Tuesday's marquee matchup between the league-leading Oklahoma City Thunder and third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers gave fans just the sort of nip-and-tuck battle that makes it worth staying up a bit past your bedtime — nine lead changes, nine ties, dueling runs in each of the four quarters and an outcome in the balance right up until the closing seconds. More than that, though, it featured something all-too-often claimed to be in short supply in today's buddy-buddy NBA, that element Pop once famously craved: a little bit of nasty.
The Thunder and Blazers battled for 48 minutes, ringing up 36 personal fouls, four technicals and a collection of bumps, bruises and bangs befitting a square-off between two Western Conference heavyweights. And even after all was said and done, with Oklahoma City earning a 98-95 road win at the Moda Center, Thunder star Kevin Durant wasn't done sayin'. From Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer, fired the first blow in the visiting locker room by revealing the Thunder’s disdain for the Blazers.
“We respect this team, they respect us,” Durant told reporters after burning the Blazers with 36 points. “But we don't like them and they don't like us. That's point-blank.”
A few minutes later, down the hall in the home locker room, someone relayed Durant’s comments to Blazers’ All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. He didn’t bat an eye when he added to the simmering rivalry between the Northwest Division foes.
“We don’t care to like them,” Aldridge responded. “We’re not trying to make friends out there. We’re trying to win games.”
Unfortunately for Blazers fans, they tried and failed on Tuesday, thanks in large part to Durant's work en route to a ho-hum 36 points on 15-for-28 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, two assists and eight turnovers in 38 minutes:
It wasn't all Durant, of course; there were plenty of non-KD factors contributing to the Thunder's win. Reggie Jackson shook off an ice-cold start to score all 17 of his points and dish four of his five assists in the last 19:07 of the game. Jeremy Lamb was massive off the bench, scoring 19 points on 11 shots and hitting a huge corner 3-pointer off a Jackson drive-and-kick that gave OKC a one-point lead with 1:38 left, and that wound up becoming the game-winner. Kendrick Perkins — with the help of Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and a groin injury — helped limit Aldridge to just 12 points on 5-for-22 shooting, with the All-Star big man managing just two points after halftime on a night in which he said he "couldn’t throw a rock in a lake." OKC's stable of long-armed and lithed perimeter defenders hounded Damian Lillard into a forgettable 5-for-15 performance and a whisper-quiet oh-fer fourth quarter that included a missed potential game-tying triple at the buzzer.
But while Oklahoma City's supporting cast stood up late to lock down the impressive road win, the big-picture difference between the two teams — who not only split their season series at 2-2, but "tied at 401 points apiece in their four meetings," as Danny Nowell noted in the Daily Dime — seems to be that OKC has KD, and Portland doesn't, according to Freeman's Oregonian colleague, Jason Quick:
Durant was blanketed, smothered and knocked around all night, to the point where he was so frustrated that he picked up a technical foul and flirted with a couple more. He dribbled a ball off his foot and out of bounds for one of his eight turnovers. He couldn’t secure a key inbounds pass in the closing seconds, allowing Aldridge to take that potential game winner. And he never got in his play-making groove that has come to define his new ascension toward greatness.
And yet, Durant had 36 points and 10 rebounds, running the combination of Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum to exhaustion.
"He is the best one-on-one player in the league now," Batum said. "I used to say ‘Melo (Carmelo Anthony) but I say him now because he can score from everywhere. The post was his weakness but now he has it ... I can’t say it was a weakness, he never had a weakness, but you didn’t have to think about it. He has that now."
So even if [Blazers general manager Neil] Olshey goes out and bolsters that bench with a big man, and Aldridge’s aching body -- which nearly kept him out of Tuesday’s game -- turns out to be nothing, and the Blazers win their next 10 close games, one has to wonder ... Will it matter? Because if we are talking NBA Championship, and the Blazers have every right to be in that conversation this season, it might not matter how good the Blazers are now or will be.
Durant is that good.
He's not quite superhuman at the moment, having taken a (relative) step back from his scorching December and January numbers — he's averaging 31.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the floor, 35.3 percent from 3-point range and 84.3 percent from the charity stripe through six February contests after throwing up 54.2/45.6/88.6 shooting splits over that torrid two-month stretch. But yes, Durant is every bit that good, and as a result, Oklahoma City was able to weather the storm of an 18-6 Portland run to start the game Tuesday and keep the Thunder within hailing distance until the cavalry came later on.
Whether a healthy Aldridge — an offensive craftsman himself, and the large-mass star around whom the rest of the Blazers' offense orbits — can be "that good" in the second season remains to be seen. So, too, does whether a bit of rest over the All-Star break (for everyone but Lillard, naturally) will help Portland reverse its troubling recent slide — the Blazers have not only dropped seven of their last 12 games, but have been outscored by five points per 100 possessions during that stretch, according to NBA.com's stat tool, with their top-shelf offense ranking just 19th among 30 teams in points scored per possession while their suspect defense continues to rank among the league's 10 worst units — in time for the playoffs. If we get the chance to find out the answers to those questions in a seven-game series contested by two teams who point-blank don't like each other, well, so much the better.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, please feel free to check out highlights of Durant's big night elsewhere, courtesy of the NBA.
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