Was the Portland Trailblazers not trading for Shawn Marion a good thing?

In the off season and pre-season, Blazer fans were wildly proposing trades to fill the two biggest problem spots on the Blazer roster. Conventional wisdom held that Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy locked down the Center, Power Forward, and Shooting Guard locations but the Blazers were in big need of help at the Small Forward and Point Guard positions.

One of the most popular names circulating was Shawn Marion. Without bothering to see if it made sense from the Heat point of view, it was assumed Portland could pry him away for essentially the expiring Raef LaFrentz contract and spare change.

For the Blazers, it seemed to make sense. Marion is an excellent wing defender, a great transition scorer, and can drill the three. He would step into the starting line-up, provide them their key defender and some added scoring punch, act as the sinecure "veteran", and fill their second biggest hole.

This would allow Portland to move some combination of Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Channing Frye, Sergio Rodriguez and/or Steve Blake to pry loose a premier point guard from some other team.

Just 10 or 12 games into the season it is illuminating to see how much the landscape has changed. Nicolas Batum has been a nice surprise, Webster's injury had the rather ironic impact of whetting fans' appetites for his return, and Marion no longer looks quite the prize he once did.

Suddenly Portland fans are starting to realize what they should have known all along. This team is pretty hard to improve on already. The players mesh very well together and fulfill the roles needed on the current roster.

Webster is an above average long-range shooter who is rumored to have improved his defense. He was showing flashes last year of developing into a better than average wing defender and training camp reports this year had that much improved.

Travis Outlaw has taken a small step back offensively but is improving his defense. He can still create his own shot and at times does a nice job on the boards, though he does disappear occasionally as well.

Batum has been a revelation. His on the ball defense is already good and his help defense at times spectacular. He consistently hits the open jumper and three-ball and is good on the boards. His production is excellent for the time he gets but Portland is just too deep even at Small Forward for him to get more time.

Marion is no longer looked at as a huge upgrade by many Blazer fans. That may not be fair. Marion is still more versatile than any of the Blazer 3s is individually. He is also a better defender. However, he is not so far advanced of what we already see our guys doing that there is still an outcry to get him.

It is amazing what a little patience will do and how it changes the outlook of fans. There are still a few voices trying to get rid of Blake at all costs under the mistaken assumption he is not a good enough point guard for this team when in truth he is a great fit. He doesn't need a lot of touches but he is effective when he gets them. He provides the steady veteran leadership that keeps the team from panicking. He strokes the three pretty well. Sure, his defense is shaky, but then again, name 5 teams that are perfectly set up to defend the Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Devin Harris type of point guard.

I saw one comparison of Blake and Laker guard Derek Fisher. They have similar games and often seem like statistical clones. Yet I don't hear a lot of Laker fans yelling for Fisher to be traded, any more than I heard Bulls fans wanting to unload Ron Harper. I would have to say that style of point, the one that doesn't need the ball in their hands but can score when called upon is pretty effective on teams with guys like Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. Properly built, that is a better choice than a ball-controlling point guard who has to have it in his hands.

So now that the season is starting to shake out, Blazer fans are starting to realize the move for Marion, while it may have been a good one, would ultimately have had too high a price. There is a reason this team is 9-6 and on its way up. That reason has a lot to do with the players Portland would have had to give up or not play if they acquired Marion.

This is certainly no slight on the Matrix. He is a very good player who helps any team he is on. Can you imagine him in Boston with their current crop? It would be a tough fit at first, but with hi versatility, they would be all but unstoppable. But as good as he is, looking back, the landscape has changed so much that at this point, Blazer fans should be ecstatic that trade was never a realistic possibility.

Sometimes the best moves you make are the ones you don't.


Blazers vs Kings; Can Portland Win Another Nail-Biter?

A few hours before game time we got the news; Greg Oden would make his first home start. Personally, I was a little disappointed. I believe he will be a monster and a key cog in the Blazers' Title runs in the next few years. However, at this moment in time, Joel Przybilla just fits better with the starting line-up.

As an aside, a fan at the stadium had a new nickname for Jole that I like even better than "The Vanilla Gorilla" or "The Thrilla", and that would be Joelzilla. Simply awesome. I hereby demand all references to Joelzilla retroactively be changed to reflect this new name which just might have people going deaf from overexposure to awesomeness.

When Joel starts, the Blazers like to start the game by pounding it inside to LaMarcus Aldridge. LA has really developed a strong post game over the past couple of seasons and this establishes him. It also gets Portland rolling with an inside out game that leads to open perimeter looks for Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy. 

