Cleveland 84, Portland 83

With 4:26 to go in the game when LaMarcus Aldridge dropped in an easy jumper to give the Blazers an 11 point lead I felt like a genius. LeBron James was 9-23 from the field for 26 points...good, but definitely not among his best games, their shooting percentage was in the high 30s, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson were non-factors and the game was there for the taking.

There were several elements that had led to this point in the game. To start with, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw had done an excellent job on James. Most of his buckets had come on fast breaks or when the Blazers went to their zone. On the occasions he did break down Webster or Outlaw and get to the bucket Joel Przybilla hovered there to turn back his shots. James was getting extremely frustrated by these events. Nor was he getting much help from his team.

Fortunately for Cleveland, Portland was also struggling. Their bench shot a horrific 7 for 33 for the game and normally reliable Steve Blake was 4 for 11. For the game the Blazers would end up shooting just 35%. Still, they maintained a 6 - 12 point lead for the majority of the game.

But when you have a one man team down you need to put the pedal to the metal. Portland needed to expand on that lead and make it so one person could not come back and beat them. Nobody on Cleveland, with the possible exception of Drew Gooden, was stepping up. They did just enough to hang around in that 8 or 10 point deficit range.

Unfortunately for Portland the NBA elected to play 48 minutes instead of the 44 minutes Portland felt like playing. The Blazers shifted into Matador defense mode. James got uncontested shot after uncontested shot. Memo to Portland; this James kid is a good player. He dropped in a three. Gooden somehow got a shot to fall from the lane. James dropped in another three. The closest defenders wore Cavaliers jerseys. The game was tied. Outlaw saw what was happening and went right at James, dropping in a tough shot to give Portland back the lead. Portland got what they needed...James finally missed a shot, another 3...but Gooden got the offensive rebound and was fouled.

When he missed his second shot, Portland had another chance...but Ilgauskas got the offensive rebound. Inexplicably it was not James who took the next shot and when the 3 rimmed off, Portland had everything they needed in place. Well, everything except the willingness to put it in the hands of their most reliable 4th quarter performer, Outlaw...and when Blake's wide open trey rimmed out it was James time. Except he missed the lay-up.

So Portland set up their final possession. The play they had the most success with involved a side screen pick and roll with Roy and Aldridge. Their second best play had been working the ball to Outlaw on the right side and letting him create his own shot. So they wisely had Roy dribble down the clock, set no picks, and got only a no-chance off balance shot.

Still, with 4.9 seconds left they had a 1 point lead. Sure they had had numerous chances to extend it, had somehow survived a barrage of blown opportunities to claim defensive rebounds, had missed their open shots and then gotten no reasonable shot in their last possession, but they had the lead and 2 guys who had caused James problems all night.

So they instead put Brandon Roy on James. Huh? Where did that come from? Well, James must have thought this was practice because he looked like he was doing a layup drill. He cakewalked to the left, drifted down the lane and put in an uncontested layin. Oh, it did not look uncontested. Three Blazer jerseys were within a couple feet of him. They just did not bother to defend it. James is a great player and if nobody attempts to stop the drive or challenge the shot the results will be very favorable for the Cavaliers. James made it look easy and suddenly the Blazers were staring real long odds in the face with something like three tenths of a second and inexplicably one of their shortest players inbounding the ball. Cleveland coach Mike Brown put Ilgauksas in front of him which effectively ended the game.

The final box score shows James with 37 points on 13-29 shooting and that is what sets him apart from virtually every other player in the league. Whereas Roy struggled down the stretch, making no shots and getting no easy ones, James got open looks from outside and from inside and he made them. He turned a poor shooting, average scoring loss into a decent shooting night, great scoring night and a win for his team.

There has been a local debate over whether Roy should be an All-Star. I have not won popularity contests by suggesting that while he is clearly the Blazer MVP he is not yet at the All-Star level. Statistically speaking he is not one of the top 12 Western Conference players, though statistics do not tell the entire tale. But a night like this is where an All-Star earns their honors. Roy had a very good night...he rebounded well (7), distributed well (8 assists) and shot 7-16, totaling 16 points. But when it mattered, when he had to either score or identify the right person to get the ball he did not come through and defensively he was destroyed by James.

I am a huge Brandon Roy fan. His jersey is the first bit of apparel I have ever worn with any individual player's name on it. He is going to be a difference maker for this team for many, many years to come. But he is still evolving as a player and this game was an example of a game where he did not take the steps an All-Star needs to. And as has been happening more and more often of late, none of the role players stepped up in his place to pull the game out.

This game was all about James. He scored 44% of the Cavaliers points, over a quarter of their rebounds, and on a night the Cavaliers not named James all failed to make double digits he still found a way to pick off 4 assists, almost a third of their total of thirteen. It was the type of transcendent performance that makes games by players like James worth watching.

While I am disappointed that Portland lost I hope they use this as a learning experience and figure out ways to deliver that knockout blow. All season they have won the close games and perhaps they have come to count on that so they relax a bit as they seemed to do when Aldridge hit that jumper. But this time, not putting a team away when they had the chance came back to bite them and deservedly so. When you give a great player a chance, he takes it and this was a prime example.


24-19 Cleveland at 26-18 Portland

Prior to the season when our group of season ticket holders got together to draft our tickets there were only a handful of games I had on my "I really want to see this game" list. Boston was one, to see their transcendent collection of talent, Seattle was one to see the Oden-Durant match-up of instantaneously contributing rookies, and of course Cleveland to see King James, a player so good he essentially took down the Eastern Conference by himself last year. When you look at the Cavaliers roster it is hardly imposing. Yet some how, some way he took them to the Finals to experience the most one-sided thrashing we have seen in quite some time. Because as good as James is, the TEAMS in the Western Conference are simply that much better. Tonight should be another example of that.

The Lebrons are coming off a game between Lebron James and Kobe Bryant...err, I mean between the Cavaliers and the Lakers. That was a great example of two teams who have one exceptional, outstanding player and a bunch of supporting players who may or may not show up. James and Bryant had superlative games, so much so that it often seemed the other 8 players were props more than anything. The Cavaliers came out ahead because too often the Lakers go to the Kobe offense and James had a slightly better game.

That won't happen in Portland. Admittedly no player on the Blazers approaches James for sheer skill, at least as an individual. Few teams have any one player who does. But Portland somehow is better than the sum of its parts. If you put any given Blazer outside of Brandon Roy on any below average or average team in the league he will not change them into a competitive team single-handedly. James does that for the Cavaliers.

However, each Blazer knows his role and fills it to perfection. Joel Przybilla provides defense and rebounding but does not look to score except on offensive put-backs. Martell Webster provides defense and long-range shooting. Steve Blake keeps the turnovers down and provides timely shooting. Travis Outlaw provides massive infusions of energy, tough on the ball defense, and clutch scoring. Sergio Rodriguez provides a spark off the bench one game and hardly plays the next. Everyone accepts their role and does not complain about it.

If another team wanted to trade for any of these guys straight up I suspect Portland would get very little in return. Well, maybe they would get something for Outlaw...he is making enough of a name for himself that sometimes he isn't even called "Charles" by the TNT guys now. They actually know his name...but no All-Stars or prime-time players would be offered. Yet it would take such a player to contribute as much to this Blazer team as would be taken away. They are the epitome of a team...taken separately, outside of 2 or at most 3 players there is seemingly not much. But they fit together so well, play together so well, and work so hard to not let down their teammates that they turned their season into something special.

With that said, Cleveland does have a couple of things working in their favor. Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao are the type of players that give Portland fits. Neither is an elite fact, I would be surprised if either was ever in a future All Star game. But they are energetic players that can score inside who are solid rebounders. Portland tends to give up big games to these type players. I would not be surprised to see one or the other of them end up with 15 - 20 points and a dozen rebounds...maybe even both of them. If they do that and Daniel Gibson has one of his better games the Cavaliers will sneak out with the win.

The more likely scenario has James having an "off night", at least by his standards, as a let-down after the big confrontation with Bryant. He will still be in the 25+ point range I would suspect but it will take him too many shots to get there. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Gibson are the types of players Portland typically harasses into poor shooting nights. Cleveland will end up shooting less than 44% for the game and Portland should win fairly handily, again in the 10+ point range.

This might be a tad optimistic with the decent road record the Cavaliers have compiled at 11-12 but this game fits well into Portland's strengths so I am sticking with it. They are brimming with confidence after the huge comeback against the Hawks. It is also an important game. Right now Portland is 26-18 with 38 games remaining. They are 1/2 game behind the Jazz and tied with the Nuggets for the Division lead and it will probably take winning the division to get into the playoffs. That will be tough to do. A quick glance at their remaining schedule is pretty revealing.

They have 4 tilts with the Lakers, 3 with the Suns, 2 each with the Rockets, Mavericks, and Warriors, and another game with the Spurs, not to mention road games with the Pistons and Cavaliers and another game with Boston. Every one of those is a tough game. Winning half of those would be very impressive...and unlikely. I would not be shocked if they won 6 or fewer of those games. I actually see them going 19-19 the rest of the way which would give them 45 wins on the season. That would be a huge improvement over last year and a very successful season, though it would probably leave them out of the playoffs. Even to achieve that will be tough.

They have winnable home games against the Cavaliers, Knicks, Nuggets and Bulls...let's say they stumble once, probably against the Nuggets. Then they go on the road for 4 with the Pistons, Pacers, Rockets and Mavericks. 1-3 is very possible there. Then take a look at this stretch of games to close out the season: They visit the Lakers and Rockets, come home to play the Spurs and Lakers, go to Sacramento, home for Dallas and Memphis, and then end the year on the road in Phoenix. That is a tough stretch where they could conceivably end the year losing 7 of 8. There are 2 stretches where it is not inconceivable they will be 2-9. For them to finish .500 from here on out they are going to need to win every game they "should" win and a few that are toss-ups or probable losing efforts.

