PARITY INCLUDES PORTLAND IN TIGHT NBA WEST
A look at all things Blazers 10 games into the regular season …
• Portland is 6-4 and a game behind Minnesota (7-3) in a packed-tight Northwest Division after a 103-99 victory over Oklahoma City Sunday night at Moda Center.
Talk about parity: Nobody in the Western Conference has fewer than three losses. That means Portland is only a game out of first place in the West heading into Tuesday night's home matchup with Memphis (7-4).
That doesn't matter as much, though, as does the Blazers being able to pull out back-to-back last-second victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Thunder after earlier losing a couple of those type of contests.
If you concede Golden State, Houston and San Antonio are going to finish as the top three teams in the conference — a good bet, though not a sure thing — just about everybody else in the conference is fighting for fourth place and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"In the West, we're going to have seven, eight, nine teams — a bunch — fighting it out for the same position," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. "We're going to have a lot of close games.
"The more of them we can win, we'll do ourselves a favor and hurt other teams fighting for what we're fighting for. It's good for our growth and putting us in a position we want to be in."
• Lillard rose to the occasion of a visit from the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player — Russell Westbrook — and won both the game and a personal duel at the point.
Lillard was at his best, matching his season high with 36 points, dishing out a season-high 13 assists and coming through in the clutch when his counterpart did not. Lillard was 10 for 18 from the field and 15 for 15 from the free-throw line, including four foul shots in the final 19.9 seconds and two to wrap things up with five ticks left.
Westbrook, meanwhile, collected 25 points and nine assists but shot poorly — 10 for 25 from the field, 3 for 10 from 3-point range and only 2 for 7 from the line. With 20.5 seconds left and OKC trailing 98-94, Westbrook pulled a hat track after being fouled on a 3-point try. He missed all three attempts at the line.
Asked about it afterward, OKC coach Billy Donovan diverted the issue.
"What's more concerning is that our opponent got to the line 16 more times than we did," Donovan said. "We have a player in Russell who historically gets to the line as much, if not more than, anybody else in this league. The biggest difference in the game was the free-throw disparity. Forget about Russell's misses. The discrepancy in the free throws was the biggest part."
Portland did win the game at the line, making 22 of 28 attempts to OKC's 8 for 15 — which is a discrepancy of 13, not 16. And the Blazers got six of those tries in the final 20 seconds, when the Thunder were behind and in full chase mode.
Donovan should be worried about Westbrook, a career .821 foul shooter who is misfiring at an embarrassing .588 clip this season. Especially since, as the coach points out, Westbrook historically gets to the line an awful lot.
• When I asked Lillard if he gets a little more juiced every time he goes up against Westbrook, he answered in just the right way.
"I go into every game with the same attitude, but when you're playing against the MVP, you want to embrace that challenge," said Lillard, who is working on a string of four straight 30-point games. "You know if you don't, you're going to take your lumps. If I don't step up to that, how is my team going to beat his team?"
Lillard stepped up, and then some. As he toed the line at the end of the game, some fans serenaded him with an "MVP!" chant. He was much better than the guy with last year's hardware on one night, for sure.
• Portland, which entered Sunday ranked third in the NBA in free-throw shooting, is shooting .822 at the line, led by Lillard (.918) and CJ McCollum (.839).
"I've been with teams where you have five good free-throw shooters out there, and you know down the stretch, you can count on them," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "It's a real advantage to have those kind of guys at the end of a game."
• The Blazers went into Sunday high in several other statistical categories, including rebound percentage (first, .544), 3-point percentage (third, .394), opponents' 3-point percentage (fourth, .323) and defensive rating (fourth).
Stotts has asked his players to give him more effort at the defensive end this season. There are times when the results are positive; other times, it looks the same as in past years.
"It's still a work in progress," Stotts said. "More than anything else, I like our demeanor, our disposition and our will to defend and be consistent about it."