Joelzilla does a tremendous job in this line-up of setting picks and, almost as important, not clogging up the lane for LA or for Roy's drives. Oden, by contrast, too often plants himself down low and simply tries to overpower people. The offense bogs down, he picks up offensive fouls, and low scoring becomes the norm.

On this night, the low scoring did not happen. In the first 6 minute stretch, with Oden and Batum on the floor, the Blazers shot out to 14 points and a small lead. However, Oden did not look comfortable at all.

That is okay because this is a move for the long term. Joelzilla is a very good team guy but may not be the right starting center for a team planning to do damage in the playoffs. It will take time to get the new starting line-up acclimated together and what better time to do it than against a lower echelon team with a marginal inside game?

Early on, it looked like Oden or not, the Blazers were going to blow the Kings off the court. Then something strange happened. The Blazers forgot that Stephen Hawes and Brad Miller are atypical big men who can shoot from distance. And shoot from distance they did.

Over and over we yelled at Blazer defenders stuff like, "This just in. Miller hasn't missed a three this half!" as he bombed in another wide open trey. It was so bad that at one point the Blazer free throw percentage was 64 and the King 3-point percentage was 71. That is not a typo. The Kings, well into the fourth quarter, were shooting over 70% from deep.

That is one way to stay in a game when you are being out-rebounded 48-32, commit 22 turnovers, and give up 24 free throws. Credit the Kings with hanging tough.

And even more, the Kings deserve major credit for the defensive job they did in the last minute. Everyone in the building knew Roy was going to get the ball. But the Kings decided he wasn't. John Salmons played tremendous denial defense, forcing the Blazers to go to Travis Outlaw who mustered only an awkward looking drive that never really had a chance of going in and left the Kings with the last shot in a one point game.

Twice already Portland has had to score on their last possession. Well, three times if you count the Houston game as two. The Spurs got a last shot, but that was in transition with no time to run a play.

This was the first time this year Portland had to play defense against a set play with the game on the line. We know they can score to win games. Can they defend to win games?

Somehow, someway they completely disrupted the Sacramento play and Salmons heaved up a wild, tough shot against some pretty intense defense. There is a reason Portland is 9-6 and the Kings are 5-11; the Blazers finished the game stronger at both ends.

Along the way we had a few awesome moments. Roy added yet another highlight reel, spectacular drive. This one started left of the key with a behind-the back dribble to leave on King in his wake, a spin, a shift around one Kings big man and a layin over the late rotation of a second. Simply gorgeous. 

For the night, we learned a lot of things. We learned that one reason Portland will continue to be successful is because guys accept their roles without complaint, continue to do their job, and pull for each other. We learned that even on an off night offensively, Aldridge can contribute on the boards. We learned that even on nights when the bench struggles (14-34 from the field), Portland is going to win.

I guess you could say we learned Brandon Roy is spectacular...but I suspect most of us already knew that.

I expected Portland to win by double digits. They won by one. In a way, that is disappointing. They should beat even an inspired Kings team running without Francisco Garcia and Kevin Martin by more than one. Then again, in a way it is inspiring. As numerous players said in the post-game interviews, a couple years ago Portland would have lost this game. This time they showed poise, they showed maturity, and did what it took to walk away with the W. Ultimately, that is what it is all about.

Preview:Kings at Blazers

The Kings and Blazers are two teams heading in similar directions. The Kings, once an almost-respectable 5-8 have dropped their last two games, leaving them ahead of only about 7 teams, record-wise. Meanwhile, Portland is 8-6 and just one game off the pace set by Denver.

However, Portland has a tough schedule coming up while Denver looks to having six of their next nine at home and among the road games are teams such as the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Kings. In other words, while Portland is likely to be looking up at Denver by four or five games within the next couple of weeks as the schedule is favorable for Denver to have a big winning streak whereas Portland will be fortunate to go 3-3 in their next six, five of which are on the road in places like Detroit, Toronto and Boston.

That makes the home game against the Kings into a key game. Portland is coming off a disappointing performance in Phoenix. Defensively, the Blazers performed very well and did everything they needed in order to have a chance to win. Unfortunately, the offense disappeared.

Part of that can certainly be credited to the improved Suns defense. How much of it is credited to their defense as opposed to how much of it is credited to Phoenix being in the Blazers' collective psyche is an open question.