Then again, this team has surprised me all year. I did not see them winning thrice against the Jazz or beating Utah in Denver so perhaps they will exceed my expectations, split the very tough games mentioned above, win every game they "should" against the teams like Seattle, Minnesota, Memphis, the Clippers and so forth, go 26-12 down the stretch and thunder into the playoffs with a nigh unbelievable 52-30 record. I would love to see that happen and be there cheering all the way. Actually, even if they do a little more poorly than the expected 19-19 we will be right there cheering all the way as this team has already exceeded most people's expectations.

The team is headed the right direction. There are solid character guys playing their assigned roles uncomplainingly and have identified their strengths and weaknesses which will be addressed next year with the arrival of this year's draft pick...So they should win Wednesday and we will see what happens from there.


Portland 94, Hawks 93

I admit it. I was wrong. I figured Portland would win this game easily by 10+ points. This one should be a blow-out, a laugher. It almost was...just in the other direction.

Portland started out all right with LaMarcus "LA" Aldridge scoring 4 quick points and Joel Przybilla adding a pair of awkward-looking free throws for a 6-2 lead. But after scoring 6 points in 3 minutes they could manage just 9 for the next 13. It was a team effort with turnovers, missed shots...most of them open looks from favorite positions...and missed free throws. Meanwhile, the defense was porous, allowing layins, alley-oops, uncontested drives, and leaving guys alone under the basket for a variety of dunks by the Hawks. When most of your shots are layups or dunks you are going to make a lot of them. Success breeds success. Suddenly an easy game looked even easier...just for the opposite team. The Hawks built a substantial 29-19 lead after one quarter.

Of course, the Blazer faithful were not worried. We were watching our guys take the shots we know they make high percentages on and our vaunted bench was going to make everything all right. It certainly looked that way early as the first 4 Portland possessions resulted in 2 dunks by Travis Outlaw, a short jumper by Channing Frye and a wide open three from James Jones to make it just 34-28 with 9:36 left in the quarter. Coldness, thy name is the Blazers offense. Over 4 minutes later when Brandon "The Natural" Roy dropped in free throws Atlanta was up a dozen at 42-28.

As a casual Hawks fan who wishes them well when they are playing any team not name the Blazers, I wish I could report this was their phenomenally talented young players were making spectacular shots against tough defense, holding out promise for their future. In reality they were making layin after layin. Well, layins when they were not throwing down thunderous dunks. On the bright side, no Blazers were "posterized". On the dark side, that is because the Hawks shots were so open there was no Blazer in the picture frame. It was pretty brutal.

At the other end, the Blazers shots WERE now being contested. The Hawks were extending their defense and shot after shot taken by the Blazers was against the shot clock or with a hand in their face. The combination of outstanding Hawks defense and pathetic Portland defense was becoming lethal. They built an 18 point lead before Roy closed the half with a spectacular drive and free throw after the foul. The half time score was 52-37 and it looked ugly.

Going back to the Houston game, the Blazers had now gone 4 consecutive quarters where 19 points was their BEST score for a quarter. Not good. Furthermore, Aldridge had a total of 5 shots. He had shown early on he could score almost at will as Atlanta had nobody who was even troubling his shot. Yet after his first couple scores he got just 3 shots for the half. Roy was a game-time decision to play due to the flue, the Hawks were playing great defense, and Portland was not finding ways to score. It looked bad. Still, I commented to my wife, "They can still win this."

It did not look like it at the start of the third. Aldridge turned the ball over and missed his first shot, though his second was good and Roy hit a layin, but Atlanta was expanding their lead. They also were doing a great job. When Roy started his pick and roll Atlanta was doubling Roy and forcing him out 30 feet from the basket. Portland was not rotating the ball and their stagnant offense was not making the Hawks pay for having two defenders so far from the basket. As late as 1:02 of the third quarter Atlanta had a 15 point lead at 73-58. On the bright side, that meant Portland had finally broken the 20 point barrier for a quarter. On the dark side, they still could not stop Atlanta. But Outlaw drained a three, they picked off a Joe Johnson pass and Frye hit a tough shot with just a couple seconds left on the clock for a quick 5-0 run to get them within 10 after three. It was the first quarter they have won in a while and a marked turnaround from their normal third quarter woes.

The start of the 4th quarter saw something that drew a lot of distaste from the Portland crowd. Williams...I believe it was Marvin, though it might have been behind the Blazers defense and was on his way for the break-away dunk. No big deal, by this point it felt like Portland had given up 10 or 15 dunks. But for whatever reason James Jones made a dirty play. He grabbed his shoulders from behind and essentially horse-collared him to the ground. It was properly called a Flagrant 2 (I believe that is the more serious one), but it also did a couple things.

First, it completely killed the crowd. That is the sort of play we might have expected in the Rasheed Wallace-Damon Stoudemire-Darius Miles type of days. It is not the sort of thing we expect from this team. It is a young team that plays the game right...hard but clean. No need for the Detroit Pistons type play of the late 90s, none of the Rick Mahorn/Dennis Rodman/Shaquille O Neal type nonsense. Blazers fans simply do not like dirty play or cheap shots and this was exactly that. And Jones knew it instantly.

A couple other season ticket holders sitting behind me even had a short discussion about how much of a rally killer it was. Prior to that play the Blazers fans were into the game. That 10 point deficit felt like a lead. The 4th quarter is ours, we knew the game was in hand. After that play people were shifting in their seats and one family even left.

I suspect we will not see anything like that from Jones again. Fortunately, Williams was not hurt. And though Atlanta did not score on the possession after the free throws it felt like far more than a 2 point swing. It felt like they were down 15 or 16 points again. The crowd was completely taken out of the game.

And so it went. After 2-1/2 minutes of the quarter Atlanta held a 14 point lead. It was at this point that McMillan made a great coaching move. Instead of setting picks for Roy, which Atlanta clearly had the number of, he started just running clear-outs for Roy. The double teams disappeared and the offense exploded. Outlaw then changed the game. He hit back to back threes with a hand in his face from the left side foul line extended. The second one pulled Portland within 8.

As late as the 5 minute mark Atlanta was maintaining an 11 points lead. Sure, Portland was scoring but Atlanta was too...when they could hold on to the ball. Outlaw hit a jumper...Atlanta turned it over. Aldridge scored...Atlanta got an alley-oop throw down. Jones hit a jumper and wonder of wonders, Johnson missed a shot. Roy got a three point play and after the timeout hit the free throw to pull Portland within 4. Atlanta got another alley-oop dunk. See a pattern here? Where was the Blazer interior defense?

After an Aldridge bucket to pull Portland within 4 again Roy somehow, someway blocked a shot. It was an impossible block and when he scored after a clear out it was a 2 point game. He then forced Johnson into an air ball after Johnson spent almost the entire shot clock trying to break him down. Roy drove and scored again and for the first time since zero apiece the game was tied.

For the first time this season, I saw Portland force a team to take a timeout when they could not get the ball inbounds. After the reset, they got it in to Johnson.

He then forced Johnson into an air ball with 9 seconds left. Once more Portland went to the Roy isolation at the top of the key. Once more he broke down his defender. This time he drew the foul and with 2 seconds went to the line.

And missed the first one. Amazing. Here is one of the most clutch guys the Blazers have ever had, certainly the most clutch guy since Terry Porter, and he missed. But the second was good and all the Hawks could manage was a wild buzzer-beating three attempt that never had a chance and they pulled out the improbable 1 point win.

Some amazing things happened in this game. To start with, after shooting 1-10 on threes in the first half Portland went 4-6 from downtown in the second half. With just about 38% shooting for about 2-1/2 quarters they ended up shooting 50% for the game. Atlanta shot 52.6% for the game, but just 2-11 from the three point line. Yet despite the ease with which they got inside most of the game, crunch time became a heave fest from the extra distance, which combined with a bevy of turnovers allowed Portland to make up 11 points in 5 minutes.

When Portland was struggling to score McMillan made an interesting substitution. Aldridge sat from the 2:27 mark of the 3rd quarter while Frye played until the 5:01 mark of the 4th. Now, Frye was playing very well (14 points on 6-8, 6 rebounds) but so was Aldridge (16 points on 7-11, 8 boards...and 3 of his misses were first period). Of the two, Aldridge is the better interior defender, and area where Portland was struggling. Aldridge ended up playing only a shade under thirty minutes for the game which I found curious. Obviously, however, McMillan pulled the right strings.

Overall it was an entertaining game and speaks well of this Portland team. Behind by double digits for the better part of all 4 quarters they somehow found a way to get key stops, adapt their offense and find ways to score just enough points to pull out a game they easily could have lost. Atlanta played great for 43 minutes. Both teams left it all on the floor and at the end of the day the better team won...but just barely. This should be an exciting rivalry for the next few years as bot teams have numerous young, promising players who can develop into something special. Unfortunately for Hawks fans, this collapse has the feeling of having the same impact the Philadelphia game did on Portland where it might send them into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Portland should be fired up for the upcoming Cavaliers game and that can only be a good thing.


Houston 89, Portland 79

Going into the game it looked bad for Portland. In fact, in my preview I said, "With that said, tired legs make it hard to go after the rebounds aggressively and Houston is pretty solid on the boards. Look for a poor shooting night from Portland to be compounded by rebounding woes and Houston will sneak out a road win."

I concluded it with the comment that, "I would not be surprised to see the Blazers show their heart and win this but I expect a Rockets victory, probably in the 8 - 12 point range."

