Forgive Portland Trail Blazers fans if they're a little on edge. On Monday night, they played a terrifically close game against the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, the sort of contest that comes down to a few plays in either direction rather than some kind of totalizing success or failure. Shockingly, that's exactly what happened. Unfortunately, a questionable call made the result pretty controversial.
In that one moment, yes, the Blazers probably got screwed. With the Thunder down 103-101 with six seconds remaining, Kevin Durant drove to his left on LaMarcus Aldridge, who swatted a lay-up attempt away either right before or right after it hit the rim. The initial call was goaltending, which counted the basket and tied the game. Aldridge and Blazers coach Nate McMillan wanted an official review, but none came. Russell Westbrook made a terrific block on a Nicolas Batum lay-up on the final possession of regulation, and the Thunder wound up winning 111-107 in the extra period.
Reaction to the call was understandably divided across team lines. From Anne M. Peterson for the Associated Press:
"It didn't hit the glass. I put it on the glass, so I figured it was a clean block," Aldridge said. "The ref who called it was the furthest one from the basket, so that's pretty interesting."
Coach Nate McMillan was much more direct: "I thought it was a good block. That game should have been over." [...]
"I saw the lane to the rim and I tried to get it up there quick because LaMarcus Aldridge is a long, athletic defender," [Durant] said. "So I got it up there quick enough that it hit the glass first. It was a goaltend, so it was a good play for us."
Watch the play above once or twice, and it looks like a play at least worthy of an official review. Watch it a few more times, and it looks like a bad call. The Blazers got a bad deal here, and they have a right to be upset. The NBA even admitted it was the wrong decision.
And, yet, for all the anger that's popped up in the wake of this call, it's easy to forget that the Blazers had several chances to win this game after their moment of bad fortune. Not only did they get another shot in regulation, but they had an entire five-minute overtime on their home floor in which they very easily could have overcome adversity to win. Plus, the controversial play in question only happened because they failed to secure a defensive rebound on an errant Durant shot with 12 seconds left. And, if we really want to start adding up bad calls, the Thunder got hit for an illegal screen with 55 seconds left that usually goes by without a whistle.
The point here isn't that one team deserved to win and one didn't, but that in a game this close any number of plays could have ended up as the difference. The solution to the heartbreak isn't to focus on one major moment — it's to assess everything that went wrong and try to fix those things a basketball team can control.
The Blazers, to their credit, realized that after the game. While most postgame coverage focused on reaction to the bad call, Ben Golliver of Blazersedge got another side of the Portland reaction on Twitter:
Nate's post game message to the team was, "We gave the game away." -- Wesley Matthews
Aldridge on goaltend call: "I'm not trying to sound rude but it doesn't really matter."
Nate McMillan's full comments on goaltending call: "I thought it was a good block. That game should have been over." How did they explain it? "They didn't explain it. They said it was a block and that was pretty much it. I thought that was a good block and that game should have been over." How frustrating was the call? "Again, what can you do? Nothing we can do. We'll send that in [to NBA office]. I thought it was a good block. They didn't call it that way and you have to go out and play."
It's not as if the Blazers were completely happy with the call — their decision to send a notice to the league says as much. Yet it's clear that their plan here is to move on and handle their business instead of worrying about external factors. They might have lost because of the call, but that point is irrelevant to what they do next.