In the first half, Portland was raining open threes at the basket from all angles. Typically reliable shooters like Steve Blake and Rudy Fernandez had multiple looks so wide open that not only were the shots uncontested, there was not even a defender within five feet of the shooters. They combined to miss every open look.

Portland let the Suns off the hook. Had they hit the shots they normally hit, Portland would have been up by 10 - 15 points. The offensive explosion of the third quarter would not have mattered so much.

The Suns are much too good to not take advantage of such a gift. They took advantage and won a game that Portland had a very real shot at. That makes it perhaps even more unlikely that Portland will break through in Phoenix this year and also had adverse affects on the outlook of Greg Oden.

His match-up with Shaquille O'Neal drew a lot of attention. Frankly, Oden was not ready for it. He was called for some pretty questionable calls, particularly in light of the nonsense O'Neal gets away with. As typical for him, he got off a couple of cheap shots that would have gotten someone like Ron Artest of Stephen Jackson a multi-game suspension, but in his case only one of them even drew a foul call and a technical.

If I ever get around to it, I would love to write a piece about the dirtiest players in the League: guys who regularly take cheap shots, commit vicious fouls akin to unnecessary roughness type things, or just hack and grab. A front line of O'Neal, Tyson Chandler and Bruce Bowen, teamed with Rip Hamilton would be a pretty good start.

The difference between the Bowen/Hamilton type players and the O'Neal/Chandler ones is the first group do their work with their hands, primarily to keep their opponent from getting position or scoring well. The second group I have watched time and again throw elbows or other shots clearly designed to injure. I was shocked the first time I saw Chandler play live and saw all his after-the-whistle work away from the ball. He does not get noticed because he does it away from the play but I instantly put him on my list and watching him since, he is second only to O'Neal.

O'Neal of course has well-publicized tendencies in that regard which are passed off by his fans and defenders as, "Well, he gets fouled all the time." Uh, right. There is no difference between say...someone getting run over by a tank reaching around and trying to strip the ball, getting called for a foul, and the actions of O'Neal against Joel Przybilla.

Last year after he knocked Przybilla to the floor, O'Neal "tripped" and deliberately moved the ball, trying to drive it into Joel's face with all O'Neal's weight behind it. It was deliberate, malicious, and should have earned a long, long suspension. In the most recent game he again took an after the whistle shot that could easily have been construed as a punch. This one at least earned him a technical, but it also allowed him to grow ever more violent as the game progressed without further fouls being called.

I look forward to the day when, after his basketball career, he gets in the ring with guys who think like he does...Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar...and we see how he does without the referees allowing him almost complete carte blanche.

But back to Oden; after the game, it was clear he knew he had performed poorly. He struggled to score and, more importantly, did not rebound or defend well. Portland will be just fine if he does not score a great deal but they desperately need strong performances defensively and on the boards from Oden if they intend to compete against the better NBA teams.

How will Oden respond to it? The Kings game might provide one answer. The answer has to do much more with Oden than it does the Kings. Physically, the Kings are way over-matched. Oden can gain position almost at will against guys like Brad Miller, Spencer Hawes and Mikki Moore.

The Kings big men play a different game, more inclined to snipe from mid or long range than they are to mix it up under the basket. They are the type of players Oden should put up fairly nice numbers against...if his head is in the game. If not, he could skip his rotation, be drawn to the perimeter where the Kings can use their superior speed and agility, and he could end up in foul trouble.

So item #1 on the Blazers agenda is making sure Oden is able to put the Phoenix game behind him. Everyone has bad games. The good players have bad memories and go out to play the game in front of them instead of worrying about yesterday's news. We do not know how Oden will react to that yet.

Item #2 is winning the games they should win. Home games against the Kings are definitely a game they should win. Even if Sacramento comes in with a chip on their shoulder after the beat-down Portland laid on them last week, Portland should win this game and win it handily.

They have a better inside game than the Kings, they have a better outside game, and better defense. For the Kings to win, they have to play well over their normal game while limiting the Blazers to playing a very poor game.

In the NBA, that is always a possibility but not a probability. Portland should follow the same formula they used in the second half at Sacramento. Start the ball inside and either let LaMarcus Aldridge go to work in the post or, if he is double-teamed, rotate the ball to the open shooter on the perimeter for the easy look at the three-ball.

This game should be a good confidence booster for Portland after the rough Suns game and give them a nice boost before heading on the road for their second long East Coast trip of the year. Look for a double digit win and some free chalupas for the crowd.

