idea of where I was going to pass it. We got the shot that we would love to have out of that. We fell into it, but we ended up getting a great look."
Lillard swung the ball from the right angle to Aldridge near the left elbow. Aldridge had a clean look at an 18-footer after pump-faking a recovering Kendrick Perkins and launching before Jeremy Lamb could come from the left wing to contest.
"I just couldn't throw a rock in the lake tonight," Aldridge said. "I had a great look. I felt like it was in. Pump fake. [Perkins] went by. I didn't even see Lamb in the picture. I thought it was in. It was a little short."
It was a tough ending to a tough night for Aldridge, who played through a minor groin injury to finish with 12 points (on 5-for-22 shooting) and 12 rebounds.
"[The play went] pretty much how I expected," Stotts said, expressing no regrets. "We ran a pick-and-roll, if they committed two to Damian, I thought L.A. would be open. Shooters on the court. Whether L.A. shoots a jump shot or drives or passes, I can certainly live with the shot. He's made a living making that shot."
Meanwhile, Durant continues to make his living as the best scorer since Michael Jordan. He posted a game-high 36 points (on 15-for-28 shooting) and 10 rebounds, doing damage from anywhere and everywhere. Along the way, he picked up a technical, was nearly ejected (everyone in the building thought he had received a second technical, which wound up going to Serge Ibaka) and he let everyone know that he was serious about the "KD is not nice" marketing campaign with constant jabbering.
A blunt mean streak that was kept under wraps earlier in his career -- the one hardened by a Finals loss to the Heat, and years worth of adulation and awards bestowed upon LeBron James -- popped up again during his post-game comments.
"We respect this team, they respect us," Durant said. "But we don't like them and they don't like us. That's point blank."
Responding to those comments, Aldridge confirmed that the feeling was mutual.
"We don't care to like them," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "Us being competitive. Them being competitive. We're not trying to make friends out there, we're trying to win games."
The incline on Portland's treadmill to victory just clicked up a notch with Freeland's injury. While this year's Blazers haven't shared much with last year's vintage -- the no three-game losing streaks thing, for a start -- there is one similarity: As in 2013, this year's group will welcome an All-Star break breather with open arms.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 20,018 (sellout). It was really loud late in the game, particularly during the video reviews mentioned above.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- Blazers GM Neil Olshey presented LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard with their All-Star jerseys during a pre-game photo opportunity at center court. The red, sleeved Adidas jerseys were folded up in a rectangular frame.
- The first video review mentioned above occurred when Damian Lillard lost the ball on a late drive, with Reggie Jackson reaching his hand in to poke the ball out. The referees apparently concluded that Lillard was the last player to touch the ball. Lillard, as you know by now, was matter-of-fact and not emotional about the call: "I thought the ball got tipped out of my hands and it went straight out of my hands. They said it didn't."
- The second review occurred when Nicolas Batum deflected the ball out of Kevin Durant's hands on a late inbounds play, after the Blazers had forced Oklahoma City to use a timeout on a previous inbounds attempt. That review gave Portland the ball and set up LaMarcus Aldridge's attempt at a game-winner.
- Rookie guard CJ McCollum scored 15 points (on 5-for-12 shooting) and added three assists. He had a nice burst in the second quarter and is making the most of expanded minutes in Mo Williams' absence for family reasons.
- McCollum had promised the media a few weeks ago that we would see him do some new things that he hadn't yet had the chance to show the world. He told Blazersedge on Tuesday that he's started to do that in his last two outings.
- McCollum: "I think it's a combination of things. I'm getting more comfortable each night. I'm getting more minutes, getting more accustomed to playing with the guys, getting more shots in different spots. It's a combination of more playing time, more opportunities, getting good looks. ... It's coming along ... It's starting to show in my play. I'm playing a little bit better, a little more aggressive. Getting more comfortable with everything. Making plays for guys at times. Other times, you've got to make shots or step up."
- Portland won't win many games when Aldridge, Lillard and Wesley Matthews combine to shoot 12-for-47 from the field. Duh.
- Interestingly, Lillard volunteered to take some of the blame for Aldridge's off shooting night: "As a play-maker I've got to do a better job of making the plays easier for him instead of him having to fight with guys to get a post-up, hit turnaround jumpers. Part of that is my fault as a play-maker."
- Returning the favor, Aldridge said that he believes Lillard is making the right reads when teams run at him during the late pick-and-rolls. "We got looks. ... Guys had open shots, I had open shots, Dame's passing it out of there well. I don't think that's a problem for us."
- Lillard on the Thunder as a target: "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, they're always a top team in the West. That's what we're trying to get to. When we see them, it's going to be really competitive."
- Lillard on splitting the season series with Oklahoma City 2-2: "It drains you a little bit to know you got up on them two games. We had one down there and they came back and won that game and same thing tonight. We can't pout about it and think about this game."
