Just when the Blazers seem to have played some of the best basketball of their season in the month of March, lethargy, poor shooting and an inability to complete road games in which they lead reared its ugly head. Sure they ended March with a cool 10-6 record, but upon further examination of those wins and losses (more importantly the losses), that 10-6 was as choppy as the Atlantic Ocean. The entire Blazers’ fan base was given the gauntlet of emotions to feel throughout March: shock at the luck with certain key opposing players being suspended or injured, elation over thwarting the Heat and stunning the Spurs, seething anger over the appearance of not giving enough effort in Charlotte and Atlanta, sound confidence in a few boring blowout wins and a loss for words and utter disappointment in losses to Oklahoma City and New Orleans. The Blazers season to date has not been as well-wrought as expected and the month leading into the playoffs proved no different.
I had been planning on writing this post at least a week and a half ago, had it penned down on this note of mine next to my monitor and next to it in black ink is: “mostly contingent on the Blazers streakin’ and going for the 4th/division/2nd round.” Obviously the Gerald Wallace trade, the trumping of the Magic and Heat in consecutive days had me dreaming… my conviction was stronger than ever that the Blazers could make that push for the 4th seed and get home-court advantage and move on finally. That was my dream until, well, until they lost in consecutive days to the Bobcats (a team they had whomped by 20+ a week prior) and the Hawks (the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team that had been known to not show up to games). It was a gut-wrenching weekend, having to live through those two ugly losses and also watching both Jesuit basketball teams win state championships. All the while, the Thunder were continuing their sparkling run as the media darlings and the Denver Knuggets were relentlessly ripping off wins making the run for 4th, hell even 5th, seem like Mission Impossible.
Heading into that Dallas game, I remember having no true feel for the game because both teams were struggling to figure out what they wanted to accomplish in the stretch run. The Blazers were due a win against the Mavericks, who they matched up pretty well with, but were unable to come away with wins in two earlier tries because of slow starts and no discernable “get buckets” player. However, the ensuing win had my mind gearing toward another dream of getting that 5th seed because I came to the conclusion that Oklahoma City would continue their cake walk and fatten their record with easy win after easy win. Brandon had just pulled another Denver performance and looked like the Natural of old, LaMarcus was the matchup nightmare he had been since Brandon went down, Rudy was sticking shots, pressuring the ball on defense and being as jovial as he was during his rookie year. Dreams were alive, vibrant, racing, we still got this.
But Denver has to falter sometime, they just have to, I kept telling myself as the Blazers continued to stomp on Cleveland and outshoot a fun and exciting Philadelphia 76ers team. But, it never happened… though my imagination, dream and hope for a matchup with the Thunder never died. Looking forward to that matchup was palatable and the stories plenty, most of them any casual sports fan would know so I won’t bore you with them here. “Streak for that 4th win over the Lakers tonight, keep putting pressure on Denver we got this,” was the constant refrain in my mind… until the Blazers pulled a trick they learned early in the year: going ice-cold and executing poorly at the most inopportune time. Count the Lakers lucky, for they didn’t play too masterful either, and the Blazers unfortunate to be stung by a bug they had yet to squash- that lonely, lonely road.
If there has been one Achilles’ heel of the Blazers this year (aside from having a healthy one… sorry, #selfdeprecationsoothesme) it has been their on-again/off-again road success, or rather unsuccessfulness. And the worst time to decide to continue to have these problems is smack dab in the middle of a race where every win is crucial and pivotal in maintaining position (#obviouslyclement). This sentiment was proved right as the Blazers played well enough against the Thunder to win the game, but were victims of late game sloppiness and soul crushing, heart wrenching and dagger triples by Russell Westbrook. The game demonstrated a few things: Kevin Durant really can’t play defense as Gerald Wallace ignited him for 40 points, LaMarcus could play against the frontline tandem of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but the rest of the game would come down to Russell Westbrook’s assertiveness in this point guard driven league and whether or not the Portland bench would show up. If anything, despite the loss, I wanted the Thunder. But with the loss it only became tougher to attain what I wished for, more arduous to have what I desired. Days later more pain would be inflicted in a confidence draining loss to the Hornets that further debilitated my chances of dreaming for 5th place and had me hoping for 6th place, while dreading a potential drop into 7th or 8th place.
The Blazers controlled their destiny still to a degree: they had to just win one more game than the Hornets to avoid losing out on a tie-breaker due to losing the season series and also had to be wary of a dangerous Memphis Grizzlies team that has been causing a raucous in the bottom half of the bracket. Suddenly, that loss to the Hornets was saddening, and people began to think beating the Thunder was an improbable feat… the talks of how to avoid the Lakers crept into the discussion; this is what the season was seemingly boiling down to. That was until, well, the Blazers played one of their best 2nd halves of basketball to send the Thunder packing with a bitter 7 point loss. Gerald Wallace once again was a stifling presence against Kevin Durant and the Blazers forced one of the weaker 3-point shooting teams into casting away from deep futilely. It was splendid, the Garden was rocking, hope was restored—life was renewed. This feeling carried over into the beat-down served up on Sunday, this time the victim was a weary Mavericks team. Suddenly a new dream was brewing: I want the Mavericks.
Reasons why I want the Mavericks are numerous: the Blazers matchup pretty well, and while the Mavericks make little use of the paint (which makes life supremely easy), the Blazers have the length/athleticism/tenacity to make life hell for Dallas perimeter players. LaMarcus Aldridge’s emergence and incredible performance against this team in particular cannot be overlooked as he is able to take advantage of Dirk’s inability to cover him in the post, as well as use his feathery touch, high release and quickness to negate Haywood/Chandler’s length. Rudy has become as big a pest as JJ Barea has, making their impending spars intriguing to me, so much so I have dubbed it “The Mosquito (Rudy) v. The Gnat (JJ).” You know what? I should trademark that, or copyright that because it has definite marketing potential slathered on it, plus “The Tick” was a rather successful TV show, right? Anyway, despite the detractors saying that the Mavericks are a different team during the playoffs, I shoot back hurriedly- find me evidence over Dallas’ last 4 years that states they are a scary team come playoff time and maybe… maybe I’ll consider your words. Until then I will dream of this scenario and a potentially upset ripe for the happening…
Wait, what’s that? There are still a few games to be played? And they did what? Lost to the Warriors last night by 21?!?! Sigh, I guess I should get my head out these clouds since there is still work to be done with just 8 days left in the NBA season. Sometimes this playoff stuff is not for real, it’s just for dreamers.