And lots of chances to do the "Thrilla" dance every time Przybilla dunks or blocks a shot.


Does the Road game against the Kings hold the Key to the Blazers Season?

Sitting at 7-5 is hardly an enviable position. Even worse, after an extended 5 game road trip that ended with a home game on the back end of a back to back, Portland is now back on the road for another back to back. This time both games are on the road, first against Sacramento and then against Phoenix.

In their last road game, Portland turned in a disappointing performance against Golden State and gave up a win they probably should have had, thus effectively canceling out their somewhat surprising win in Orlando a few nights prior.

It also pointed up to the difference between Portland and the teams they are looking up at. The Celtics and Lakers habitually close out the games they are supposed to close out and put them in the W column. Their win totals grow regularly and when they lose it is a bit surprising. You seldom see the top teams of the League lose to the Memphis or Clipper type franchises.

Portland has the talent to be that type of team. What they do not have is the killer instinct. They often go into games and, as Brandon Roy has admitted in interviews, let teams get off to good starts and into great rhythms.

Portland needs to learn how to impose their will on opposing teams. They need more nights like they had against Chicago where they spend the first 5 minutes establishing they are the better team and the next 43 minutes drilling that into the heads of their opponents. They need teams to know going in they will have to scrap and battle for every point and will need to go above and beyond to slow the Blazer offensive attack.

With that in mind, a quick look at the two games ahead is illuminating. Looking at them in reverse, the second game is currently the 2000 pound gorilla. Phoenix is a team the Brandon Roy era Blazers have never defeated. Not in Phoenix. Not in Portland.

Furthermore, in the last couple of games Shaquille O'Neal has wrecked Joel Przybilla, scoring and rebounding seemingly at will. Steve Nash also does a number on Steve Blake while Raja Bell often does an above average job on Roy.

Synergize those things with the back to back, the fact it will be their 7th road game in their last 8 outings, and suddenly you have a game that looks very, very imposing.

On the other hand, Phoenix and most of the Western Conference are looking vulnerable this year. San Antonio and Dallas are below .500. Phoenix has lost 3 home games in 6 tries. Houston is struggling with injuries and integrating Ron Artest into the offense. Utah is waiting for their star point guard to return. Denver made what some took as a panic trade.

As of the moment, at 7-5, Portland is in 6th place in the Western Conference. They are only 3 games away from first place. If they can get on a big run, they could actually be a legitimate, serious threat to make a move towards the 3rd seed or perhaps even the second seed.

But to do that, they will have to win some games such as the Suns game. Phoenix is struggling to adjust to their new mind set and playing style, they have had some mild chirping at Coach Terry Porter in the media, and are not yet the dominating team they will probably be by the end of the year.

More importantly, games against teams like the Kings are games Portland has to win. They need to go into Sacramento and establish their dominance early. The Kings are struggling with injuries and trying to get their young core used to playing together. They have been boosted by some surprisingly good games by John Salmons and other guys have stepped up, keeping them respectable at 5-8.

But they can't stay with Portland. Top to bottom, Portland is a better team. They need to make sure the Kings know that. They need to come out early, put together a nice offensive stretch and show the same defensive intensity they did against Chicago.

Portland is on the cusp of becoming a top-tier team. They are showing that by doing well with a difficult schedule. They are playing the games put in front of them and winning the games they should, Golden State excepted.

Beating the Kings is the next step. The Blazers need to win a conference game against a below average team. Furthermore, they need to do it in convincing fashion. Then they can take the momentum of their last two performances into Phoenix and maybe win that game.

At this point it is all about attitude. The Blazers need to develop the same attitude the Lakers, Celtics, Cavaliers, and Pistons have; every game belongs to them and is theirs to lose. They have to believe going in that they are the better team. They need to know that on nights they play their game they will like the scoreboard results.

It all starts with winning the games you should win. The Kings game is one they should win. Going 3 games over .500 would be huge. After Phoenix they have a nice break in the schedule with 3 home games against Sacramento, Miami, and New Orleans. Winning against the Kings would be a nice confidence boost going into the Suns game and give Portland their best chance to win what is surprisingly a winnable game.

Assuming the Suns win at home, that still leaves Portland 4 of their next 5 games that should be wins. If they can be sitting at 11-6 when they take off on the subsequent 5 game road trip, they will be well set up for the rest of the season. They will know they can win at home and on the road. They will have beaten the good teams and the bad teams. They will know they can establish their will and show teams it will be an uphill battle all night.