- Kevin Durant on splitting the season series: "We didn't have our point guard [Russell Westbrook] for three of them. We didn't have our whole team for three of them."
- Robin Lopez had one of his best nights of the season, putting up 17 points (on 7-for-9 shooting) and 14 assists. He was noticeably frustrated after the game, but that didn't stop one reporter from asking him whether he had any plans for the All-Star break. "Taking a break," Lopez replied, before silence took over the room. The interview ended there.
- Nicolas Batum on the importance of Wednesday night's game against the Clippers: "We can't be on vacation now."
- Batum and Wesley Matthews did what they could against Durant, who has been unconscious basically all season long. Durant received his first technical foul for telling a referee "That's a [bleeping] flop" after he was hit with an offensive foul. Despite the 36 points, Terry Stotts was happy with his team's defense against Durant.
- Batum had a "What can you do about it?" response when asked whether the Blazers were able to frustrate Durant to some degree: "I don't know. He still got 36. We tried to make him work every time. We knew he would get 25 shots anyway. We tried to make him work, be physical with him."
- Batum said that Joel Freeland was jokingly blaming Batum for causing his knee injury. On the play, Batum backed up into Freeland in traffic before Freeland went down. "He was laughing about it," Batum recalled. "Apparently I did it. I hurt him. ... [He said,] 'Beep Nic, you did it.'"
- To clarify the "beep" was Batum's and not added afterwards.
- McCollum, who missed the opening portion of the season with a foot injury, on Freeland: "Whenever somebody goes down you feel for them. I've been through my series of injuries so I can only imagine how he's feeling right now. Continue to support him, play hard for him and hopefully everything works out."
- Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports had an interesting morsel in a rundown of former Cleveland GM Chris Grant, who was fired recently: "[Grant] spent his final months on the job calling teams and offering those overvalued young players in preposterous deals for marquee talents. LaMarcus Aldridge. Anthony Davis. Andre Drummond. Eventually, few executives had the inclination to listen to Grant's pitches on one-sided deals."
- Signs: "Steal the Thunder," "Rolo my Hero," "Marry Me, Blaze?," "Tonight's forecast: lots of rain, no Thunder," "Happy Valentine's Day, we love our Blazers," "Batum and Robin," "In Your Face Chuck" (this one was in reference to Charles Barkley's assessment of the Blazers), "Put me on Camera," "LaMarcus is La Man," "It's raining threes in Drip City," "No Thunder in our house," and "OK-C you later."
- Aldridge said that he was playing through a "little groin injury" and that he plans to play against the Clippers on Wednesday.
- No shot at a Chalupa/McMuffin in this one.
- Big congratulations to Dave for the biggest and best Blazersedge Night yet. Thanks to everyone who made contributions.
- I'm headed to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend festivities. Be sure to follow along on Twitter right here.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was a good game. Both teams. Kind of reminiscent of the Indiana game. We did a lot of good things, stay in the game, felt like we had a chance to win the game. To be honest -- we didn't shoo the ball very well in the second half. We had a lot of good looks, a lot of shots that we normally make. Shots that I thought we [should] at least shoot a better percentage. I like the way we battled. I liked the way we competed.
LaMarcus Aldridge's last shot
Pretty much how I expected. We ran a pick-and-roll, if they committed two to Damian I thought L.A. would be open. Shooters on the court. Whether L.A. shoots a jump shot or drives or passes, I can certainly live with the shot. He's made a living making that shot.
Oklahoma City's defense was effective on LaMarcus Aldridge
I don't know that they were. I thought he missed some shots. For him to still get 22 shots, that's not like they took him out of the game. I don't know. Obviously they played physical defense, but I don't think they did anything special.
Every loss hurts, this one hurts more?
No. All losses suck. There's no silver lining in some of the losses. We feel like we're one of the better teams in the league, we want to defend homecourt, certainly it's disappointing but no more so than any other loss.
He was good. He scored the ball. He was aggressive, he made good decisions.
No. Obviously it's his knee. He's probably going to have an MRI. Other than that we don't have anything new. I don't know [if he will travel with the team to Los Angeles for Wednesday game against the Clippers].
Reggie Jackson: first half compared to second half
I thought he was pretty aggressive taking the ball to the basket, especially when Durant was out of the game. He made some tough shots in the paint. I thought a lot of them were contested. I thought he was more aggressive and liek I said I thought he made some tough shots.
Defense on Kevin Durant
On the whole it was pretty good. He took 28 shots, he's going to take his shots. The fact that he only had two assists, I thought we made him work for the points that he had. He's a scorer, he's going to get his shots. I take into context the entire team. I thought Wes and Nic worked hard and did a good job on him, knowing that he got 36. That's what he does.
He was, especially in the first half, they made some hay when Durant was on the bench. He had a lot to do with it. He's becoming a much more confident player as the season goes on. One of the by-products of [Russell] Westbrook being out, guys like Lamb and Jackson are taking it upon themselves to score.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter