With a Little Help From My Friends (and Their Whistles): Five teams have beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. No teams have beaten them twice. The Portland Trail Blazers, hampered by a lack of offensive firepower and some questionable officiating, were unable to buck that trend.
Referee Scott Foster marred an exciting, if sloppy, evening by drawing undue attention to himself on a game-deciding play. Replays showed clearly that LaMarcus Aldridge legally blocked Kevin Durant’s game-tying layup attempt with six seconds remaining in regulation. Foster (already the target of a vitriolic Blazer fan Facebook group) ruled Aldridge’s play a goaltend, though, sending the contest to overtime, where the Thunder took advantage of the second chance.
We Can Stop Him When We Need To: This game’s enduring image, aside from the officiating, was a two-sided coin. “Heads” was the cold-blooded arc on which Aldridge repeatedly sent the ball when working his favorite spot on the left block. Neither Kendrick Perkins nor Nick Collison could bother the long-armed Aldridge’s turnaround, nor could they defend his array of up-and-unders, jump hooks, and other counters. His season-high 39 points tell part of the tale, but the stats don’t explain how easily and efficiently Aldridge got his points.
On regulation’s biggest possession, though, with the Thunder trailing by one and desperately fighting its way back, Perkins called “Tails,” finally denying Aldridge post position and forcing him into a 22-foot fallaway that missed.
In overtime, Oklahoma City’s defense grew stouter, using smart double-teams and subtle off-ball shading to close off every opening and force the Blazers into long contested jump shots.
It’s Not As Bad As It Looks: Does Kevin Durant get enough credit for his ballhandling? The question looks ridiculous when considering his place among the league leaders in turnovers, but those giveaways are partly a function of the defensive focus he draws, and his obscenely high usage rate.
Look instead at how Durant’s handle works in concert with his shooting. He repeatedly shook Gerald Wallace at the top of the key, not with Iverson-esque palming, but with quick misdirection moves that got his defender off balance. Once he had Wallace guessing, Durant had the tiny sliver of space he requires to shoot unbothered.
His handling pays dividends in transition, where he mostly avoids miscues. When halting Portland’s third-quarter comeback, he dusted Wallace with a casual behind-the-back dribble at midcourt to free himself for a pull-up jumper. He made a similar move to free himself from Aldridge for the clinching jump shot in overtime. His economical dribbling, like the rest of his game, is world-class without drawing undue attention.
Back By Popular Demand: After a three- or four-game hiatus, the Nick Collison-James Harden ESP play made a triumphant return. Early in the fourth quarter, they worked a give-and-go that Pete Carril could have drawn up for the 1952 NIT. Harden’s dunk was decidedly un-Princeton, but the synergy between the second-unit mainstays might merit some attention from Ivy League researchers.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.