It helps to have Jusuf Nurkic in the middle. The Blazers blocked three of Westbrook's driving shots Sunday night, and two of them came when the 7-foot "Bosnian Beast" moved over to protect the paint. That could be an important weapon moving forward.
• After a slow start, Nurkic is finding his rhythm offensively — though you won't find him admitting to it. Over the past three games, he has averaged 24.0 points on .604 shooting along with 8.0 rebounds.
"All I do is play the same way," he said. "Now the shots are going in. I'm the same player. Now they're just falling in. There's no change in my game."
For the first seven games, though, the Nurkster was rushing shots at times — floating attempts up lazily and shooting 40 percent from the field. Now, he is being more patient, and his confidence has returned.
"I'm trying to focus on finishing," he said. "I know this team needs me. If I play a good game, we have a way better chance to win."
• Nurkic spoke about the Blazers needing to take advantage of this fortuitous stretch of schedule — 10 of 11 games at home — and also using one of the best homecourt advantages in the league.
"We want to win every home game," he said. "You want to win on the road, too, but we want to make Portland a good city both ways."
I think he meant he likes the city, and he likes winning games at Moda Center, too.
• Sunday's game was impacted when the Thunder lost star forward Carmelo Anthony in the third quarter after a truly strange call by the officials. Anthony drove to the basket, threw his body — and an elbow — toward Nurkic, then twisted the shot into the basket. The attempt was ruled good and a foul whistled on Nurkic, who flung himself to the floor after the shot to the head.
After video review — the play was shown several times on the Moda Jumbotron, drawing boos from the partisans in the building — the call was overturned. The basket was taken away and Anthony was levied a "flagrant foul two" call and ejected from the game.
Crew chief Rodney Mott's postgame explanation: "Contact was excessive, and it was not a natural basketball move when (Anthony) seeks out Nurkic, hits him in the face with an elbow and goes back to the basket."
It didn't pass the eye test for me, frankly. And the Thunder were plenty unhappy about it.
"I didn't see the replay, so I'm trusting the officials," Donovan said. "But I've never seen in my entire life a guy get an 'and-one' and then get thrown out of the game. That's something the league or the officials need to handle. If you're standing right there, I don't know how you don't see that. They take away two points and the 'and-one' and throw him out? That doesn't seem right."
Added OKC forward Paul George: "It was crazy. I didn't think they could review a play that they called an 'and-one' and call it back. The officials were overturned by the crowd. … He got contact going to the rim, he finished the play, and it should have been an 'and-one.'"
• Lillard said he likes where the Blazers are 10 games in.
"We've experienced some tough times as far as losing close games at the end that we feel we should have won," he said. "We had a great defensive stretch with bad offense; now the offense is coming back, and we're sustaining what we want to do at the defensive end.
"Considering all those things, we like where we are. We just wish our record could show that a little more."
• NOTES: Lillard has passed Rasheed Wallace for ninth place on the franchise career scoring list with 9,151 points. Next up: Mychal Thompson (9,215) in the eighth spot. … Power forward Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) missed his third straight game, and Stotts indicated his return to action won't be soon. For now, the "Chief" is having his minutes shared by starter Noah Vonleh and rookie Caleb Swanigan. … Meyers Leonard's recovery froma high ankle sprain "is well ahead of schedule," says Leonard, who planned to test the ankle by running on it Monday. … Stotts was asked about how Lillard has grown into making clutch shots, as he did when he drilled a 3-pointer with .7 of a second left to beat the Lakers 113-110 on Thursday night. The coach pointed to Lillard's driving shot at the end of regulation play the night before at Utah, in a 112-103 overtime loss. "The read he made in Utah, even though he got blocked (by Rudy Gobert), he got by his defender," Stotts said. 'He gets criticized sometimes for taking jump shots in those situations. I like that he has an idea what he wants to do and feels comfortable with it. He's not locked in on one thing or another. He's always been confident. As a rookie, when we had LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Wes (Matthews) and Nic (Batum), he had different responsibilities. He has continued to improve and mature."