The quality of a playoff series is determined by the actual games within that series, and the play of the actual players. But sometimes the outcome of a playoff series can be determined by all kinds of things that take place off the court.
Over the course of a series that can stretch to two or three weeks, there is ample time for off-the-court distractions. These distractions come in many varieties, from national news stories to interpersonal relationships within the team environment to extracurricular activities on the court. In a series that can run up to seven games, sometimes managing those distractions can be the difference between winning and losing.
The Blazers' first round series with the Houston Rockets has been long on quality, with three of the first four games ending in overtime and two of the first three games being won by the road team, but it's been relatively short on the kind of drama and distractions that might have derailed a Portland team with almost no postseason experience.
The kind of drama and distractions that the Los Angeles Clippers currently find themselves embroiled in following the release of an audio recording of a man alleged to be their owner Donald Sterling making some pretty horrible racist remarks to his girlfriend.
In an effort to fight against the racism of their owner, the Los Angeles Clippers staged a silent protest prior to their game four match-up with the Golden State Warriors. The protest drew headlines and copycat protests from other playoff teams, including the Blazers in their game four, but ultimately the game's outcome was a blowout in favor of the Warriors.
Though the Clippers claimed in their post game pressers that the Sterling fiasco, which has done the thing most stories of this nature don't do and migrated off the sports page, had no impact on how they played, the numbers don't lie. In a crucial game, a pivot point in a highly competitive series and for a team (in the Clippers) looking to make good on some of the massive potential they've accumulated over this season and the one before it, the other team from Los Angeles went belly up.
Even though Sterling has now been banned for life from the NBA, and a vote from the owners forcing him to sell his team is imminent, should the Clippers, the third seeded team in the Western Conference with as a good as a shot at the NBA Finals as any team still playing at this time of the season, fail to advance to the second round, there's almost no doubt Donald Sterling will be to blame.
For the Blazers, the off the court heat has been null. Chandler Parsons claimed to be the best small forward in the series before a single game was played. Following a come from behind, miracle three-pointer win in overtime in game three, James Harden claimed the pressure had shifted to the Blazers (even if the Rockets were still down two games to one and needed another road win to get home court advantage back) and that Rockets should be ahead in the series. And of course there is the Patrick Beverley/Damian Lillard beef that predates the playoffs.
But overall, that's been it. A series that was supposed to be scrappy has seen only one tussle (Mo Williams versus Terrance Jones in game four). And four games that have been played on a razor's edge has produced little in the way of media hostility.
It's possible the simple fact that Houston, though having thrown a couple haymakers, has yet to prove they can hold a lead or put any real pressure on the Blazers late in games has limited their ability to call out their opponents. It's possible too that the Blazers are demonstrating a preternatural ability to block out the noise that accompanies the playoffs, and regardless of what anybody's saying, they're simply not listening.
"We don't buy into any of that stuff," Joel Freeland said following game four when asked about the off the court distractions, limited as they are in this first round series. "We got a mentally strong team. They know what we got in hand, and they know what we got to do. We go out and play. We don't fall into all that talking, and all that stuff outside of the basketball scene."
Avoiding all that other stuff, like speculation by some in the national media that a game three loss might be harbinger of a total Blazer meltdown or that game four was a must win for the home team even though even after a second straight home loss it would have still been possible for the series to be closed out in Portland, has worked pretty well.
When the Blazers/Rockets series shifts back to Houston, it will be the first Western Conference series to get to an elimination game. Needing one win in a possible three games to get out of the first round for the first time in a long, long time, it shouldn't be hard for the Blazers to continue their trend of not paying attention to what the other team or the national media is saying about them.
There's only one thing on their mind right now: going down to Houston and winning on the Rockets' home floor for the third time in as many tries. And if the Blazers can get that fourth win, whether in Houston in game five or what will likely be an absolutely delirious Moda Center in Portland should a game six be necessary, there's a possibility the off-court talk will shift from the Blazers getting lucky to the Blazers being contenders.
But even if all the talking heads pick the Blazers to win their next series, should it get eventually get there, don't expect Portland to change their tactic and stop ignoring the playoff noise.
"Nobody cares about anyone's opinion. Pretty much all season people have been against us; we've been fighting against them all season. I don't care, and I'm pretty sure nobody else cares," Freeland said. "We're just thinking about the games, especially this next game coming up."
If Freeland and the rest of the Blazers can continue to tune out what everybody says about them, whether good or bad, as well as all the peripheral drama that won't lessen as the playoffs go deeper, there will be more than just game five to occupy the Blazers' collective brain power and attention.