Game report: Thunder 107, Blazers 106, OT
Through the good graces of a friend, we were able to attend last night's pro basketball contest between the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, and we got top value for his entertainment dollar. The teams battled into overtime, but alas for the faithful crowd at the Rose Garden, the visitors prevailed.
There were all sorts of story lines going here. The Thunder had lost two in a row, including the night before to the Clippers in L.A., and they didn't want to fall again, into a losing record. The Blazers had only 10 men suited up and ready to play. Rudy Fernandez now has back problems and can't perform -- as in, "I wish I were back in Europe." Fabricio Oberto, the big Argentinian whom Portland had brought in at the last minute to play center, suddenly retired hours before the game with heart problems. And Blazer scrub Eliot Williams was pronounced lost for the season due to... wait for it... a broken kneecap. Paul Allen has some seriously bad karma, I guess. Or maybe they ought to check the practice floor -- all these bad knees can't be just a coincidence.
For some people who still haven't gotten over it, it was also another occasion to contemplate the fact that the Blazers made a big mistake not drafting Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden, who was nowhere to be seen.
And most poignantly, it was a night to remember Maurice Lucas -- a moment of silence, some cheers and chants, a couple of video loops, and members of his family waving from one of the luxury boxes.
The game started out with a Blazer offensive scheme that was new to me. Marcus Camby was playing out on top, and lobbing the ball down low to LaMarcus Aldridge, who turned the alley-oops into dunks a couple of times. Aldridge also hit some jump shots and did all the scoring for the Blazers for the first six or eight minutes.
The Oklahoma starters played at least even with Portland for the first quarter, with Russell Westbrook joining superstar Kevin Durant to do the heavy lifting. But the Portland bench players were superior to the Oklahoma second squad. This new Blazer Armon Johnson is clearly NBA-ready -- quick as a whip and a true point guard. No wonder Jerryd Bayless got hustled out of town so quickly. And Wesley Matthews, the new shooting guard, does some of the slashing and driving that Bayless was good at. His long outside shot is suspect, but when Matthews gets the ball and starts heading for the basket, the opposition had better put a body on him or else he's going to lay it in. Nic Batum got hot just as Aldridge cooled off, and they accounted for most of the Blazer offensive output in the first half.
Both teams shot for high percentages in the half, but Portland had a slight advantage, and that continued past halftime. At one point in the third quarter, I believe the Blazers were up by 12 or 13 points. Then they started to coast a bit, throwing up jump shots that were no longer falling. I think Portland might have been expecting Oklahoma to let down a little, given that they were on the road and playing their second game in as many nights. But it didn't turn out that way. Durant went to town in the fourth quarter, and when he wasn't hurting you, Westbrook was.
By the end of the game, Aldridge was the one who looked tired. Although he converted another pretty alley-oop, this one from Andre Miller, LA's shot eventually deserted him, and he and Camby seemed to get outhustled on the backboards down the stretch by the no-name Thunder big men and Westbrook. Brandon Roy, who hadn't played his one-on-one game all night, was handed the ball with the score tied and seconds left in regulation. It was a clearout, him against Durant, schoolyard style, with time running out. Roy's buzzer-beater missed, and it was on to overtime.
Portland didn't show up in the extra stanza, not scoring at all for several minutes, and converting only a single, meaningless field goal at the buzzer. Andre threw up a few of his knuckleballs that did not connect. Meanwhile, Durant and Westbrook didn't let up. With seconds left and down by 3, the Blazers should have injected Johnson back into the lineup for a three-point threat, but they didn't. With Batum and Roy being Portland's only real downtown shooters, and Aldridge fouled out after his strong early performance, the task of winning fell to Matthews, who drove in for a potential old school three-point play. He drew the foul, but his acrobatic layup stalled on the back rim. He made only one free throw, Westbrook hit a pair of foul shots on the other end, and it was a four-point contest with only a few seconds left. Armon hit a final garbage three -- albeit a pretty one -- and the Blazers suffered a tough loss. Bitter chalupas.
It was a disappointing defeat, and many Blazer fans are likely thinking that they're on a slightly different path to the same outcome as last year. Too many injuries, too shallow at center, promising young guys not yet gelling, Aldridge too soft, Miller playing well but not bringing the team together, stretches of bewilderment on offense, Nate not making perfect decisions on the bench -- the negatives were familiar, and easy to enumerate. For long stretches on offense, Batum would be left camped out at the three-point line, unavailable to do anything but distract a defender -- the same waste of space previously taken up by the departed Martell Webster. But on more positive notes, the Blazers continue to put first-rate talent on the floor despite adversity, and they're playing with a little more speed and a little longer spring in their step than in a while. Every Portland player who walked onto the floor gave us something to like, and want to see more of in the future.
Meanwhile, make no mistake, Oklahoma City is a good team -- a very good team.
On a side note, the league's crackdown on player tantrums over disputed referee calls is great. Let the crowd boo and hiss at the officials, but have the professionals behave like professionals. Nothing is lost and much is gained by dispensing with the whining.
Which brings us, I guess, to the off-court aspects of the event. The Blazer Dancers are younger than ever, less talented than in many years, and as always hideously wardrobed and choreographed. The stunt team, on the other hand, is better looking and more fit and athletic than I can ever remember. If only I were 30 years younger...
The prices of everything are still totally ridiculous, of course -- a simple hot dog was $5 and a microbrew was $8.75. We parked over on the other side of Grand Avenue, which kept the parking damages down to five bucks. But the arena was packed despite the gouging, and everybody seemed to be enjoying the scene.
And oh, yes -- the highlight of the night: The Mattress World woman was in the crowd, in person, seated just up a ways from us and sporting a Blazer jersey -- I think it was no. 12. I never would have picked her out, but I overheard the geezers behind us talking about her; they knew exactly where she was. I had left my camera in the car and had only the cell phone to try to capture her glorious image, but here's my sole game snapshot for the night, taken in her general direction:
Such a night. Would that the Blazers had scored just a single additional basket before the fourth quarter ended -- then it might have been perfect.