Blazers Pass Big Test in OKC
Early in a season big wins are so important in the confidence-building, and team-building departments. If you’re a team that is still learning what it is, and what its identity will ultimately be, early success is doubly vital. Big wins on the road are in another category completely. That’s exactly what the Trail Blazers bagged in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. The payoff, besides the immediate satisfaction of beating a quality team, will likely come much later.
The best part, at least according to the players, is that the Blazers have still yet to put a complete game together. That’s coming. But, after playing good ball for only about a quarter and a-half in L.A. on Sunday, Portland put together three very good quarters in Oklahoma and beat the Thunder 103-93.
It wasn’t four quarters of top-notch play, but it was enough on this night, and that’s saying something. The Blazers grabbed the lead with a Marcus Camby bucket with 4:41 to go in the third quarter, and would never trail again.
Portland’s persistence paid off in this one, as they shot just 5 for 16 from the field in the first quarter. It was acceptable though because the effort level was so much different than it was on Sunday.
In the game against the Clippers, Portland was not only missing from the field, but was turning the ball over, and seemed totally out of rhythm. Even though the shots weren’t falling early on Tuesday, they were slowly establishing their flow and method. The concentration level was so much better. I don’t think Sunday was due to an apathetic attitude, but was more perhaps uncertainty over how they wanted to attack. That, as you know, is a process, especially when you’re still learning each other.
LaMarcus Aldridge has taken many steps forward in the last couple of seasons. Tuesday night was another big one for him personally. He scored 30 points against a very good defender in Kendrick Perkins, a player acquired to deal with some of the better power forwards in the west.
Aldridge did this on 10 of 19 shooting, and also grabbed 8 rebounds. Perkins, showing signs of frustration late in the game, got into Aldridge’s chest and attempted to intimidate. It didn’t work, as Aldridge stood his ground. Of course, you wouldn’t have wanted L.A. to do something silly at that point in the game, but believe me, Nate is absolutely fine with players doing what LaMarcus did.
After going scoreless against the Clippers on Sunday, which was very surprising, Gerald Wallace was tremendous on Tuesday night against the Thunder. He shot only 4 of 14, and had 13 points. But, he grabbed 10 rebounds and played terrific defense on Kevin Durant.
Wallace disrupts, as you know, and he wears you down because he makes you work for everything you get. Yes, Durant missed some open shots that he normally puts down. He went just 8 for 26. But, the next time you watch these teams play each other, watch how hard Wallace makes Durant work to simply get open. He’s as physical with him as he can possibly be, and that had Durant spending more time talking to the officials than talking to his teammates.
This was also a good bounce-back game for Portland’s backcourt. Wesley Matthews kept Portland close in the first half, and Ray Felton played a very complete game and was under control. That’s what McMillan wants. Felton had 12 points, 7 assists, and just one turnover. That’s impressive, because Russell Westbrook gets into opponents and really goes for steals. He turns it over a lot, but he also forces a lot of turnovers. Felton avoided that.
Along with Aldridge, the player of the game on this night for the Trail Blazers, was Nicolas Batum. If it wasn’t Wallace hounding Durant on the defensive end, it was Batum, who is long and creates problems in a different way. Batum also hit three big three pointers, one of them to beat the shot clock in the fourth quarter during a key Portland run with 9 minutes left. Nic also had seven rebounds, and that’s a great sign. That aggressiveness is what the coaching staff wants to see every night from Frenchy.
I mentioned Felton’s ability to take care of the basketball in this game, and that rubbed off on his teammates. After turning the ball over 21 times against the Clips, which came one game after they suffered 25 turnovers against Denver, the Trail Blazers suffered only 9 against the Thunder. That’s impressive because the Thunder are a better defensive team than either Denver or the Clips.
So, the Blazers, who are still in this developmental mode, make their first road win of the season a very quality road win. We said before the game that this would be a good measuring stick for this Portland team. And, through five games (and it’s only five games), Portland sits atop the Western Conference. Clearly, the schedule has been pretty kind so far, and things will only get tougher, but that’s a solid start.
Next up, it’s the Lakers on Thursday night at the Rose Garden, a game that will be on TNT. After that game we’ll fly to Phoenix and will take on the Suns on Friday night.
If you were in a wait-and-see mode with the Blazers, what did this win do for you? Do you chalk it up to the Thunder being tired and coming off a tough loss at Dallas the night before? Or, was this an example of Portland passing a big road test early in the season, and an indicator of what’s to come?
Let’s hear it.