On Thursday night, the Blazers and the Thunder gave us plenty of fireworks during their overtime thriller in Portland. By the end of it, we’d seen scuffles, technical fouls, ejections, curious crunch-time calls from the officials, a 51-point explosion from Damian Lillard, and a burgeoning rivalry between conference foes that might offer us a glimpse of a heated showdown later this spring.
Oklahoma City was able to put it away in the extra period, 129-121, but TNT analyst Charles Barkley thinks there’s something special brewing in the Pacific Northwest. The Hall of Fame inductee made the bold prediction that Portland will be the team that ends Golden State’s dominance out West en route to making the NBA Finals. Barkley wasn’t the only one with this take, as one of his co-hosts, Kenny Smith, agreed.
Lillard was a revelation against the Thunder, and had Jusuf Nurkic not got ejected after earning his second technical late in the fourth quarter after a dust-up with Paul George, perhaps the outcome would’ve been different. Nurkic’s tech did keep in line with the black hat he has decided to don recently with his physical play and trash talk, which has given the Blazers a much-needed edge that has been largely missing during this core’s tenure.
On Thursday night, Nurk tried to trip Westbrook — he claims it was an accident — then got plowed to the ground by Russ, took an elbow to the face from George, and bumped heads with the MVP candidate, earning his late ejection. And it’s not just toughness Nurk is bringing to the floor — he’s been one of the NBA’s best players since the All-Star break, leading the league in plus-minus. The Blazers are markedly better on offense and defense when he’s on the floor.
Before he got the boot Thursday, he put up 13 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. Combined with another 25 points from C.J. McCollum, and Portland’s big three looks like a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. Still, we’ve also seen this movie before.
Despite Barkley and Smith’s prediction, it’ll be hard to erase the memory of the way the Blazers performed against an — on paper, at least — inferior Pelicans team en route to a first round sweep last year. It’s an image that’s been seared into our minds, and that was as a heavily-favored No. 3 seed.
Granted, there will be a lot of shuffling for home-court advantage over the next 17 games or so for the conference’s top four seeds, so a lot can change between now and then, but as it stands, if the playoffs started today, they’d find themselves matched up against a Houston Rockets team riding a six-game win streak and looking more and more like the biggest challenge for the Warriors.
The problem with Portland the past few years has had nothing to do with the regular season. It’s had to do with translating that success into the postseason. Nurkic could very well be the determining factor this time around if he keeps up his stellar play, but they’ll need him on the court and not in the locker room where he was last night in the crucial minutes of a game against a conference rival could have playoff implications when the time comes.
If Nurkic can stay on the floor, and Lillard looks like a superstar, and McCollum is the flamethrower he’s capable of being on a nightly basis, then perhaps there should be optimism about the Blazers making noise. If that doesn’t happen, well, that would just be the same old Blazers doing what they always seem to do.