As they did in the New Orleans game Portland started out strong. Joel Przybilla got the crowd involved with his block on a Chuck Hayes dunk attempt. Roy was scoring seemingly at will and then the other Blazers got involved. Yao Ming got off to a rough start with o-3 shooting and 3 turnovers. Houston's leading scorer after the first quarter had exactly 3 points...Ming on 3-4 from the line. However, they had 8 people scoring so the 23-16 Portland lead was nowhere near as large as it could have been.

Former Blazer Bonzi Wells led a quick 7-0 run to pull Houston into a tie and then one of the best surprises for the Blazers this year, Travis Outlaw, stepped up with a quick 4 spot of his own. Tracy McGrady and LaMarcus Aldridge put on a show with 8 points apiece. With Roy (9 points), Aldridge and Outlaw all scoring Portland managed to regain the lead and led 50-42 at the half.

All year the third quarter has belonged to the opponents. A good 3rd for Portland is typically where they only have a 4 or 5 point deficit which they then erase in the fourth. This night the 3rd would be another problem. They started with 4 missed shots and 4 turnovers, got 1 of 2 free throws from Martell Webster, then added another 3 missed shots and a turnover before Roy went 1-2 from the line. While they were scoring just 2 point in the first 6 minutes and change of the 3rd Houston was getting balanced contributions and scored 14 to take a 56-52 lead. As they have done so many times As they have done so often this year the Blazers responded with a quick 6-2 run and despite scoring just 12 points in the third quarter they were tied at 62 after three.

At that point it seemed like a game the Blazers should win. They have owned the 4th quarter all year, especially at home. Houston is a very strong team, one of the teams that I believe has underperformed to this point in the season, in large part due to injury, but home games are the ones you need to win.

And it looked like Portland would. The teams traded baskets and leads. The Rockets extended to a 3 point lead at the 7:47 mark and from there the Blazers were pulling within 1 instead of taking the lead. But we have seen that before. Late in the quarter Roy and Outlaw take over. The defense clamps down, all the rebounds that they could not corral earlier in the game now fall in Blazer hands, and different guys step up every game. However, after Aldridge brought the Blazers within 1 at 74-73 the Blazers saw McGrady drain a 3, Luis Scola scored, and Carl Landry complete a 3 point play while Jack turned the ball over, Aldridge and Outlaw missed shots, and suddenly the deficit was 8 with just 2:49 remaining.

Houston is a good team and they did what they needed to close out the game. It was a game that with 5 minutes to go could have been won by either team. Most of the season this is a game Portland would have won but lately they have not been finishing games, starting with their double overtime loss in Toronto. But there are other factors that came into play in this game.

Portland shot a paltry 35.7% for the game. Oddly, they shot better from 3-point range (41.7%) than they did overall. You can get away with poor shooting if you are forcing the opponent to shoot poorly, winning the rebound battle, and not turning the ball over. Houston shot 40%, out rebounded Portland 48-30, and only had 4 more turnovers than Portland. So those extra rebounds made the difference.

18 extra rebounds and 4 extra turnovers essentially equals a 14 possession advantage. Both Portland and Houston made 5 threes and 24 free throws. Houston took 4 more 2 point field goals than Portland. In other words, that 6% shooting percentage difference resulted in 5 extra made field goals and gave them their 10 point margin.

Earlier this season Charles Barkley, in his job as ESPN analyst, was criticized by many Blazer fans for asserting that Portland would not make the playoffs because they cannot get easy baskets. This game was an example of his prediction coming true. Just as the Hornets did, the Rockets figured out how to keep Roy out of the lane and keep him from making layins or dishing for easy baskets. This time Outlaw did not take over and pick up the slack. Meanwhile the Rockets got balanced scoring from their entire team...8 players scored at least 8 points each, and none more than 15...and deservedly won the game.

From the pre-season I have been enthused about this Blazer team. Sure, the loss of their #1 pick was going to hurt but this is a team with talent. Roy and Aldridge make a solid 1-2 punch, I expected 12-15 points from Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack in support, and Joel Przybilla fills the bill of defense and rebounding without demanding the ball. However, even with that enthusiasm I pegged them for maybe a 42-44 win team. This game is illustrative of why I still think that is about the right number.

I expect a lot of things will be said about "fatigue" and "the hardest game of a road trip is the first one home" but the fact remains the Blazers put themselves in a position to win and closed out with 12 and 17 points. Good teams might let fatigue affect things like that...great teams don't. Somehow I cannot see the Michael Jordan led Bulls teams of the early 90s losing a game like this. That is the difference between this Blazer team winning 50 and winning the low to mid 40s total they will achieve. They let winnable games against good teams get away.

That is not to take anything away from the Rockets. They are a very good team that will end with a better record than the Blazers in no small part because in games like this where their stars play sub-par games (Ming had 11 points on 2-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, but 4 turnovers and McGrady shot just 5-14 and had another 5 turnovers) their role players step up and take away games.

Defense and rebounding win a lot of games. Both teams played some very good defense but only one team got the rebounds and that was the difference.


Preview 23-19 Houston at 25-17 Portland

At the beginning of the year some people were talking Title aspirations for Houston. Then they got struck with a multitude of injuries including to McGrady and Ming. Additionally, Steve Francis is out "indefinitely" and very few players have even made it to 30 games this year. As their record reached depths no Rocket fan anticipated there was talk in some quarters that the McGrady-Ming experiment had failed. Criticisms were leveled at Adelman for his coaching.

From where I sit, those criticisms make little sense. Adelman was a tremendous coach in Portland and his departure hurt the team as much as the departure of some of their more talented players. He did a phenomenal job in Sacramento and they made a huge mistake in letting him go. And he is doing another excellent job in Houston, guiding a variety of line-ups to where they position to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season assuming they can get healthy.

McGrady has been playing very well off the bench the last few games as he recovers from yet another injury. Houston is hot, having won their last three. They are also catching Portland at the right time. Portland's home court advantage is all but negated by the road trip hangover. Typically teams coming back from long road trips struggle in their first game back. Additionally, Portland will be on short rest, just one day, which is unusual.

Portland will be coming back home from a long road trip, still tired, and perhaps too buoyed by their successes on the road. It will be interesting to see if they come out with fire in their eyes or if they are in coasting mode. On the one hand they have had numerous examples of great leadership. Roy in particular is known for telling his teammates what is expected of them. The team has become accustomed to winning. They make a point of defending the home court. They go out of their way to engage the fans.

On the other hand, they are coming off a loss where the last three quarters saw them badly outplayed by the Hornets, it gave them a losing record for the road trip, and after the game Barrett even talked about their level of exhaustion.

In other words, Houston is the odds on favorite to win this game, even though it is in Portland. In different circumstances I would give Portland the edge. Though Ming does a great job of shutting down the paint, that impacts Portland far less than it does most teams due to their habit of bombing away from mid and long range. The Blazers are quite content to pull up for 15 footers. In fact, this might be a good game for Roy to get off a few of those foul-line extended elbow jumpers he took so often last year but that have fallen by the wayside this year. Both Aldridge and Frye are capable of hitting the top of the key 18 foot jump shot to pull out their defenders a bit and of course Jones, Webster and Blake can all strike from anywhere on the court.

With that said, tired legs make it hard to go after the rebounds aggressively and Houston is pretty solid on the boards. Look for a poor shooting night from Portland to be compounded by rebounding woes and Houston will sneak out a road win.

Portland wins if they shoot 48% or better and manage to stay within about 4 or 5 rebounds of Houston. This is yet another gut-check game for Portland. Will they rise up and defend their home court? Or will they start sliding back towards their probably eventual end at about .500 for the season? Despite their excellent start it would not be hugely surprising to see the Blazers go something like 20-20 the rest of the way...which would still leave them 45-37, a nice 13 game jump from last year. If they are an 8 games over .500 team, which seems not too far off given their strengths and weaknesses, we can expect to start seeing them drop a few games they were winning earlier.

In the classic tradition of "Let's hedge our bets"...if the Blazers are the 50-32 or better team I did not expect but that their 25-16 record after 41 games represents then this is a game they need to win despite the obstacles. I would not be surprised to see the Blazers show their heart and win this but I expect a Rockets victory, probably in the 8 - 12 point range.


The Pack Factor

It would be interesting to see how many Blazer fans remember Robert Pack. Signed as an undrafted free agent, he played in 72 games back in 91-92. You might remember that season for being the Blazers and Bulls in the finals where Jordan showed how vast the gap between the best player in the league that year and the second best player...Clyde Drexler...was. 4 games to 2 was the result. I do not know if anyone could have denied Chicago that year. The 4-2 final game score did not fully represent just how dominant Chicago was in that series.

Be that as it may, on a team led by Drexler and Porter with Buck Williams providing the rebounding, Kersey being the "energy guy", Uncle Cliffy coming off the bench, how important could an undrafted free agent pick-up be?

Pack played about 12 minutes a game, or a quarter of the time, backing up both Porter and Drexler. He averaged a respectable 4.6 points, 1.3 rebounds, a little better than half a steal and every 4 games he gave away the ball 5 times. These are hardly game-changing numbers. Portland won by an average of 5 points that season, slightly more than his scoring average. They had 6 guys scoring in double figures. In any given game you might see Kersey, Robinson, Duckworth or even Williams add 20 to the Drexler and Porter scoring explosion. But Pack was kind of like Wayne Cooper on that team...he had a specific role and filled it well.

Those 12 minutes he gave them were 12 minutes where yes, there was a drop-off on the offensive end...but he gave them rugged defense, scored often enough that you could not ignore him, and he gave Drexler and Porter valuable rest so they could come back rested and the point spread between the teams would be fairly close to where it was when they went to the bench.