Conversely, if they lose to the Kings it will make the Phoenix game exponentially more difficult to win. Having a 2 game losing streak might sap some player confidence. Their next game with a quality team is against the Hornets on get-away day. Suddenly that becomes a trap game.

Should Portland stumble against the Hornets, that 5 game trip gets even tougher. Knowing you will face Detroit, Boston and Toronto on the road can turn games like the New York and Washington games into desperation moments. Suddenly instead of a nice record, Portland might be looking at being around .500.

That is what is at stake against the Kings. Does a win against them guarantee a sweep of the home stand and good road trip? Of course not, any more than a loss guarantees future troubles. It does, however, speak to the identity the team develops as far as showing they are a force to be reckoned with.

The NBA players know which teams are good and which ones aren't. The confidence level of teams going in to games with Boston is generally not high whether the games are home or away. Portland needs to start developing that same reputation; the team you know will probably beat you. It starts with a win in Sacramento.


Blazers, Warriors, and Bulls; Runs are the difference

When Golden State ran out to an early lead and my wife got worried, I replied, "If there is one team in the lead you don't worry about when they get an early lead, it is New York. But if there are two, the second one is Golden State. They will give it all back. We might not win, but we won't get blown out."

There are also teams you definitely do not want to let get out to early double digit leads because they won't let you down. That would be teams like the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs. In between those extremes are the rest of the league, teams that some nights will give up early leads and other nights will extend them.

To this point, Portland in the last season and a half has tended more towards the former; they gave up a huge lead against Philadelphia early last year that threatened to derail their season. Conversely, they also came back after seeing other teams run out early on.

Against Golden State, both teams had some nice runs but nothing the opposition could not recover from. Ultimately in a hard-fought contest, the Warriors made more plays down the stretch.

Against Chicago, Portland wanted and needed to show they were going to get an early lead and not going to give it up.

It was obvious early the Bulls were not going to get back in this game. When they pulled within about twenty, Coach Nate McMillan took a time-out and instantly the lead ballooned back past the thirty point mark. It is things like that which mattered in this game. Well, those and the Bulls basically quitting.

At one point some Bull made what vaguely appeared to make an entry pass. It would have been more effective if Joakim Noah either A) established position or B) did not have his back to the passer.

Since Noah never saw the pass, there was a defender between passer and intended recipient, and Noah was completely over matched, there was no surprise when the ball rocketed out of bounds untouched. The Blazers ran up court. The Bulls stood there glaring at each other, yipping about whose fault it was.

The Bulls are a team in disarray. At least, they were on this night. They don't play as a team, they don't maximize the talents of their players and don't mask their holes. As a result, when things went poorly early, they never looked like any threat at all.

In many ways, this was a forgettable game. Portland shot out to a 16-3 lead with the Bulls points coming on I believe a Defensive 3 second call and a bad turnover that led to a break-away. In fact, 4 of the first 7 Bulls points came that way.

But Portland did not panic. They continued to play stifling defense, pound the ball inside, rebound, and demonstrate this is a new era in Blazers history. For a couple of years now, the Blazers have been capable of building respectable leads but have not been able to maintain or extend those leads. That is no longer true.

The starters built the lead, the reserves extended it. At one point the Blazer line-up had Greg Oden, Channing Frye, Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez on the floor. That is a line-up that could go .500 for the season and has potential All-Stars some day in Oden, Outlaw and Fernandez. And they are all second-unit.

Sure, at some point Oden will probably return to the starting line-up. Sure, Outlaw has not looked his best yet this season. But if you put this line-up on the floor night in and night out to start games, they will put up numbers and win games. They can score inside with Oden, Outlaw, and Fernandez. They can score from deep with any of them but Oden. Rodriguez and Fernandez are above average at getting into the lane and Outlaw is no slouch.


That is one reason that, although before the season started I actually predicted their record at this point in the season to be 7-5, I am actually a bit disappointed. Sure, the schedule has been brutal to a historical degree, and will continue to be so for a little while, but Portland has the talent to beat any team on any night and should win far more than they lose.

Their starting line-up is well-suited to contend with any team. They can score from inside or out, they have good wing and interior defenders, and they have strong leadership in Brandon Roy and Coach Nate McMillan.

That has led to the development we have seen. Last season they won a few games nobody believed they could but even at their best, every game was a battle. This year they have the potential to have a few blow-out wins. Certainly there is no night where they should not at least have a chance to win.

