The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night in overtime, falling in a gritty, hard-fought game that featured 51 points from Damian Lillard and the ejection of Jusuf Nurkic. This completed a season-series sweep for Oklahoma City over Portland. Takes abound, ranging from Lillard’s brilliance to consternation at NBA officials to lamentation over Portland’s playoffs chances against tough mid-tier opponents like OKC.
The Blazers lost the game for a couple reasons. Their three-point shooting was way off (9-41, 22,0%). They generated plenty of free throws, offensive rebounds, and even matched the Thunder in fast-break points (an OKC specialty), but they couldn’t overcome the lack of triples. Meanwhile Paul George was his usual nightmare self (32 points even though he shot 1-9 from distance). The Thunder feasted on easy attempts, scoring 70 of their 129 in the paint, another 25 from the free throw line. 74% of their points came from the foul line and in. This was true for Portland as well (71%), but that’s not the type of game the Blazers want, especially on the defensive end.
When it became evident that the Blazers weren’t going to prevail with three-pointers and nifty passing, Lillard came to the fore and kept them in it. His 51 points on 15-28 shooting testify to his phenomenal ability. He now stands firmly among the three best backcourt players the Blazers have fielded in the history of the franchise, taking up huge space on their Mount Rushmore of guards.
Beyond that, though, fans should be cautious about reading too much into this outing. The Blazers aren’t a fundamentally different team coming out of Thursday night than they were coming in. This game doesn’t have huge implications beyond the immediate. It simply showed the distance between where Portland is and where they’d love to be.
Oklahoma City would be a tough playoffs draw no matter what. If the Blazers meet them in the first round without homecourt advantage, Portland’s prospects look dim. This would have been true even had the Blazers emerged victorious last night. They would have won on the back of Lillard’s torrential scoring. That’s a fantastic story, but he’s not going to put up 50+ in four of seven games in a post-season series. Outside of some brilliant moments from Nurkic, the ancillary attack still looked impotent, while Oklahoma City still did what they wanted to.
The Blazers came into this game needing a definitive, repeatable victory in order to claim they had solved their Thunder Problem. They didn’t get that, or even come close. No matter what, by the 6:00 mark of the fourth quarter, OKC was feeling confident that they could handle Portland should they meet in the playoffs. Lillard’s potential game-winner going in at the end of regulation wouldn’t have changed that story.
That feeling isn’t destiny, though. If the Blazers dodge the Thunder in the first round and advance, the season series becomes much less important. At that point Portland would meet Oklahoma City having already tasted success against a quality first-round opponent. The recent track record would carry as much gravity as the four regular-season losses. If the Blazers and Thunder are to meet in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Portland will be better off if it happens in any round except the first.
Also, don’t miss out on what the Blazers did prove last night. Despite tough matchups and an incomplete performance from most everyone besides Lillard, the Blazers played intense, capable basketball over 48+ minutes in a playoffs-like atmosphere.
Up until this point, Portland’s experience with the post-season style has evoked adjectives like young, occasionally lucky, and downright impotent. Finding their way, the Blazers were at the mercy of whatever happened to the opponent, for good or ill.
Portland may have lost last night, but at no point were they or the outcome in Oklahoma City’s control. The Blazers did not look young. They did not rely on lucky breaks or opportunism. They stood in and dished out as good as they got against a team that, in the end, turned pretty mean and tried to crush them into insignificance. The Blazers are still here; the Blazers are still significant. if these two teams meet in the post-season, no matter the circumstances, there’s no way Oklahoma City will be happy about it or consider it a cakewalk.
Those assurances are pale if you expect the Blazers to contend for a championship. By that standard, nothing substitutes for actual winning, which the Blazers did not do. But considering Portland’s history over the last few seasons, saying, “They don’t look the same anymore” is a badge of honor, a strong admission of progress.
Few outside the TNT studios would peg Portland to win it all, but because of games like last night’s, they’ve shown that they’re not guaranteed to lose it all either. That might not make much of a difference to the long-term franchise arc, but right now it’s a much-needed breath of fresh air. The Blazers didn’t win, but they played strong, played well, and didn’t back down an inch. That’s what you want in the playoffs; that’s what Blazers fans should appreciate about their team.