Portland v. Seattle, pre-season

This should have been a marquee game. After the Blazers and Sonics got the first two draft picks, this game was heralded as the first match-up up franchise players Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But after the misfortune suffered by Oden, it was just the first peek at Durant. But then he got injured and so much for the marquee rookie match-up.

I did not see the first quarter or the first part of the second quarter. When I did start watching Portland was up about 10. Slowly but surely, they gave it all back. It wasn't any one thing...they just started shooting poorly and their defense disappeared. By half-time they were down about 6, though they did have 52 points.

On offense they were settling too much for the outside jumper. That is okay if you have the right guys shooting...Martell Webster coming to mind. It is not so good if those guys are your Aldridges or Fryes.

On defense they could not seem to figure out what they were doing. They were losing guys in the zone, weren't boxing out, and just generally let Seattle dictate.

The third quarter was more of the same. Brandon Roy continued to struggle, missing shots he normally makes, making bad passes, getting out of position on defense. Blake and Jarrett were uninspiring, though Green had a couple nice plays. Outlaw had very mixed results with a couple nice blocks and rebounds and some nice offensive moves but his shot was not falling.

Fortunately, Webster and Aldridge were there to turn things around. Webster had a couple key shots and Aldridge was dominate, scoring and rebounding in measures large enough to keep the Blazers in contact, though they did trail by double digits.

Finally late in the quarter the Blazers hit a couple shots and had a couple stops to close within a more manageable 6 or 8 points.

In the 4th quarter Seattle just looked like the better team. It wasn't that the Blazers weren't trying...they just had the wrong people in the wrong places. Channing Frye was getting and taking open shots...but they were from the perimeter. Defensively, Aldridge kept getting stuck on the perimeter. It looked like a disappointing home loss to a weak Seattle team after they had been leading by as much as 13.

Worse, it was wasting a strong performance by Aldridge and some nice signs of life by Webster. If anything, it just went to show how important Roy is to this edition of the Blazers. He was still not up to game speed and it was showing.

Then, with about 6 minutes to go a switch flipped. Roy took over the point guard duties. He made a nice move, scored. The Blazers stopped the Sonics. Roy made a nice move, got fouled, hit the shots. The Sonics scored. Roy got inside and kicked it out to Webster who made a subtle move to move the defender and stroked the 3.

It was a great, great moment for Blazer fans. First, last year Webster would not have made that head fake, and second he would not have taken the shot. This year he smoothly, confidently took the shot and drilled it.

Roy just took over. He either scored or gave it to the open player for the score. Aldridge went over 30 points on a thunderous dunk off a nice dish from Roy when it looked like he had nowhere to go.

And all the sudden their defense stiffened, Sonics could not get a good shot off and the Blazers escaped with a win.

This was a great game for Blazer fans, even if it is "just" pre-season. They shook off a rugged middle part of the game, overcame a double digit deficit, found a way to keep contact even when their best player was struggling, and came back to win a close game against their biggest rival.

There were other positive signs. Webster has shown a HUGE improvement. He is playing with confidence, he is making smart plays, and he no longer has the confused, lost look he had last year. He looks like a talented veteran. He did not hesitate to shoot when open, he was willing to mix it up.

Aldridge showed his potential. Sure, games of better than 30 points and 10 rebounds are not going to be every night, but it will happen often enough to keep us happy. If the players keep feeding him the ball, 20 and 10 averages are more than attainable.

Travis Outlaw showed flashes as well. He is so athletic and energetic that he has the potential to make momentum changing plays at any moment. It could be a block from out of nowhere, a shake and bake move to launch that hanging jumper he is shooting so well, or a thunderous dunk from out of the rafters.

And best of all, the last 5 minutes or so were the old Roy magic. He went from another disappointing game to a 20 point game where every point mattered.

So we have a young team that loves to play, doesn't give up, and has great leadership in Roy and Aldridge, players not afraid to take the money shot in those two and Webster, and the potential to cause some defensive problems. All in all, pretty encouraging.

Meet John Townsend

Odds are you have never heard of John Townsend. In fact, it is possible you should not have. But he could very well have a major impact on how the Blazers season turns out this year.

He represents another step in the development of the NBA. It isn't that the NBA doesn't have enough my count, the Blazers have at least 6 already; Head Coach Nate McMillan, Lead Assistant Coach Dean Demopoulos, Assistant coaches Bill Bayno, Maurice Lucas, & Monty Williams, Strength and Conditioning Coach Bob Medina, and that does not even count the video coordinator(s), scouts, and so forth...or Special Assistant to Coach Bob other words, they already have more coaches than people they can play on the court at any given time. In fact, they could have an individual coach directing each player on the court and have one left over to yell at the refs or trip the opponents or something.

But the Blazers are now the 6th team to add a shooting coach and he comes in the person of "shooting guru" Townsend. This follows the lines of where you have the manager, the pitching coach, the bullpen coach, a hitting coach, a first base coach, a third base coach and who knows how many others. I have to admit I get confused as to why the pitching coach could not be the bullpen coach...what if they have different philosophies? And if they don't...isn't that duplication?

Or check out the NFL where you have the Head Coach, Offensive Coach, Quarterbacks Coach, line coach, receivers coach, running backs coach, special teams coach, defensive coach, defensive line coach, linebackers coach, defensive backfield coach, and who knows how many more...

In other words, these days you have a coach for EVERYTHING. It does make a certain amount of sense. After all, with the video technology available, a good hitting coach can turn a hitters career around, correct a pitcher's lost mechanics and extend his career, etc. Why would the same not be true for basketball?

So the Blazers went out, identified a need, and got their man.

Last year the Blazer field goal percentage was a shaky 45% , a number hardly likely to be improved with the loss of high percentage shooting Zach Randolph, who was third on the team at just .467%. The only players who shot better were Pryzbilla, Magloire, and Aldridge. On top of that, the Blazers are an extremely young team with most of their players under 25 and with less than 5 years of service. That is a recipe for a decline in shooting percentage.

In comes Townsend. It is yet to be seen if his work with the players will lead to improvement right away, but it is certainly a positive step. If he can add just a couple percentage points to the shooting percentage, the result may not be evident in any particular is hard to say something like, "Against Seattle Webster was 12 for 18, but without the coaching he would have only been 11 for 18"...the extra points and the benefits of those extra possessions will translate into a win here and there and will give the players increased confidence.

Of course, part of that may come from who is taking the shots. None of the three guys who had higher percentages than Randolph were taking a significant number of shots last year. Expect more of the same from Pryzbilla...his shots come mostly on offensive rebounds and broken plays where he shoots from close-in. He gets a high number of put backs and dunks which he will always shoot a high percentage on, but not have many shots. Magloire is in New Jersey. That leaves Aldridge who will be a focal point for the offense. If he continues to shoot better than 50% as he did last year but ups his attempts per game to 15 - 20 shots per game he will be a shoe-in for Most Improved Player...and the Blazers could surprise everyone with a huge jump in wins. Is this a long shot? Of course. But it is a possibility, too.

Just one more little thing to keep alert for as the season gets closer to opening and one more reason for optimism.