It is great as a Blazer fan to see that progression. It is exciting knowing that the Blazers have road games they should expect to win. This weekend is a good example. Friday the Blazers visit Sacramento and then Saturday they are in Phoenix.

Last season, that meant they could win against the Kings but would most likely get rolled by the Suns. This year, it means they SHOULD win against the Kings and have a pretty good chance against Phoenix, though ultimately they may not yet be ready to get that gorilla off their back.

Ultimately, if the NBA is a game of runs as is often asserted, the team that does the best job of withstanding the opponent's runs while maximizing their own will have the best long-term success. Based on the Warriors and Bulls games, the Blazers look to have lots of it in the near future.


Reviewing the Hornets game and previewing the Minnesota game

The Blazers bench looked to be the big advantage Portland had over the Hornets. Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw have both played exceptionally well in the first two games of the road trip. Against New Orleans, however, they combined to go 3-10 from the field for 13 points. Even on a night where Greg Oden showed flashes of what we have been told he can do, that simply is not good enough against a team the caliber of the Hornets.

Even with the essential no-show by their bench studs, Portland was down but one at 77-76 with 2:39 to go. Losing by 5 to New Orleans in New Orleans is hardly embarrassing. And for Fernandez, it is good for the fans to remember he is A) a Rookie and B) human. He will be back and have lots of good nights to go with a few nights like this one.

But the most encouraging thing to come out of the game was seeing "the real Oden". Again and again people who have seen him in practice talk about his speed, his agility, his leaping ability and his explosiveness.

Unfortunately, in games we have not seen that. We have seen a tentative young man, afraid to plant, afraid to jump, afraid to extend. Many fans have expressed disappointment, a position I believe is somewhat unfair. Oden is only 20, too young for that much pressure to be put on him. He should be the guy with the grin cracking his face, enjoying the ride, not wondering if he is letting a city down. He isn't. Give him time and he will be fine.

Well, finally we see a snippet. Watch this block. He comes out of nowhere, gets incredible extension, has unbelievable timing, leaping ability, and explosion. This was a jaw-dropping moment for me.

I remember watching Jerome Kersey chase guys down from behind to block break-away dunk attempts. I have seen Joel Przybilla block dunks, block Yao Ming...okay, less impressive when you remember seeing 5'9" Nate Robinson blocked Ming... but the point is, I have seen a lot of impressive shot-blocks. One of my favorite memories from last season was Outlaw blocking two shots in about a 4 second span. 

This Oden block ranks with any of those. It was so unexpected and showed so much athleticism that suddenly I saw what everyone was talking about. This is a game-changing player. This is a guy who can dominate the paint on both ends of the floor even if no plays are ever run for him. This is a guy who can single-handed lower opponent's shooting percentages 2 or 3 points and keep them out of the paint. This Oden is IMPRESSIVE.

Again, as I said about Fernandez, Oden is young. He is still a rookie and still has a lot of lessons to learn. He will have a lot of bad nights but he will have some nights like this, too where he owns the paint and makes a huge difference just by his presence. 

It was exciting to see. It was a great moment even in a loss.

Tonight against Minnesota, it will be interesting to see if Oden plays. The Blazers are taking it very easy on him, for obvious reasons. No reason to push things so I expect Portland will play without him tonight.

That should mean a few minutes more for Nicolas Batum who was the odd man out last night, though I doubt he will be in the game for much over 20 minutes. Then again, after Brandon Roy going for 42 minutes and LaMarcus Aldridge for almost 40, the bench can expect more minutes overall. Hopefully they are more effective.

Tonight they will be needed to score a bit more. 82 points is not going to win many games. Fernandex and Outlaw need to score 30-40 points between them tonight with Channing Frye adding 8-10. 

They will need to keep Al Jefferson out of the paint and slow volume-shooting Randy Foye without giving Mike Miller a lot of open looks from deep if they want to win. 

They need to win this game. Winning in Orlando was a big win, one that arguably was an upset win. Losing in Minnesota would off-set that and be a big step backwards. Teams like Minnesota are the ones Portland needs to dominate and win moost if not all the games against, whether at home or on the road. 

Portland has the talent to outscore the Timberwolves and be somewhat stifling on the defensive end. They should dominate the boards and if they control the ball, they should walk away with an easy victory.

