At the All-Star break, we take stock of what’s gone before us, waiting for trades to pop and for the second half to begin. Here are the five games — one per team — which captured the story of the Northwest Division.
DENVER NUGGETS: Tuesday, December 22 vs. L.A. Lakers — L, 111-107
The Nuggets’ future is promising, but the overall theme of this specific season is “they’re not there just yet.” Therefore, the most representative game for Denver has to be a downer, not a ray of hope. The team lost eight straight at the end of November and the start of December, but that was the product of a very young team trying to find itself and going through inevitable growing pains. A loss which constituted a far worse giveaway came just before Christmas.
On Sunday, December 20, the Nuggets lost at home to the not-very-good New Orleans Pelicans. That’s a bad loss within the context of this season for any team other than the Sixers, Lakers, Nets, the post-November Suns, and the post-November Timberwolves.
As awful as that loss was, it remained just one night. Young teams will encounter such stumbles. A sign of maturity lies in learning from those occurrences and showing that the lessons have been retained.
Two nights later, the Nuggets lost at home to the Lakers.
They’re not there yet.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Wednesday, January 6 vs. Denver — L, 78-74
The Timberwolves’ season has in many ways been defined solely by games against Denver. Minnesota lost twice to the Nuggets in a five-night stretch in the middle of December, when the T-Wolves began their steady descent after a very encouraging 8-8 start to the season. In early January, the Timberwolves lost to the lowly 76ers and held a team meeting before a home game against — of course — the Nuggets.
They limited Denver to just 12 points in the fourth quarter, and only 78 for the game… and lost.
The Wolves scored only 9 points in the fourth quarter.
If that doesn’t sum up a depressing season in Minneapolis, nothing will.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Saturday, February 6 at Golden State — L, 116-108
This is a unique example among all the teams being surveyed in the first half of the NBA season. The Thunder lost to Golden State on the eve of the Super Bowl in the Bay Area. The reality of a loss might seem to suggest that the Thunder’s season has been a largely negative journey, but that’s not the case. This was a rare instance in which a loss represented a source of encouragement; Oklahoma City’s defensive was admittedly eviscerated in the first half by the NBA champions, but the Thunder clamped down in the second half and briefly tied the Warriors before falling short in the final minutes.
This loss quite possibly represented the Thunder’s most impressive performance of the whole first half — sure, not in terms of overall shooting numbers or in terms of everything working just right. That’s not primarily important here. The Thunder needed to show they had a backbone, and that Billy Donovan could hold his own in a matchup with Steve Kerr. OKC checked both boxes, lending more than a little credence to the belief that it can beat San Antonio and become the primary challenger to the Dubs in the Western Conference playoffs.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: Monday, February 8 at Memphis — W, 112-106 (OT)
The Trail Blazers have exceeded expectations, given the absence of both LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum this season. Far from falling off a cliff with a diminished roster, the Blazers are right in the mix for a playoff spot. They might even finish as high as seventh in the West, but merely being close to a playoff berth is something that couldn’t have been taken for granted before the season began.
Which game most centrally showcased the ability of this team to go above and beyond the call? Try the recent game against Memphis — an older team but still a veteran team with accomplished players. The Blazers fought uphill in that game and had to scramble to send it into overtime. Gut-punching the been-around-the-block Grizzlies certainly rates as a considerable achievement for Portland.
UTAH JAZZ — Tuesday, February 9 at Dallas — W, 121-119 (OT)
The Jazz, riddled by injuries yet struggling regardless of limitations, were the West’s version of the Washington Wizards in the East. They were understandably worse than expectations, but even the injuries they suffered shouldn’t have carried that severe an effect. Utah appeared to be in trouble at 19-25 a few weeks ago.
However, a seven-game winning streak abruptly turned the Jazz’ season around, just in time for the break. The best win of that sequence was a road escape in Dallas. Utah played uphill for much of that contest but surged in the fourth quarter (the Jazz had struggled in fourth quarters for much of December and January). Gordon Hayward then drove home the buzzer-beating winner on a stepback jumper from the left corner. Utah profoundly recast the way in which its first half should be evaluated.