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.

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