Of course, they also should have beaten Minnesota handily in Portland and that game required some late-game Roy heroics before they pulled it out. That can be taken one of two ways; either A)  the T-Wolves will believe they can play with Portland, will use that confidence and play over their heads, or B) Portland will use it as motivation to show the T-Wolves who Portland really is.

It should be an entertaining game that Portland walks away from with a win.


Preview:Portland At New Orleans

Last season early on I looked at the rosters and predicted a Portland victory. I was wrong. The Hornets came out and controlled the game start to finish, cruising to an easy win. I was not alone in missing. The Hornets played much better than people expected and had a shot at the Finals.

This year, I look at the rosters and think, wow, Portland has a really good shot at this game. Let's go old school for a moment:

Tyson Chandler v. Joel Przybilla.
Chandler will put up more points than the Vanilla Gorilla and might even have a couple more rebounds but Przybilla will make him work for it. The point differential and rebound differential will scarcely be noticeable.

Power Forward
David West v. LaMarcus Aldridge
On the season West scores almost a point per game more and rebounds three tenths of a board better. Yet last year, against my expectation, he completely dominated this match-up. It would be extremely arrogant of me to proclaim that a fluke, but I also don't believe West is 10 points per game better than Aldridge. At some point this year, Aldridge will break loose against the Hornets and give a monster performance. Meanwhile, expect him to show up better than he did last season.

Small Forward
Peja Stojakovich v. Nicolas Batum
Batum starts but plays only 15 - 20 minutes a night. What minutes those are, though. He is exactly the type of defender that gives Peja fits; he typically stays home on his man, has the long arms to bother shots, and against players like that, Peja typically struggles and shoots a low percentage. Batum pretty much only scores in transition or when his defender drifts away from him, so don't look for huge point totals from either player. Later this season when Martell Webster returns, it will be a different story but that is where it sits for now.

Shooting Guard
Brandon Roy v. Morris Peterson
Let's see, All-Star v. journeyman, budding Superstar v. guy filling minutes. Roy in a landslide. He should dominate in points, rebounds, and assists.

Point guard
Chris Paul v. Steve Blake
Another no contest. All year Portland has struggled with fast guards with good court vision. Sound familiar, Mr. Paul? Paul will have a huge game. Blake can't stay with him and will get absolutely torched.

James Posey can put in some solid minutes and Rasaul Butler is having a nice year. Rudy Fernandez or Travis Outlaw alone could eclipse their point total without even bringing into the equation Channing Frye, Sergio Rodriguez, or Greg Oden. Yeah, I know...Oden has not looked good so far. Lighten up, people, he has what, 20 minutes of game time? He will have some bad games this year, but he will have some jaw-dropping, did I just see that? type games as well. Teams like the Hornets that have to play their starters big minutes are good candidates for that.

So how does a game like this one go? New Orleans has to build a lead early because if their bench needs to play catch-up against the Portland bench it could get ugly quick. Of course, that is true of a lot of teams...and New Orleans has the starters who can build the lead.

Fortunately for the Blazers, they have the starters who can stay close or even build a lead of their own. It would not surprise me to see, relatively early in the game, Coach McMillan put Batum on Paul.

That could go several ways. A lot of them are good for the Hornets. Batum could pick up fouls in bunches, he could get scorched by Paul, etc. But it could also turn out well if his length and agility cuts off some of Paul's passing lanes, and keep Portland's bigs from having to collapse on Paul and thus the Hornets will have to work harder for their scores. Admittedly, the first possibility is more likely...but for Blazer fans, it is nice to contemplate the alternative.

Meanwhile, Outlaw would probably draw the Peja assignment. That would result in more points for Peja...but also for Outlaw as Peja cannot stop the Outlaw jab-step.

Meanwhile, the Hornets will struggle to contain the Blazers' second unit. Fernandez and Outlaw should have big nights again and their production will be tough for the Hornets to overcome.

Now, after all that, I still think the Hornets come away with the win. There is a reason they went deep in the playoffs last year and will do so again. Paul, West, Chandler, and Stojakovich can all score, and the Blazers have a history of getting guys like Mike James...especially Mike James...going so don't be surprised if he breaks out of his season-long slump with a big night.

Besides those things, Portland is on the 3rd game of a 5 game swing, are young, and don't yet realize they can beat the Hornets. I would not be surprised by a Portland win...but don't expect it.


The Portland Trailblazers All-Forgotten Team

The names roll off the tongue; Geoff Petrie, Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Mychal Thompson, Jim Paxson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Clyde Drexler, Rasheed Wallace, Brandon Roy...Portland has been blessed with large numbers of players who have played at All-Star levels and led Portland to playoff success of varying levels. 

