Shoals Unlimited, On Location: Lessons Learned From a Blazers-Thunder Road Trip

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form on basketball once a week. ↵
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↵Wednesday night wasn't the first time Kevin Durant had visited Portland, whose Blazers passed on him in the 2007 draft. Nor was it the first time the Blazers had matched up against the Thunder since Greg Oden's career began this season, finally allowing for a head-to-head comparison of that draft class's prized prospects. That was last week. ↵

↵It was, however, the first time Durant-Oden went down at the Rose Garden, providing a chance for the city's fans to come to their own conclusions as to whether GM Kevin Pritchard made the right choice. On top of that, the game marked the first time the Thunder had been in the Pacific Northwest since they were the Sonics and called Seattle home -- a move that had some disgruntled Seattle-ites planning to show up and make their displeasure known. ↵

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↵There were storylines galore, fresh tension all over place, and the possibility that someone might leave feeling awful about themselves. And yet when the final buzzer sounded, everyone in attendance or watching at home could look on the night favorably. Although there was no questioning the Blazers' 106-92 victory, the game itself left room for a wide range of interpretations. In fact, it was an exercise in relativity, to the point where it might as well have been two, even three, different games. ↵

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↵When Oklahoma City hosted Portland last week, the then 12-38 Thunder held off a late rally by the Blazers for an unlikely victory. While the phrase "better than their record" might as well be stitched onto OKC's generic-looking unis, you don't expect the playoff-ready Blazers to spend most of a game in Oklahoma City trying to avoid a blowout. Just as important, Oden was a non-factor, while Durant dropped 31 on a helpless Portland team. No matter how much he and Oden downplay the rivalry, the notoriously competitive Durant probably wouldn't have minded a repeat performance. That the Blazers won, and did so with Oden playing a major role, vindicated not only the draft pick but the Blazers' entire carefully-calibrated plan for the future. ↵

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↵With the big man going for 16 and 10, while looking supremely active and athletic (if not always coordinated), Portland fans could assert with confidence that he addressed their team's needs better than Durant. Plus, Travis Outlaw did an admirable job bottling up KD, who didn't inspire nearly as much envy as he might have after the first meeting. Things are back on track, faith is restored, and, as long as Amare Stoudemire doesn't come to town, the harmony and order expected to one day bring a championship to Portland will continue to reign. ↵

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↵The Thunder, on the other hand, have split two games (meetings three and four come in April) with one of the league's best young teams. The loss came on the road, where the Blazers really come alive, and came one day after they gave the Lakers a run for their money. Durant had an off-night, but all that means is that he wasn't incandescent from start to finish -- ending up with a mere 20 points, seven boards, four steals, with respectable percentages. To a degree, guard Russell Westbrook and forward Jeff Green filled the void, going for 21 points and 12 rebounds and 17 and 4, respectively -- numbers that don't do justice to how promising Durant's wingmen are in their own right. And while Oden played well, this was one of his better games all season; you'd still probably describe it as inspired role playing, rather than the versatility and poise that characterize the Thunder's core. ↵

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↵Durant, who seemed abnormally focused during the pregame shootaround, and more demonstrative than usual when the lineups were introduced, may have something of a chip left lingering. On the other hand, two years into rebuilding from scratch, the Thunder have an extremely talented core, and given the combination of a high lottery pick and GM Sam Presti's track record, look to add another key piece this summer. They may not be the Blazers, but down the road, the Thunder could have an even higher ceiling. Even as a bad team, they still pose a threat when Durant, Westbrook and Green get going. ↵

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↵As for those supposed throngs of angry Sonics fans, or sympathetic Blazers ticket-holders, they got to see the Thunder lose. There were a few signs on display -- "Clay Bennett ruined my childhood," with baby included, was the funniest, "Still in Denial" the most pathetic -- and enough Sonics jerseys to make some impression, as did the vociferous booing for OKC and the chant of "Super-Sonics." They didn't cause a ruckus, but got plenty of attention from the media. And honestly, seeing who's left on the Thunder's roster outside of their Baby Big Three was enough to make you glad they left. Nick Collison and Earl Watson will never be missed in Seattle. ↵

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↵It's rare that everyone comes out a winner in professional sports. In fact, it's downright impossible. But sometimes, one game can lend itself to so many different perspective that the outcome turns into the common denominator, not the bottom line. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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