It was defensively where Pack was the bigger help. He could shut down explosive guards, provided some tough on the ball defense and could defend either the smaller, quicker point guards or the larger shooting guards. He provided the Blazers a spark virtually every night where he could change the flow of the game.

But the impact he had was not so huge that Portland felt they needed to retain his services for 92-93. Over the next 13 years he would play for 9 different teams, though two of them...Denver and New Jersey...were two times each. He showed how good he could have been in a shortened season in Washington when his 35 minutes per game were enough for him to score 18, pick off 2 steals a game, and rack up almost 8 assists. He had the talent to be a productive point guard and had 8 or more assists per game three times in his career.

In other words, despite being undrafted he was a player who could provide a team with a lot of help. It was unexpected help. His problems were primarily health as only 3 times in his career did he play as many as 70 games and most were less than half that.

Players like Pack are often the difference between a 35 win team and a 50 win team. Their impact is not necessarily in their statistics but rather the "intangibles". Pack's talent gave Drexler and Porter some tough competition in practice. His play on the court helped the team in subtle ways far more often than spectacular. He accepted his role and played it to the best of his ability.

When a team is able to find and develop talented role players, guys who could score 15 - 20 points or pull down 10 rebounds if they were playing full time, convince that player to accept limited minutes, and that player fits into the team that team then experiences a strong season.

At the beginning of this year there was not a lot expected of the Blazers. Every week someone writes about how good this team would have been if Oden were playing. Maybe. To be sure, if his college career is any indication then he would provide the low-post offense and rebounding that the Blazers sorely need this year. Yet if he played there is an open question if some of the Blazers other talents could have developed. Many writers have talked about what no Oden has done for Roy and Aldridge. I would argue it has also helped the current crop of Blazer "Pack" type players.

Take fifth year player James Jones for example. Put this sharp-shooter on Golden State, give him 35 minutes a game and you probably have an 18-20 point scorer. He can run the floor, shoot the lights out, and tends to make other players better as evidenced by his +10.27 efficiency rating. He has the talent to start at small forward. Yet he has simply played his role. He spells Webster, takes his open shots, scraps on defense, and gives the starters someone tough to practice against. If he stays with Portland he will probably never be an All-Star...but the team is vastly improved by his presence.

It is not just his on the floor talent, either. Early in the win streak the Blazers ran off he was referenced by multiple Blazers as being a big part of instilling the "we are a team" spirit that has led them to their big season. Jones does not cry about playing time, does not demand trades, talk about his own needs...he is a team guy. Much like Robert Pack, he is a guy whose statistics do not come close to showing his true value to the team.

And that is one reason the Blazers are exceeding all expectations this year. They have multiple players of this nature. Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, and Jarrett Jack are guys who could start for a lot of teams or at the least provide more minutes and statistical contributions. For the present, however, they are content to play their assigned roles...talented back-ups on a team reaching heights nobody expected. I doubt any of them modeled their career on one unheralded season by a relatively anonymous player from 15 years ago...but they certainly are following his spirit and that is the Pack Factor that is a key difference between an expected Blazer record of probably about 18-26 and their actual record.

Portland 81, New Orleans 96

Early in the game Portland was toasting New Orleans. Blake and Aldridge were hitting everything in sight, they were about even on the boards, and were protecting the ball. Meanwhile, New Orleans was struggling to score. West had 16 first quarter points...and New Orleans totaled 20. Outside of West they were as cold as could be.

But then the second unit came on. Roy missed a shot, Jack missed, Outlaw had about 4 of those drive-step back jumpers he loves so much that were wide open but missed. Jones missed a corner trey. Rodriguez missed a wide open three. It was a bad, bad sign. New Orleans was not playing defense but they did not need to because Portland was not even attempting to go inside and their shots were not falling. Meanwhile, noted studs Pargo and Bowen were eclipsing their prior season totals (it seemed like). Pargo had 15 second quarter points and Bowen another 6. Together they tallied 21 of 28 points.

This is the type of performance we have come to expect from the PORTLAND bench. When all but one starter struggle, typically Outlaw or Jones or Jack will step up with a big game. This time, instead the bench was missing everything but home and the starters started to get infected. They were only able to tally 18 points for the second quarter; 9 of those came on Blake 3s sandwiching a Jones 3 on 3 consecutive possessions. Outside of that stretch they had only a 9 point quarter. They had a 48-44 deficit at the half, nothing they cannot overcome.

But there were some very, very bad signs. First off, they were missing relatively easy, makeable shots. Not to cast aspersions on the defense of the Hornets because they are a very solid defensive team, but the poor shooting in the first half was not because of that defense. Portland was getting open looks from the right people in the right places. The shots just weren't falling. When your open shots are not falling and you are facing a team which can put the clamps on when they need to as the Hornets can, you are asking for trouble. Second, Roy seemed...well, disinterested. He is not a demonstrative or "fast" player but he usually is involved in the game. This time he felt like he was going through the motions. Very unusual for him. Third, the Blazers had kept Paul and Chandler very much in check (though West had wrecked them in the first quarter) but were giving up huge nights to second line players while getting virtually nothing from their own.

The third quarter has been a nemesis all year. This game would be no different. They had open shots but could not convert. They got free throws and missed. At times it looked like a contractors convention the way bricks were being laid. After a poor 18 point 2nd quarter, they bounced back with 15 in the third. New Orleans, fortunately, also struggled to score, though their 22 was still a 7 spot better than the suddenly punchless Blazers and the spread was 11 after 3.

The 4th quarter is one the Blazers have just owned for weeks now. And after back to back possessions where Outlaw fed Aldridge for easy scores it looked like this would be more of the same. Portland pulled within 77-72 with 5:29 left and had the ball in to Aldridge. His shot was blocked, though, and a quick 10-2 New Orleans run all but ended the game.

They had their chances. But New Orleans, who appeared relatively indifferent defensively for most of the game, clamped down on Roy when the Blazers got close, forcing tough shots late in the possession against the clock, keeping the ball away from Roy, and making other guys beat them. Most of the year, other guys have stepped up. This time they missed their shots, some of which were easy and some of which were against some stiff defense. Meanwhile, the Hornets had 3 dynamic scorers in Paul, Stojakovich and Pargo. Pargo finished with 24.

Going in I was hoping for the upset but something just did not feel right. Portland has seen the Hornets 4 times now and split with them, each team taking 2 on their home floor. The teams are fairly evenly matched. Portland's defense is typically very effective at slowing Stojakovich (he scored 6 of his 12 in the last couple minutes when the outcome was basically decided) and often harass Paul into tough shooting nights. But they can't keep Chandler and West off the boards (New Orleans won the rebound battle 41-25) and West just has a field day against the Blazers it seems like every time. He only ended with 22...but that is largely because he was not needed in this game after the huge first quarter. Meanwhile, Portland is well set up to score against the Hornets as Jones, Aldridge, and Outlaw all have marked advantages over their respective defenders and the floor really opens up when the Hornets concentrate so heavily on Roy. The deciding factor each time has seemed to be the home floor.

That is quite disappointing as New Orleans has a very poor crowd. The games are poorly attended (11,006 people for a team that is 29-12, a game ahead of Dallas and a game and a half ahead of San Antonio. They are, record wise, the best team in the most talented division in basketball...and can get only half capacity of sit-on-their hands fans. That is some pretty poor support. And sure, many people will offer the "New Orleans is devastated" party line...but at some point you have to get past that. Check out Saints attendance figures, folks. The fact is, New Orleans is just not a basketball town, at least at this point in their history. There is a reason the Jazz moved, and it wasn't because they perceived of Utah as a jazzier place...

As an aside, this was an unusually poorly officiated game. You will always see the home team and the more aggressive team get some favorable calls. When they home team IS the more aggressive team, that advantage becomes even more pronounced. I do not object to that. There was a time when Portland was known as "Rip-off City" for some of the questionable officiating that seemed to benefit the Blazers far more than the opposition. And the officiating did not determine the outcome. Portland had their chances and simply got outplayed by a team that, at least on this night, was the better team. But some of the calls were pretty brutal.

For example, on one play Jarrett Jack was on the baseline and a ball caromed in his direction. Chandler jumped out following the ball into a statue-like Jack. Chandler inadvertently landed an elbow to the head. Unlike some plays I have seen Chandler make, this one did not seem dirty to me, just one of those things that happens when people go after a ball. Either way, the contact was initiated by Chandler leaping out. Jack not only got the elbow to the dome, he got called for a loose ball foul. I spent some time thinking about that one, as in how Jack fouled him. Apparently standing in the path of someone jumping away from the basket is now a foul. Later, Aldridge had the inside position and Chandler barreled into him from outside. Again it was the Blazer who got called. Neither time was the Blazer airborne. Once he had inside position, once outside. Both times they got called for the loose-ball foul. Uh, okay.

Those were just two easy examples. There were several calls that had me scratching my head. But the point here is not to attack the officiating, it is something Portland can do to improve. They can make sure they become the aggressors which will gain them more calls. Instead of standing around letting the opponents go after the ball while they watch from court seats, they can crash the boards, make the other teams work for their rebounds, and make the refs notice there are two teams worthy of benefiting from whistles.

Be that as it may, the road trip was still a qualified success. The road is always a difficult place to win and at the beginning of the season if you heard they went 3-4 on this trip it would be a tremendous accomplishment. Even now I think 4-3 would have been hugely successful, and it is a sign of just how good the Blazers have gotten this quickly that it is in any way a minor disappointment to go 3-4 instead of 4-3. Winning on the road at a 43% clip is pretty impressive. The Blazers should be congratulated. They competed in every game, could have won the Toronto game, and even had a shot at this one with 5 minutes left. Well done.


