Who needs Stars?

After watching LaMarcus Aldridge go down with an ankle sprain in Seattle the Blazers saw Brandon Roy take a groin injury in the second period against Washington. Lacking their 2 best scorers they faced a formidable task against the Washington Wizards. The result showed just how much potential the current incarnation of the team has if they can somehow become consistent.

Prior to the Seattle game Aldridge had a streak of 9 consecutive 20+ point efforts, a streak second in length only to some guy named LeBron James. While nobody would argue Aldridge is the equal of James in scoring, that streak did indicate how important a piece he has been and will be in the development of the Trailblazers from perennial doormat to playoff participant and, if Greg Oden is all he is advertised and the rest of the team continues to improve, perhaps even title contender.

When Aldridge is shooting 50+% and commanding double teams in the post it opens up so much of the Blazer offense. Their spot-up shooters like Martell Webster and James Jones get the open looks that have them among the league leaders in 3 point percentage. Even Steve Blake becomes somewhat of a threat if opponents choose to sag off of him to double down on Aldridge. Thus he provides an inside component to the game to complement the jump shooters that comprise most of the team. Without him Portland would have to retool their line-up.

Early in the year they would have gone to Channing Frye. He is similar in size and build to Aldridge and they even have the same spot-up 15 footer. But Frye tends to play with his hands a bit more and gets out of position on the boards which causes Joel Przybilla to have to work a bit harder. He has never quite fulfilled the potential he had coming out of Arizona so instead Coach Nate McMillan went with Travis Outlaw, the player Portland has been touting as a 6th Man of the Year candidate.

Outlaw leads the league in minutes off the bench and shot attempts. Adding him to the starting line-up adds size, speed and punch but takes those same attributes off the bench and could conceivably cause the second unit to struggle. In light of recent struggles that could be a move fraught with danger.

Against Seattle the starters built a nice lead only to see the second unit give it all back. In the previous home game against the Clippers it was the same pattern...the starters would build 8 - 10 point leads only to see it all evaporate when the bench came in. By taking Outlaw off the second unit it would add pressure to the second unit to score.

With the pressure to perform on the starters Portland came out on fire. They scored on their first 5 possessions and 6 of the first 7. Early on they were setting the tone. There would be no sub-40% shooting this night as there had been against the Clippers (twice), the Sonics, the...well, everyone Portland has played lately. Ironically, in the absence of their best post player in Aldrdige, Portland was scoring in the paint repeatedly. They built leads of 10-2 and 12-4 before the game settled into a rhythm.

If anybody could have figured out how to get a hand in the face of Caron Butler this game would have been a blow-out. He scored 14 points in the first period for Washington and kept them within striking distance at 31-22. Portland fans were excited about the 30 point quarter. Lately seeing the scoreboard hit 20 in any 12 minute period has felt like an offensive explosion. Better yet, they were doing it without Aldridge and were seeing Webster light it up for a second consecutive game as he had 10 point of his own for the quarter and was scoring from inside, mid-range and outside.

All year Webster has hung out by the 3 point line waiting to bomb away. All year Portland has been stuck scoring in the low to mid 90s. The 2 thoughts are not unrelated. Sure, Webster is a good shooter who, when hot, can knock out any team as he did earlier this year against Utah with a 26 point third quarter. But too often he becomes a free guy for the defense as he goes into the corner, approximates a statue and nobody has to defend him. When he mixes up his game with a couple drives to the basket, a post-up or 2, and a couple mid-range jumpers the Blazers become a much more explosive and balanced offensive team. On nights where the offense falls on Roy and Aldridge in the starting line-up and Outlaw off the bench Portland struggles. When a third scorer steps up in the starting line-up they become a beast. The hot start for Webster was a good sign. It also shows the potential this team can have next year.

If Oden proves to be the force down low Portland hopes they will have 4 explosive scorers in the starting line-up. Oden and Aldridge down low, Roy to drive, Webster to provide the bombs, and Steve Blake has proven adept at timely shooting is a line-up that can put some hurt on people. Take away the threat of Webster and opponents can double the post players, clog the lanes and turn the Blazer offense into a pedestrian spectacle that scares nobody.

A fine example of that showed up to start the second quarter. The first 5 minutes saw Portland score a whopping 2 points. It was not as if they did not have easy opportunities. James Jones had a 3 so wide open that many fans were on their feet throwing up the classic "3" sign as the ball left his hands. Of course, they sat down pretty quick when his shot...well, how do I put this air ball would have looked better. Not normal for Jones...but it had an immediate effect. The Wizards started collapsing on the inside which led to things such as the possession where Przybilla and Frye had 4 point blank shots and the possession ended with an offensive foul by Przybilla. There was simply too much congestion around the basket for anyone to get off even a reasonable shot attempt. The results clearly showed one thing. The fortunes of the Blazers next year will largely rest on getting consistent outside shooting to provide space to work in for Aldridge and Oden.

The box score really tells a lot of the story. After his second quarter fall Roy was ineffectual yet the Blazers continued to build their lead and by the time the fourth quarter started there was really only one question on the minds of Blazer fans; will there be chalupas? That was due to several things, very few of them named Roy and none named Aldridge. Those factors are the things that will determine if the Blazer franchise experiences large degrees of success or is another also-ran in the coming few years.

This game was won by the second-tier players on the team. It started with the defense. Przybilla was only credited with 2 blocked shots but his impact was the same as if he had blocked a dozen. Portland as a team did block 10...and it showed. Washington players hurried their shots inside, hesitated to go inside, and just generally had a miserable time shooting. With 6 players registering at least 1 block (and 3 having multiple block games) it was obvious Portland was going to contest virtually every shot. That sort of defense gets in the head of offensive players and is the type of thing that leads to 36% shooting with worse shooting inside the arc than outside.

But it went further than that. All year Portland has struggled on the boards and Washington is rife with the type of players who have just killed them...guys like Andray Blatche and Brendan Haywood. This time, however, Przybilla alone controlled the boards. His 17 rebounds tell only part of the story as his very presence and dominance allowed other players to pick off the longer boards knowing he would vacuum up anything within reach. That allowed them to get out and run the floor a bit more than usual and created a free-flowing game.

For example Jarrett Jack was generating a great deal of rapid offense. Many possessions could not be considered fast breaks but the ball crossed mid court 2 - 3 seconds quicker than usual. The Wizards defense therefore was not as well set as normal which resulted in a large number of open looks. That in turn led to 50% shooting from the 3-point line. The looks were directly attributable to Jack running the ball up court instead of the more conservative walk it up style Blake typically runs.

That offers hope for the future in that the Blazers might be able to play multiple styles. They can have a half-court offense with the starters and a fast break style offense with the reserves. They can mix and match. They can present match-up problems based on the opponent. That flexibility is a harbinger of some vast potential for the future. Sadly, it was only evidenced because the studs Aldridge and Roy were sitting most or all of this game out.

In other words, injuries inadvertently showed McMillan how some of his pieces might fit together to improve the team in the next couple of years. That is an exciting thing. By getting experience in playing in different styles the players are able to look at things they can work on over the summer so that next year when expectations are high from the beginning of the year they are ready to play.

The 2007 slogan for the Blazers has been "Rise with us" and the Wizards game was an example of that. Some players showed a bit more consistency, some players flashed sides of their game we had not seen previously, and others reminded us why 6 point, 6 turnover games are things we are okay with because they come with 17 rebounds and a game-defining presence in the middle. The present is okay but the future is bright indeed.

Oh, and for the record...I did enjoy my chalupa.