Even without the scuffles, the scoring outbursts and the chaotic finish it’s obvious games have a different tenor at this point in the NBA season.
“Yeah, for sure. Everybody’s fighting for position in the playoffs. Everybody’s trying to send a message,” Damian Lillard said following the Trail Blazers’ 129-121 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night at the Moda Center.
“Everybody’s trying to finishing strong. Everybody’s trying to get that momentum going into the postseason so every game is, like personal. You’re out there going after people. You’re trying to show. ‘We’re the better team.’ Every night you’re trying to go out and show that you’re the better team. Every matchup is going to be like this. It’s going to be big time dog fights.”
If this was a playoff preview, there is plenty of drama ahead for the Blazers in the postseason. Jusuf Nurkic was ejected at the end of the fourth quarter after being at the center of seemingly endless altercations, Lillard (51 points) and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (37 points) engaged in an All-NBA level point guard duel, and the end of regulation devolved into complete referee-aided chaos.
When the final buzzer sounded in overtime, the Thunder had yet again beaten the Blazers, completing a four-game season sweep with their second win in Portland this season. The loss dropped the Blazers (39-26) to fifth in the West with 17 games remaining as Oklahoma City jumped into sole possession of third place.
The game had a playoff feel and playoff implications, and if Nurkic had his choice it would also serve as a playoff preview. After answering a heavy dose of questions about his first half technical, his late-game ejection and his emotions in close games, Nurkic admitted that he wants another meeting with the Thunder in postseason.
“I’d be the happiest man on the earth,” Nurkic said about a potential playoff series with Oklahoma City.
There’s an obvious revenge factor at play in Nurkic’s preference. Him and Westbrook don’t like each other and Nurkic wants to get the last laugh. But he also offered a more reasonable explanation.
“Because that’s what you want. You want to compete,” Nurkic said. “Nothing dirty, but you want to compete. You want those type of games.”
Nurkic isn’t alone in welcoming a showdown with the Thunder in April.
“I would love that,” Lillard said. “I think because every game has been competitive. Just like they beat us four times this year, we beat them four times last year. I’m sure they still felt like they could beat us if it came down to a playoff matchup. I think it’s perfect. It gets heated every time so I’m sure it would make for a great series. I know it’s really hard to beat a team eight times in one season.”
The atmosphere on Thursday night at Moda Center felt a playoff game complete with star performances and high level drama. If the Blazers, have their choice they are five weeks away from an encore.