Portland 111, Atlanta 109

This was a game I thought Portland had to have. They needed to go at least 3-4 for this road trip to be a success. They already lost a winnable game to Orlando and another to Toronto. If they lost to Atlanta I did not see them coming back and beating New Orleans. That means a Hawk win was a 2-5 road trip which I think was pretty near disastrous. On the other hand, winning in Atlanta in no way guarantees a win in New Orleans.

This ended up being a much tougher game than expected, going to overtime for the second time on this road trip. Roy and Aldridge both struggled mightily from the field, shooting about 33% each. It was a mighty bench effort starring Outlaw, Rodriguez and Jones that saved them.

That is one thing that is setting this team apart. While more often than not to win they need at least "average" performances from Roy and Aldridge to win, more and more often they are getting everything they need from one of their big two and then a big night from two or three guys from a rotating cast. One night it might be Webster and Blake, the next night Outlaw and Jones, another night it might be Rodriguez and Przybilla...but again and again when the points are hard to come by for Roy and/or Aldridge they are getting a big boost from the role players.

This is good to see. It is yet another step in their evolution towards being a very good team that might actually do some damage in the playoffs. The Atlanta game, in retrospect, is one they easily could have lost. They are at the tail end of a hectic, tough road trip. Atlanta is a team that looks to be taking a few steps upwards as well and has done a good job of defending their home court. Fatigue, road weariness...these elements come into play. But these Blazers will not be denied.

The game against New Orleans will be another big stepping stone. Portland knows it is good enough to win against the Hornets, even on the road. Will they come out and impose their will? That is hard to say. The Hornet game is essentially a free roll...with a 3-3 road record going in, the trip has already been a qualified success. If they can win the rubber match then it will have been a huge success. It will give them some breathing room for a mis-step at some point. It will keep them in the drivers seat for the playoffs which, despite their solid record, are hardly assured. It is a big game.

And that leads me to believe they are going to do what it takes to win that game. For most of the season the players have identified important games and policed themselves, making sure they knew the importance of the game...then coming out and winning it. While the statistical difference between 3-4 and 4-3 is not huge, the psychological impact is mammoth. Going better than .500 on a trip of this magnitude and difficulty would give them a huge confidence boost.

But somehow I just can't pull the trigger on it. Even though I believe Portland is the better team and should win the game...I just don't think they are going to. I really hope I am wrong. Everything I know about this team says they should win. I guess I am just not a true believer after all...It is a game they could win but will not.

The Road trip so far

Going in I thought Portland SHOULD win the game against Toronto, though with Calderon coming on it could be a problem game. Sure enough, he scored 22 and added 10 assists while only missing three shots. Bosh had a huge game, 38 and 14 on solid shooting. Portland shot just 41% and gave up 48% shooting.They managed to win the rebound battle by 8 which goes a long way towards explaining how they got the game to overtime but they ended up losing a game they should have won, 116-109 in double overtime. 0-1 on the trip.

Against New Jersey I thought Portland should win by 6 - 10 points despite Kidd, Jefferson and Carter, though anytime you run into a team with athletes that talented there is the possibility you will lose. Portland shot 53%, New Jersey 34%, and Portland built a 13 point first quarter lead that was never threatened on their way to a blow-out win. The Nets three most talented players shot 7-33 and nobody stepped up to help them out. Portland blew them off the court 99-73.

I am a believer in Boston. I think they are as good as their record and are going to be tough to knock off anytime before the Finals, though it can be done. Portland is good but I don't think they are ready to win this road game. Yet. Sure enough, Boston did what very few teams have done against the Blazers recently...they won the 4th quarter. Roy, Aldridge, Jack and Outlaw had solid games but nobody else stepped up. Allen and Garnett were both "on" and were too much for Portland, leading Boston to the unsurprising 100-90 victory and dropping Portland to 1-2 on the road trip. I had hoped they would be 2-1 at this point, but hey...what are you going to do?

I thought Portland should beat Miami and probably pretty handily...say, 6 - 10 points. Somehow they turned a 9 point half time lead into a 7 point deficit heading into the 4th quarter as they absolutely melted down in the third quarter. Early in the season they would have completed the collapse and lost another winnable game on this trip. These are not those Blazers, however. Led by Roy's 16 4th quarter points, they came back to take a convincing 7 point win, 98-91. Strange how you don't hear much these days about the Bryant-O Neal rivalry... 2-2

Against Orlando I thought it was a toss-up. Orlando I made a slight favorite but it would not be a huge upset if Portland pulled out the win. They started slowly and never really recovered from the 8 point deficit that hit them in the first period. Aldridge had a terrible shooting game (6-21), though he did help on defense, blocking 4 shots. Roy played well but just did not get enough help. When one of your studs struggles you need 2 or 3 role players to step up and only Outlaw did so on the offensive end. Meanwhile, 5 Magic scored in double figures and they shot 50%. Orlando was the better team this night and pulled out the 101-94 win.

So the road trip stands at 2-3. A 3-4 road trip I thought would be a success, a 2-5 a disaster, and 4-3 would be tough but do-able. To hit that Portland needs to win the next two. They should beat Atlanta. New Orleans...well, that we will have to wait and see.


Eastern Road Trip

I will not be able to follow the progress on the upcoming Eastern swing, a fact that leaves me a little bit sad. Be that as it may, here is a down and dirty, quick look at what I think could/should happen:


Chris Bosh seems to have taken a step backwards but Jose Calderon has been a revelation. They are almost the epitome of an "average" team...they are 18-17 overall, 9-9 on the road and 9-8 at home. If Roy is healthy it will not matter a lot whether Blake is or not...Jack can play off Roy quite well and Rodriguez has shown he is a capable back-up at the point or shooting guard. Portland has the talent and desire to win this game and should come away with a win.

New Jersey

9-11 at home, 9-6 on the road...and Portland is a better team. But they still have Kidd, Carter and Jefferson, 3 guys who can take over games and win them all but single-handed. Portland should win and win by 6 - 10 points...and they will if they can keep Kidd shooting a poor percentage and contain Carter and Jefferson.


Much like New Jersey, Boston has 3 guys who can take over a game and pull it out on their own merits. However, they also have talented role players who give them a lot of help. Boston should win this game, though Portland certainly has the talent to pull out the upset. This will be the toughest game of the trip to win.


With the Big Offensive Foul the Heat were awful. Without him they are even worse. Miami has Dwayne Wade and 11 stiffs with Shaq out injured. Frankly, should Portland lose, that would be a disaster. Sure, it is a road game...but they have too much talent to lose to this Miami team no matter where the game is played.


Another Florida game, this one a little tougher. On the surface, Orlando is the favorite. Their 23-14 record is strong, they have one of this year's most improved, somewhat dominant players in Dwight Howard. They have on again, off again superstar in waiting Jameer Nelson. They have all-around scorer Hedo Turkoglu. Their role players step up, much like Portlands. This is a tough, dangerous team. With a 7-8 home record....they are much better on the road (16-6) than they are at home. Weird. Still, they being at home I make Orlando a slight favorite, but if Portland is playing well this game is eminently winnable.


As a young team with no expectations at the beginning of the season, expectations were light. As the team has improved, won a lot of games they weren't expected to, and have done it with a roster not much was expected of this year. A lot of that has been built on an impressive home record but their road record is improving too. Still, Atlanta is a step or three behind the Blazers. They have the advantage of being at home and catching Portland at the tail end of a long, tough road trip. Portland should come in with 2 or 3 wins and leave with 3 or 4.

New Orleans

Early in the season I thought this would be the first Blazer road win. I was not super surprised they lost but I was surprised at the way they lost. As the season has gone on the Hornets have proven to be better than I was ready to believe...but still surprisingly mediocre at home, just 9-7. The road is tough on young goes the excuse. Portland has been proving for over a month now that they might be physically young but they are competitively mature. This game is a toss-up where the advantage goes to the home team. New Orleans gets a further advantage by catching Portland in the final game of a long road trip. I suspect they will pull out the victory.

This road trip will be a great test of where Portland is at. If they are ready to not just get to the playoffs but actually be a threat they will go 4-3 or even 5-2. 3-4 would be a good record on this trip. 2-5 is about the worst I can conceive of them doing and winning no or 1 games would be a disaster. I look forward to watching this team develop. I would love to see 1 - 2 games where Webster steps up, a couple more where Jones does, and see Outlaw and Jack come strong night after night. Still, we all know it is up to Roy and Aldridge to carry this team, particularly on the road.

One final note. I have been hearing the TNT announcers talk about Roy for MVP this year. I think that is pretty premature. If he comes out and guides Portland to a 6-2 or 6-1 record on this trip...I might even get on board that. I don't expect it to happen, I think it is a bit too soon. But this is a great opportunity to watch Portland develop even a little bit more. Let's enjoy the ride.

Portland 109, Golden State 91

Professional sports are tricky. Every so often a pro football game will turn on 1 or 2 plays...a vastly superior team loses when their punt returner inexplicably muffs a punt with no opposing players close to him, the other team scores, kick off and the ball bounces funny, they recover...suddenly the bad team has a lead and the good team starts pressing, the outcome is unpredictable. The same holds true for the NBA. Boston, one of the elite teams in the league...a team that wins pretty much all the games they should, wins most of the "toss-up" games, and even pulls out the occasional game you would think they would lose...had a night where one guy is injured, one guy misses a few shots he normally makes...and loses at home to a very pedestrian Charlotte team. Things happen.

