PORTLAND — Ask Nicolas Batum about the infamous goaltending call from early last month, and he’ll give the question a clean block.
“You can’t ask me that. You can never ask me that,” Batum said. “If I made the layup on the other end of the floor, we would have won.”
The opponent was the Thunder and the date was Feb. 6. The Trail Blazers came into the game with a 14-10 record and were six seconds away from beating Oklahoma City for the second time in as many tries.
Then, Kevin Durant drove the lane, watched LaMarcus Aldridge swat his layup attempt off the backboard ... but was still credited with the game-tying bucket as the official called goaltending.
Boos rained down from the rafters, but the unchallengeable call — which the NBA later admitted was wrong — stuck. And after Batum missed a contested layup at the end of regulation, the Thunder went on to win in overtime.
“I don’t know if I think about that every day, but I think about it very often,” continued Batum, adding that he thought that was the most significant game of the season. “When all the trades happened, I thought ‘if I had made that shot, this would be totally different.’ ”
If the subject is this season, the antonym of the Blazers’ expectations is the Blazers’ performance. Yes, they are still clinging to the idea of a playoff appearance, but are losing their grip on such hopes one finger at a time.
And if there was one event — and maybe it’s impossible for it to be just one event -- but if there is one occurrence that gave Portland’s year that initial push down the mountain, it happened against the Thunder that night. A blown season just may have started with a blown whistle.
Heading into Sunday night’s game vs. the Warriors, the Blazers were 8-16 since they last shared the court with Oklahoma City. Their first game after — against the Rockets — was an ode to lethargy and tribute to listlessness.
Ten times since that game, Portland has lost by double digits. And while this franchise has seen coaches fired, starters traded, and centers waived — it hasn’t seen consecutive wins since Jan. 24.
“That definitely was a landmark point of the season. That was a big moment. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Blazers guard Jamal Crawford said of the goaltending game. “That was kind of the moment where things started getting a little funny.”
A strong team, of course, brushes off a tough loss like a nettling piece of lint. Controversial calls happen in any team sport, and Portland had an overtime and more than two dozen games since to evict that disappointment from their minds.
That is likely why Wesley Matthews denies that the loss played a role in derailing his team’s season despite it being “deflating” at the time. It’s probably also why Aldridge said he moved on from the defeat the next day.
However, Aldridge did admit that the OKC game “might have taken an emotional toll on some guys.” And when you bring the subject up in the locker room, it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
Batum said that if one looked at the Blazers’ first 10 games of the season, he would conclude that they would finish no worse than fourth in the Western Conference.
Craig Smith, meanwhile, said that his team’s start had him thinking he would make the playoffs for the first time in his six-year career.
Instead, it appears that in a season of disappointments, there’s one memory that even a Rhino is having a hard time barging through.
“That one hurt a lot. Having the top team in our building — we had them beat, and it took a lot out of us,” Smith said. “It’s come up a lot within myself, like watching a DVD and seeing a play that reminds me of that. It’s just unfortunate when you’re in a situation like that. It bothers me, and I know it bothers a lot of guys in here.”