Saturday night, the NBA witnessed one of its most memorable and remarkable regular season games.
In the long and interesting shadow of Golden State-Oklahoma City stood several other contests. One of them will certainly become a top-five moment of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season if the team makes a playoff spot.
Yes, when the rest of us were riveted to the Warriors, Stephen Curry, and a night for the ages in Oklahoma, the world didn’t grind to a halt — it merely felt like it. The rest of the NBA didn’t stop. Portland had to begin an 11-in-13 road stretch (and a six-game road trip) against a bunch of Bulls in Chicago.
The matchup seemed favorable enough for Portland, given that the Bulls have been depleted by a stream of injuries this season. Then again, Portland faced a very favorable situation two nights earlier against the Houston Rockets, leading by a 72-51 score midway through the third quarter at home.
The Blazers didn’t handle that piece of prosperity very well, to say the least.
Thursday’s gack-tacular episode against the Rockets represented the very kind of event which can sabotage a season. An overachieving team — with all of its component parts functioning exactly how they’re supposed to — suddenly sputters in such a way that no player can stop thinking about the incident. Athletes are a lot more intelligent than they’re given credit for, but those very same athletes know that they can’t over-think on the court. They have to let instincts and habits take over, the job of the coach being to instill good habits and weed out bad ones.
After a loss such as the one Portland absorbed against Houston, over-thinking — and under-playing – would have been a natural response in Chicago. It would be inaccurate to say that the rest of the NBA was watching the Trail Blazers that Saturday night — the league was watching Steph, K.D., Russ, and a million other dramas in oil country. However, the point was plain: Portland needed to quickly move past that Rocket-fueled debacle. If it didn’t, this 11-in-13 road stretch had a chance to become a nightmare for the organization.
Clearly, everyone on the Blazers’ roster got the message. Coach Terry Stotts created a climate conducive to a calm and resolute mindset. From that cocoon of calm, Damian Lillard made a loud and very authoritative declaration: The Blazers’ voices won’t Trail off in 2016.
Lillard — like any legitimate NBA star — called forth his immense and luminous talents precisely when his team needed them. On a weekend road back-to-back freighted with uncertainty, Lillard immediately announced his presence to guide Portland through the storm.
Saturday in Chicago, Lillard scored 15 first-quarter points while his teammates failed to get out of the blocks, managing a total of only six. Lillard held together the Blazers in the first half against the Bulls. If he hadn’t, the course of the weekend — and the season — could have acquired a very different trajectory. As it was, Lillard’s excellence enabled his teammates to feel less pressure and more liberation at the defensive end of the floor. The Trail Blazers clamped down on the Bulls in a 103-95 triumph.
The most immediate hurdle for an aspiring playoff team — the first game after a searing, painful experience — had been cleared.
Lillard used that cleansing conquest to become even better the next evening in Indianapolis.
Soaring for 20 points in the first quarter, Lillard led Portland to 39 points in the opening 12 minutes. The Blazers established a tempo the Pacers couldn’t match. After 33 more Lillard points following his 31-point game in Chicago, Portland had swept this back-to-back stack.
Houston loss? What Houston loss?
The Rockets got ripped apart by the Spurs. Portland built back 1.5 games over the weekend. The seas are no longer turbulent for one of the feel-good stories of the NBA season.
So what if we were all watching Steph Curry redefine “the new normal” on Saturday night?
The Portland Trail Blazers returned to normal… and just in the nick of time.