All told, that makes it hard to be accurate in predictions. Sure, you can say what SHOULD happen...but will it? When the Blazers play Seattle, for instance, they are playing a team with weak interior defense. It is a team Aldridge should have a monster game against...but doesn't. Then against San Antonio, a team with great interior defense, he comes out and looks like the best player on the floor. Blake comes out one game and takes 2 shots. The next game he takes 14...and makes 10 of them. One night outlaw will take 10 of those drive/step-back foul line extended jumpers he loves and miss them all. The next game they will drop.

So when I make my predictions I typically leave a little bit of wiggle room. Here is what the Blazers PROBABLY need to do to win...though they could win if this doesn't happen but something unexpected does...say Przybilla taking and making 8 or 10 shots or Blake exploding or Webster showing his potential...but those possibilities exist. The difference between the playoff teams and the lottery teams is those unforeseen things and how regularly they occur.

With that said, I think perhaps the most accurate prediction I have ever made was in regard to the Golden State game. I was able to listen to about the first quarter and I was loving it. Portland was controlling the role players, forcing Jackson and Davis to shoot low percentages, and Przybilla was controlling the inside. It was textbook for beating Golden State.

Portland exploded out of the gate behind Przybilla. Offensive rebound, hit a couple free throws. Defensive rebound, dunk. Steal. That is the first three possessions of the game. All Joel, all the time. Then Webster and Aldridge each threw down dunks. Then, after an Aldridge post-score, Przybilla dunked. It was awesome. Portland was doing exactly what they needed to do...they were taking advantage of the weak interior defense of Golden State. That caused the outside to open up, resulting in wide open looks. For the quarter Portland had 5 dunks and 4 3s. That is about as good as inside out can get and the 30-14 lead looked like it might only grow. Meanwhile they were forcing Jackson and the Warriors into tough shots which were not falling.

And this was a game where the unexpected was happening. Roy was having a slow scoring night, one suspects due to his sore tailbone. Aldridge was having a typical night...9 first half points. They got a few from Jones, a few from Outlaw...but Przybilla had 8 and Blake 20. That is a couple good games for Blake in just one half.

And they would need it. One way to change a rocking Rose Garden enjoying a 13 point lead is to have your glue, Brandon Roy, fall to the ground in pain with a hyper-extended knee. But that is just what happened with a little over a minute left. The Blazers still pushed it to 15 at half-time but the worry was there. Portland without Roy or Aldridge for a game or 2 can survive. Portland without Roy or Aldridge for an extended period of time is going to lose a lot of games.

Good news arrived with the start of the second half. Roy returned to the floor. After Biedrins hit a shot Portland reeled off 10 straight points. In no uncertain terms they were telling Golden State the night belonged to Portland. The Blazers had an impressive 66-43 lead. By the end of the quarter they were up a sawbuck, 84-64. Roy wasn't scoring much...but everyone else was. Except Blake, out with a calf injury...not a good sight.

The 4th quarter was close-out time. Even Green got into the game and tried a few shots. It was a blow-out win and Portland showed they had what it takes to win a game wire to wire. It was among the more dominating performances I have seen since the glory days of Kersey, Porter, Duckworth, Williams and Drexler.

Davis and Jackson combined for 9 points on 3-15 shooting. Barnes was their leading scorer with just 14. They shot just 39% while Portland shot 46% and Portland out rebounded them by 8. When your best players aren't scoring, nobody steps up, and you can't keep your opponent off the boards (12 offensive rebounds for Portland) or make up the difference in squandered possessions somehow, the result is going to be a blow-out.

Portland, on the other hand, had their stars step up...sure, Roy only scored 8 points (on just 12 shots), but he also tallied 8 boards and 8 assists. Aldridge only scored 19...but Jones and Webster combined for 32 on 11-15 shooting...including an astonishing 7-11 from long distance. Well, astonishing except when compared to Blake's 5-6 from downtown...

In other words, everyone contributed. Przybilla had "just" 10 points...but he added 10 boards. Nothing that really "stands out" as being spectacular...he had a good but not unusual 2 blocks...nobody had a huge number of assists, and outside of Blake's' 24 points on 8-10 shooting nobody really had a transcendent game that made you sit up and take notice....nothing like Webster's 24 point quarter, anything like that. This was just a good team dominating another good team. It was beautiful.

Speaking of Webster, it was nice to see him have back to back good games. It provides hope that he has taken that next step in his evolution as a useful starter who has a valuable contribution from a scoring standpoint more than once a week into someone who night in and night out is in the low to mid double digits with occasional 20 - 25 point nights when needed. He has not often this season rung up a good night in the game subsequent to a good game so it was unusual...but welcome.

Oh, and...Portland is all alone in First Place. Even I, the most optimistic of fans, did not see that one coming.


Pre-view, 20-15 Golden State @ 21-13 Portland

Golden State is one of those scary teams. They are fully capable of beating anyone as they showed with their dismantling of San Antonio Tuesday night. They have multiple scorers, the ability...and shoot from anywhere across mid-court at any time, they play as a team, and they have a couple guys capable of huge nights that can individually just wreck another team.

Noted hot-head Stephen Jackson has stayed in his shoes and is playing some outstanding basketball. Baron Davis is another stud who can just wreck any given team on any given night. Those two guys alone are enough to scare anyone. Either is capable of dropping 30 - 40 points on any given night if they feel like it, and do it while shooting a high percentage. Still, if that was all the Warriors had I would not be worried.

However, the Warriors have a great regular season coach and a number of role players who are willing and able to provide support. They have no fear of playing on the road, running up an 11-8 record...not exactly chopped liver. On the bright side for Portland sharp-shooting Matt Barnes is questionable with the flu. On the dark is Brandon Roy with a bruised tailbone. Who is hurt more in that exchange?

Portland needs to contain Davis and Jackson, making them work to get their shots and shoot a low percentage without allowing Biedrins, Ellis, Harrington or Azubuike to go off.It is hard because Golden State plays such strong team ball. They have 6 guys averaging double figures in points and 7 guys averaging at least 4.3 rebounds.

Of course, they have weaknesses, too. They allow their opponents a nice shooting percentage, tend to give up an extra 5 rebounds per game, and on nights when they 3s desert them they tend to keep shooting them and can shoot themselves right out of the game.

Portland has the tools to attack them. Golden State struggles with interior defense. Post up Aldridge, let Webster post up a few times, and let Przybilla, Aldridge and Frye pound the boards. Portland can get some easy buckets in transition, should score well in the paint and if their post game is working they will create open shots on the perimeter for Jones, Webster, Blake and Jack. They also know how to defend the Warriors as they showed when they held them to 95 in the first Portland meeting...not easy to do against a team averaging almost 109 points a season.

Portland is at home one more time, they have the talent, they have the confidence...they just don't have Brandon Roy. Is this the game the run ends? I do not think so. Though I do know Golden State has the talent and tools to win I also know Portland has the same and is making a point of defending the home court. Even without Roy they should win this game.

Furthermore, looking at their upcoming road trip, I see several winnable games: they go to Toronto, New Jersey, Boston, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and New Orleans. Boston and Orlando are long shots and New Orleans will be tough. Miami should be a win as should Atlanta. New Jersey and Toronto...well, those should be wins but they are road games so they are toss-ups. All told I expect to see 4 wins on that road trip. 4-3 would be a very productive record on that road trip and might be a bit optimistic. Anything less than 2 wins would be a disappointment and 3 wins would be a success. I will be out of town during most of that stretch, but I will be back on the other side.


Everett Silvertips 7, Portland Winterhawks 2

I am a big hockey fan even though all we have in Portland is bad junior league hockey. Actually, saying it is "bad" is only partially accurate...we did have the Hossa brothers pass through and before that, Adam Deadmarsh...I have seen some pretty decent players but the real level is probably better than high school, worse than major college.

A couple years ago during the "Jail Blazer" years I was known to turn down Blazer tickets in favor of Winter Hawk ducats. A couple nights ago when the Jazz were in town a few of us, went to watch some hockey.

The game started badly. Just a couple of shifts in the Silvertips were putting pressure on the offensive zone for a sustained stretch. Portland had a chance to get the puck out of their end. But someone made a key error. One of the first things you learn in hockey is to push the puck to the side of the rink. Under no circumstances do you make a clearing pass from behind the net to the center of the rink when there are fore checkers.

The young Portland team did worse. A defense man centered the puck from behind his net during a goal mouth scramble. Everett was up 1-0.

A couple minutes later a power play led to a second goal. Portland killed a couple power plays, then on yet another Silvertip power play Portland had a guy escape their zone, get a break-away and score a short-handed goal. It was pretty exciting. Momentum was swinging. The smallish crowd was into it.

And then someone centered the puck from behind the net again. 3-1, Everett. They scored again to make it 4-1.

Portland finally got their first power play in the second period. Everett got SIX in the first period to none for Portland. Hmm. There was one play in particular that blew me away where a Silvertip, unimpeded and pushed by any Winterhawk, took out Mucha the goaltender on a play. No call.

Anyhow, on their power play they got sloppy which is dangerous against a team as aggressive on the penalty kill as the Silvertips. Everett jumped out but there was a Portland defender back...sort of. Our man was between the Tip and the goal...but he never closed on him. Instead, he skated back down the center of the ice as if defending against a pass to a non-existent wing, leaving the slot wide open to the Tip, effectively turning the one-on-one into a break-away. Those favor the offense and it was 5-1. When Portland scored on their next power play it did not matter.

They did manage to give Everett 2 more goals on unbelievable passes from behind the net where they centered them. One in particular was such a perfectly draw up pass to move the goalie and leave him out of position for a shot that you almost forgot the passer was a Winterhawk and the shooter was a Silvertip. It was a great pass...just a terrible puck-clearing.

