OKLAHOMA CITY – As each game passes, it seems the Trail Blazers are revealing more about the fiber that makes up the fabric of their character.
On Sunday in Oklahoma City, the Blazers did more than just beat the Thunder for the fourth straight time this season, they did so while displaying as much toughness as we’ve ever seen from this group.
It was varying forms of toughness – physical, mental, and spiritual – and together it formed a certain grit that figures to serve this team well as it heads to the playoffs.
Whether it was the Blazers holding their own inside and outrebounding the Thunder, or the poise to withstand losing all of an 18-point lead (seemingly in a blink of an eye), or the spunk shown by Evan Turner and company when things got a little rough in the third quarter, this looked and felt a little different than previous Blazers teams.
“I always thought we were pretty tough, but now it’s more of a collective toughness,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s not just in spots. Now its like, we know who we are, we know what we have to do, we know we have to trust each other and lean on each other to get things done.’’
Seventy three games into this season, it’s safe to say this team will not be bullied. This team will not wither. And this team will hold its ground when push comes to shove.
“I know these guys pretty well … You know who really boxes in their spare time,’’ CJ McCollum deadpanned.
McCollum, who played both a beautiful and brilliant game against the Thunder, was referring to Turner and Lillard – both boxing aficionados who also train in the ring during the offseason.
It was Turner who was at the epicenter of Sunday’s kerfuffle, which started in the third quarter when Ed Davis threw tumbling Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson off his knees as if he was a piece of luggage.
As the troops convened on the scene to begin the NBA ritual of pushing, followed by retreat, Turner pushed and held his ground, his feet seemingly in concrete, as Russell Westbrook charged.
It was a fitting stance for what this Blazers team has become: Stoic, solid, unwavering.
Lillard, for one, took notice of Turner.
“I wasn’t surprised,’’ Lillard said. “I actually noticed it. As soon as I saw a couple of guys coming his way, I knew he was going to stand his ground.’’
Lillard has a special bond with Turner because of their love of boxing. They not only appreciate the science, they both have implemented it into their training.
“I’ve said it plenty of times – I’m a huge fan of combat sports, and if there’s anybody on the team who is equally as much of a fan, it’s ET,’’ Lillard said. “He is equally a fan and a participant, in the ring, training in forms of combat. I do the same thing. ET is not looking for confrontation, but if it comes his way, he will stand his ground just like that.’’
By no means were the Blazers thumping their chest about the third-quarter fracas as a calling card to the NBA that they’ve arrived as some kind of rough-and-tumble team. Far from it.
Turner, for one, was remorseful, saying he would pay Ferguson’s $1,500 fine for his role in the youngster getting a technical. The only thing to be taken from it, Turner says, is what the Blazers already knew: they have each other’s backs.
“The biggest thing is the mental capacity of it – just not backing down,’’ Turner said. “And that was it.’’
What the third-quarter tussle did was elevate an already intense game that had every bit the feel of a do-or-die playoff game. This game was played on edge, with ferocity, and with significant emotional swings.
Through it all, Portland not only persevered, it almost seemed to thrive. Jusuf Nurkic was neutralizing the mammoth Steven Adams. Maurice Harkless was blocking shots left and right. Al-Farouq Aminu was in the thick of every scrum. And Lillard was chesting up and taking charges.
It wasn’t long ago the Blazers were viewed as mostly a finesse group, a young group, both between the ears and in physical stature.
Now – not because of Sunday, but over the course of the season – they have matured into what is looking like a hardened group.
“It’s collective now, and that makes the look different,’’ Lillard said. “It’s more obvious, and it shows a team toughness.’’
He was talking about both a mental toughness and physical toughness, and it might be the one trait where other teams had an edge in past playoff series against the Blazers.
Now, the Blazers think it just might be an edge.
“It makes us a much better team,’’ Lillard said of the toughness. “To be successful against good teams on the road you need that , but in the playoffs you need to rely on that a lot of times, because that’s when it’s the toughest – people playing for that championship. So I think that’s something that will really be on our side in the playoffs.’’