And that was the evening. The Hawks essentially beat themselves. They gave up 3 - 4 goals on defense where they made horrific turnovers on routine clear-outs where instead of kicking it to the boards and working the puck out of the zone they tried going out the middle to disastrous results, 1 goal where they turned a tough opportunity into a break-away, and gave up 6 power plays in the first period alone...poor Mucha really had no chance on probably 4 or 5 of the goals.

They are a pretty bad team this year. But hey...they are inexpensive and still fun to watch, so there you go.


Portland 103, Utah 89

Bad teams get blown out by good teams, lose games they should win and win just often enough to justify the next contract for some of the players. Games that could go either way usually go the other way.

Decent teams win most of the games they should, occasional games they shouldn't, and win about as many games over the course of the season as they should. Games that could go either way determine their season.

Good teams win a larger percentage of the games they should, a few games that surprise you, and lose very few games that they should win. Games that could go either way usually go their way. Usually what separates good teams from great teams is the team itself...the ability for role players to take up the slack when the stars have off nights.

Great teams win virtually every game they should, a couple games that surprise you, and games that could go either way have a way of the ball bouncing just right, the calls going their way...and when their stars play poorly or not at all, they still find a way to win.

Where is Portland at on this chart? They are at the very least a decent team...and I would argue a good team. They started the season in decent range, losing the games they should lose, winning the games they should win and even throwing in a win or two that was unexpected...the home victories over the Mavericks and Pistons fall into that range. But then they had that stretch where they got blown out by good teams (Denver), lost games they should win and were on the verge of this being a lost season. At that point they looked like a bad to decent team.

We all know what happened next. They got hot. Red hot. Outlaw hit the buzzer beater to beat Memphis. 12 games later they were still winning. They beat everyone they should and a few teams they shouldn't. Most importantly, they did it without key players.

They beat Utah in Utah without Aldridge. They beat Utah at home without Aldridge. They won 4 games or so without him. Their role players stepped up and Roy carried the team for large portions of that stretch. Aldridge came back, the beat went on. Then Portland's run ended as they lost in Utah to Utah. As good as Portland has gotten, I argued that was a game Utah should have won...and they did.

This game I thought Portland should win...So with a deep bench, a ton of confidence, and the friendly confines of the Rose Garden, everything is in place for Portland to win again. The Jazz are a solid team, easily capable of the win...but look for Portland to pull this one out by 6 - 10 points.

They actually won by 14. That, in and of itself, is not exceptionally surprising or impressive. At this point of the season I would argue Portland is actually a better team...and that is not something even I would argue at the beginning of the season. I would argue it now...well, I would if Roy were healthy.

If you tell me before the game that Roy will play 9:27, take just 2 shots and take himself out of the game, that Williams would have far and away the best game he has had against Portland with 23 points on 9-12 shooting and 7 assists besides, and Aldridge, Blake and Przybilla would combine for just 30 points, I would argue this is a game Portland should lose. Roy is a difference maker and in his absence Portland needs someone to step up. That means Blake and Aldridge in particular need to score a few more points.

But that is another step in Portland's evolution towards being a great team. Many people stepped up. Przybilla had only 6 points...but it only took him 3 shots. Blake did not score well, nor did Jack (9 points on just 3-9 shooting), Jones only scored 6 points...but they got help. Outlaw shot better than he has in a while with an efficient 7-12 shooting. He did not get to the line 8 - 10 times like he has been but Rodriguez stepped up huge with a dozen. Nobody got more than 8 rebounds...but 5 players had at least 6.

Portland won the rebound battle 43-31. They won the turnover battle 17-14. Aldridge alone blocked 4 shots and doubtless altered numerous others. In other words, the entire team stepped up...none bigger than Mr. Martell Webster.

Portland trailed 42-39 at the half. Roy was out for the game. Utah looked like they were well on their way to a nice win. Only Aldridge (17 points) kept Portland going in the first half. He would be very quiet in the second half. He made a pair of free throws on Portland's first possession...and then it was Webster time.

After Aldridge missed a jumper the Blazers hit 6 straight shots...5 by Webster. The first 3 were deuces, the last two treys. And that is a big step forward for Webster. Too often he takes mostly 3s. This time he opened his 3s by taking 2s. He expanded his game a bit.

Przybilla thought scoring looked like fun so he threw down a dunk, made a couple free throws...then Portland remembered Webster was hot. He was fouled while shooting a 3, made all 3 and Portland had their first lead since 22-21 at 1:08 of the first period, 62-61. Then he hit another jumper, another 3...he finally missed a shot or two, then closed his explosive 22 point quarter with another 4 free throws.

The 11 point lead shrunk to 6 but then Portland, led by Outlaw, went on a 14-2 run that put the game out of reach. Eventually they would even score chalupas for the fans.

When you have role players capable of quarters like the one Webster threw down it is a huge step towards becoming a great team. Portland has several of those players. To be honest, I am not shocked when I see monster quarters out of either Aldridge or Roy. They are both players with tremendous offensive abilities and they are capable of having big quarters, big halves, big games...and I actually expect those things once or twice a month out of players of their caliber.

But more importantly in the process of becoming a better team is having secondary players who can pick you up when you need it. Take a quick look at the players who have done that for Portland so far this season:

Jarrett Jack (several times).

Travis Outlaw (several times).

Martell Webster (2 or 3 times).

James Jones (several times).

And, to a lesser extent, they have had comparative explosions from Blake, Rodriguez, and even Przybilla threw down 15 or 16 points a couple times. Frye has also dropped 20 points on at least one team.

In other words, Portland has a lot of players capable of stepping up on nights when Roy or Aldridge is out of the game or having a rough game. That turns games you are expected to lose into games you are able to win.

I personally am ecstatic. I think Webster can be a huge asset for this team. Look at his rebounding troubles. Often enough when he is struggling with his shot (or not even shooting) he will pull down 6 or 8 rebounds. And they are not long boards where he is standing around on the perimeter...he gets down inside with the big guys and pulls down some tough rebounds. I have watched him post up...he has skills in that realm. If he starts moving in, taking closer shots instead of hanging out to try threes, his scoring will improve and this team will improve.

However, he has had big games before, particularly against Utah. Will he sustain this success? Will he learn the lessons there to be had...shooting from close-in as well as long range? I would love to see a Webster who posted up a couple times every game, took 4 - 6 mid-range jumpers and shot 3 - 4 threes. No, I don't think 10 - 12 shots is too many for him, he is easily capable of shooting 45- 50% and averaging 14 or 15 points a game.

If he could do that it would help take a lot of pressure off Roy and Aldridge as it would open the floor more for their games. Przybilla could work the boards more and Blake seems to have the team running smoothly when he is on the floor.

The second unit already is playing well. Frye provides a nice mid-range jumper option, Jack, Outlaw and Jones take turns adding scoring punch, and Rodriguez can break down a lot of defenders.

But perhaps the most important component is Webster. He can provide that outstanding shooter the starting five needs.

That would be another step for Portland in moving from where they are (good team) to where I want them to be...great team. And games like this can only help as the players gain experience in playing with key pieces missing, whether through injury, foul trouble, or poor play, and confidence since they have been in the win column before.


18-16 Utah at 20-13 Portland

It is hard to wrap my mind around this being this year's team. Too often I have compared Portland to the teams of the last few years when considering who is likely to win a game. As a co-worker said, we are so used to poor character teams that fold under pressure...teams more interested in firing up the hippie lettuce or dog-fighting than in playing basketball. It is a new season and this team is hitting its stride big-time.

Ironically, I was one of the earliest and biggest boosters of this team. I am one of the very select few people so optimistic about this team that I said in the pre-season they should win 42 games and sneak into the post-season. Even without Oden I thought they were improved. But then something strange happened.

Early in the season I would have said Utah was the better team and Portland would be doing well to split the season series, winning a pair at home and losing handily on the road. There was a better than average chance...say, 65-35% that Utah would win one in Portland and even a 40% chance they were enough better (still) to sweep the series.

Oh, how wrong I was. As we know by now, Portland has won 2 of 3 so far from the hated Jazz. No, these are not the dirty Malone years but the Jazz still are worthy of that resentment, built up over the Stockton/Malone years Drexler was our stud.

Already it has been a successful season as far as the Utah series is concerned. Saturday Portland has the chance to win the season series 3-1 simply by holding serve on their home court. In a sense they are free-rolling...that is, if expectations they will simply match their 32-50 record of last year were still in play. I don't think they are. If Portland goes just .500 the rest of the way they will end up either 44-38 or 45-37...some people think that is a stretch and it may be. There are still plenty of tough games on the schedule. Utah is one of those tough games.

But I have returned to my early season optimism. This is a tough game but a winnable one...and, I will even argue, one they SHOULD win. Of course, early this season there was a game I thought they should win and win big and I argued that after they beat Philadelphia they would be 7-2 in their next nine games. After that loss I changed it to say they would get swept on the rest of the road trip...they did...and even lose to New Jersey, whom they should have beat. I will argue Portland is one quarter away from potentially a 50 win season...if they had beat Philadelphia they would have had the confidence and heart to beat Washington, Charlotte, and New Jersey and would already have been well above .500.

Be that as it may, Utah will come to town with a chip on their shoulder. They do not believe Portland is ready to play with them. They think the Korver acquisition was a big improvement. They think they are the Division and Conference contenders and Portland is a pretender.

That seems to be a popular consensus. Barkley was arguing that Portland is not a playoff team because they cannot get easy baskets. And he may be right. Certainly he is a better analyst of the league than I am and his basketball knowledge surpasses mine. I also freely admit my predictions are colored by "homer-ism"...if I err, it will generally be in favor of the Blazers.

However, I think he may be in error. Portland has several ways to get easy baskets...they have great success running the pick and roll with Roy and Aldridge, Outlaw can get off his drive left/step-back jumper at will, and both Roy and Jack can penetrate/kick out for easy looks. The question is will they use those options?

So the normal predictions are in place: Boozer will have a strong night, Portland will struggle on the boards, Aldridge or Roy needs to have a solid game and get help from a couple of role players...but at home that is more likely to happen.

One thing I have noticed is how deep on his bench is. In the Portland glory years they ran 7 - 8 deep at most. I think most "good" teams feel the same way, running 7 - 8 players deep. Portland runs 10 deep regularly. They are playing Jack, Blake, Rodriguez, and Roy in the back court, Jones, Webster, Frye, Aldridge and Outlaw in the front court and Przybilla at center when they don't throw Frye or Outlaw up there.

This, I think, should keep them fresh. It also gives plenty of guys opportunities to have the hot hand. Jones and Outlaw seem to be the most frequent bench contributors, though Jack shows up often enough he can't be ignored either. Webster or Blake usually have a good night and Frye often picks up the slack when Aldridge is struggling. But the most consistent are of course Roy and Aldridge and that ain't chopped liver.

So with a deep bench, a ton of confidence, and the friendly confines of the Rose Garden, everything is in place for Portland to win again. The Jazz are a solid team, easily capable of the win...but look for Portland to pull this one out by 6 - 10 points.


Portland 115, Chicago 109, double OT

Oh ye of little faith, why do you doubt? When I wrote my review, I referenced a conversation I had the night before in which I said Portland would win, admitting, "My first thought was this was a should-win game for Portland."

But the more I studied the game, the more I convinced myself these were 2 very even teams and that the home court was going to make the difference. Ultimately, I made the craven "Portland loss" prediction, saying, "In Chicago, I actually think the teams are pretty close to even, no huge advantages either way. If the game is in Portland, I think Portland wins it. But since it is in Chicago I suspect the Bulls will pull it out, probably in the 4 - 8 point range. So my official prediction is a Bulls win...but I will not be shocked if Portland pulls out the minor upset.

Allow me to address myself for a unbelieving coward! Get behind this team, will you?

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program. The game started out ragged, going back and forth. Aldridge was struggling mightily from the looked like he wanted to follow up on his monster night against Utah rather than the struggles he had against Minnesota , but he was forcing things...shooting from unusual places, battling into the teeth of the defense instead of going with the normal flow...but he was still indispensable to Portland in the early going as he was controlling the boards, racking up 5 in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, Webster and Blake picked up the scoring load with 8 and 5 respectively. Webster was playing very well, doing some of the things Jones does...moving without the ball, just subtle things to get free for open shots, that sort of thing. Webster was doing that in this game. He was moving without the ball, he was posting up smaller players, and scoring well.

Chicago was also getting good balance as Hinrich, Gordon and Smith combined for 20 of their 22 points in the quarter and a 22-20 Chicago lead. About this point I was kicking myself for not going outright with a Portland win.

Then came the second quarter. The first few minutes were a disaster. If Portland was a whale and the basket was the water, they could not hit the water even with an effort from their blow-hole. A low-flying blimp would have intercepted it before it could hit or something. And that was when they bothered to throw the ball in the general direction of the basket...they had 3 turnovers before they scored. They were on the verge of being blown out if Chicago could score. Fortunately, the lead only grew to 7, 28-21, as Chicago also started cold. Then Outlaw and Roy took over, scoring 13 combined points in the remainder of the quarter. Outlaw had more, 9, but Roy's were the type that set up his late-game heroics.

Portland had to feel pretty good at the half. Aldridge was scoreless, they were struggling to score as a team (they followed up a 21 point first quarter by decreasing their scoring by 1), could stop neither Gordon nor Smith...and were only down 7.

Whatever McMillan said to them at the did not work. They gave up a 7-0 run as Aldridge twice turned the ball over, Webster missed a couple of shots, and it was on the verge of being a once-winnable game they then lost. About this point I was feeling better about my Chicago win prediction. That 55-41 lead looked huge, especially with as much trouble as Portland was having scoring. I think it was about this point that TNT showed a statistic that Portland had 10 turnovers and 9 assists.

But Outlaw and Roy would not be denied. If they were not scoring (6 and 7) then they were passing to the open guy who then scored. By the time they closed the quarter on a 7-2 run the game was just 1 point, 70-69, the entire 14 point deficit had been erased and the 4th quarter is Blazer time.

Some guy named Aldridge stepped up, hitting key shot after key shot. This was the Aldridge I am such a huge fan of...working the pick and roll with Roy to hit that foul line extended jumper, grabbing the offensive board and scoring on the put-back, playing in the flow of the offense. He got little help, however...he scored 8, the rest of the Blazers just 11. They had their chances...3 times in the last minute Roy had shots, but Wallace blocked one and the other two he missed. This game was going to overtime.

Chicago built a quick 4 point lead. This was gut-check time round 2. They were up to the task. Outlaw hit one of those drive/step back jumpers he loves, Jack stole the ball and laid it in, Roy scored and was fouled...and suddenly Portland had the 3 point lead.

Neither team would quit, though...Chicago fought back as Gordon and Smith continued to score at will. When Portland got anyone else to shoot they would miss...but Portland could not grab the board. Again and again they got the stop, only to have their heart ripped out as Chicago got the offensive rebound and then Gordon or Smith, Smith or Gordon...oh, they were awesome.

Finally, with 18 seconds Outlaw hit a shot to give Portland the lead yet again. Then they got the stop, inducing a tough Gordon shot and miss...only to see Smith get a rebound over 3 Blazers and get fouled. He hit both free throws, the only shot Portland could get was a hotly contested trey by Jack and we were heading to a second overtime.

Chicago got the first three cracks at it as Wallace and Smith rebounded missed triples by Gordon and Nocioni. You would think Chicago would look at Gordon again or maybe the unstoppable Smith. Nope. Hinrich for, and now Portland finally had the ball.

They traded baskets until a mini 5-0 run gave Portland a 3 point lead with just 19 seconds remaining. Smith missed a free throw, Jones hit 2 free throws to make it a 4 point lead, then he blocked a Nocioni 3. When he hit 2 free throws Portland finally had an insurmountable 6 point lead.

It was an excellent game and a great time to have it, on national television. Aldridge came back from his 0-7 start to finish 6-16 with 14 points and 13 vital boards. His 4th quarter and overtime play were huge.

Roy had another standout game with 25 points and 11 assists...and some key defensive plays. Outlaw was huge...every time Portland was struggling to score it seemed like it was Outlaw with that drive left, step back jumper. Portland finished with 6 guys in double figures, and despite the 18 offensive rebounds they allowed Chicago, they won the battle on the boards 51-49. That is huge against a Chicago team that is top 5 in the league in rebounds.

Oh, and remember that 10 turnover, 9 assist stat? Portland ended with 10 turnovers and 23 assists.

They took care of the ball, despite the way it felt watching during the key moments of the game, they actually did a really nice job on the boards, they did not get flustered when Chicago built a significant lead, they trusted the role players to help them...and those players came through in spades.

This was a game this Portland team can be proud of and build on. It makes a difference for more than just one game in the standings...this will give them confidence. Chicago was hot coming in, playing at home, and had a sizable lead. Portland kept their poise, worked their way back, and came away with an impressive win.

19-13 Portland at 12-18 Chicago

Will the real Chicago please stand up? Are they the team that went 49-33 with half of a Ben Wallace? Or are they the team that started this season 8-17, struggled against everyone and quit on Scott Skiles? Recently, they have looked more like the team from last year.

One suspects this recent turnaround in which the Bulls have gone from hapless to dangerous has a lot to do with the change in coaching. Ironically, Bulls (interim) coach Boylan made a comment that dove-tails nicely with my own philosophy: "Sometimes you go the way the game is going,'' Boylan said."

That quote was in reference to the extended playing time he gave to Noah who responded with a career high 17 points in just 18 minutes. I take it to mean when he sees a line-up that is working, he is going to let them run for a while. That kind of coaching can lead to win streaks.

Chicago has made some changes that are working for them. Ben Gordon is able to dominate most benches as he has shown since being moved to Chicago's bench. Hinrich and Deng are starting to look like the players they were last year and even Wallace seems to have come out of his funk. Suddenly, this is a dangerous Chicago team that thinks they can play with anyone.

And they probably can. They have a deep, talented team that can play a variety of styles. And I am having second thoughts. My first thought was this was a should-win game for Portland. However, I did not realize how much they had improved since Skiles was released. This is the team Chicago thought they had.

Unlike Minnesota, in Chicago you really do have a team that is better than its record. They certainly have the talent to beat Portland in Chicago...the question is which team will want it more. Portland is wanting to prove their long winning streak was A) no fluke and B) not strictly fueled by being at home. They are coming off a road win, they have seen what a good team looks like when that team is struggling but at home (Utah), and they know what to expect.

This game is going to come down to execution. If former Bull LaMarcus Aldridge (okay, so for about 10 minutes on draft day...but it still amuses me to say that) and Brandon Roy can continue their strong play, a couple of the second tier guys...say, Outlaw and Jones...have solid games, this is a winnable game for Portland. On the other hand, if they come out shooting 39% again, this could be a loss by 10+ points.

Here is where I say something that hurts. In the Utah game, despite the records, I believed Portland was going into a building where they were playing a better team in an away game and should probably lose. I hate Utah and hate admitting they have a better team. But they do.

In Chicago, I actually think the teams are pretty close to even, no huge advantages either way. If the game is in Portland, I think Portland wins it. But since it is in Chicago I suspect the Bulls will pull it out, probably in the 4 - 8 point range. So my official prediction is a Bulls win...but I will not be shocked if Portland pulls out the minor upset.