But do you remember Adrian Branch? How about Richard Anderson? Lamont Strothers? In many ways, these were players almost as important in Portland throughout the years. So it is time to look back at Portland History and the Portland All-Forgotten Team.

Starting at Center would have to be Alaa Abdelnaby. After Portland went to the finals in 1989-1990 and Kevin Duckworth was taken out of his game by All-Time Bad Boy dirty player Bill Laimbeer, Portland was looking for help up front. Where better to turn than a well-coached Duke player? Enter Alaa. 

Expected to play serious minutes, he essentially killed his Portland career in one forgettable unforgettable moment. Summoned into the game by Coach Rick Adelman, Alaa reported to the scorers table, ripped off his warm-ups...and discovered he had forgotten to put on his jersey. Bye-bye now.

Power forward had a lot of contenders. Who played for Portland, showed promise, and now is largely forgotten? I would have to go with Richard Anderson. At 6'10", 240 lbs., he had the size to bang and athleticism to spare. Unfortunately for Anderson, he also had range. In fact, his personalized license plate referenced his three point ability. When his shot stopped falling, Portland stopped calling and his Portland career was over.

Small forward is another look back at the glory years. Portland was stacked at the Small Forward position. While Jerome Kersey started and Cliff Robinson was about to burst onto the scene, Clyde Drexler occasionally slid into the slot, the guy who often got Blazer fans pumped was a lefty who could shoot the lights out and provide instant offense. Adrian Branch was a huge fan favorite. People talked about how Kersey was no longer needed, about keeping Clyde in the Shooting Guard slot full time. Uh, how did that work out for you, Portland? One and done for Mr. Branch, a guy who got the blood pumping but didn't stick around.

Guard brings us the Brewer boys, Jim and Ron. Ron was a member of the All-Rookie team back in '78-79. Jim played in Portland for only one year, '79-80. In a town noted for its brew-pubs, could there be a better named backcourt than Brewer and Brewer?

Coming off the bench we would have to start with Lamont Strothers, a guy some people believe cost Portland the Championship against the Bulls in '91-92. Yeah, I know...a series full of names like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Terry Porter...and Lamont Strothers is a difference maker? Do you even remember him?

That is exactly the point. Of course nobody remembers him. The final roster spot came down to whether Portland would keep Strothers or seldom-used defensive specialist Danny Young. The high-end upside of Strothers ended up being the deciding factor as Portland kept him. 

Then, in the playoffs when Portland needed a steady, Defensive minded guard for a few minutes, they had no Danny Ainge but did have an un-tested, untrusted Guard Lamont Strothers. After the Bulls won in six, luminaries such as Rick Adelman lamented key stretches where Portland's reserves turned the ball over and gave up big numbers to Bulls reserves. After that, Portland could not forget Strothers fast enough.

So often fans see flashes, get excited about potential and start agitating for change. They did it in the cases of Anderson, Branch, Strothers, Kelvin Cato, Rick Brunson, and so forth. Some players fans have agitated for are remembered still...Wally Walker, Drazen Petrovic, Robert Pack and Jermaine O'Neal come readily to mind...but as a general rule, the players fans get over excited for have short, forgettable careers. 

Line up Portland's All-Forgotten Team against the All-Forgotten Team of any other franchise and they would go .500. As in, 500 fans would show up, 500 shots would be taken, and 500 points would be scored. There is a reason these guys were forgotten.


Rudy Fernandez: The Blazers bench is the difference

Last year tight games meant Portland looked at two things; Brandon Roy showing his other-wordly ability to penetrate virtually any defense or Travis Outlaw going unconscious and hitting everything in sight. With just two options, Portland often struggled to score. 

They were as successful as they were because Roy is so good. He could be the entire pre-game highlight reel package himself with his clutch shots, incredible drives, and sometimes stifling on-the-ball defense. 

They would have won another 5 or 6 games easily if they had had better fourth quarter options. Against the truly great defensive teams they simply could not score down the stretch. A team such as San Antonio would throw Bruce Bowen on Roy while they doubled up on Outlaw and forced Portland to scramble for hurried, contested shots. Same with Phoenix where Raja Bell would take away one option, double teaming would take away Outlaw, and Portland simply was not ready to deal.

Enter Rudy Fernandez. Everyone already knows he is clutch based on his Olympic exploits as well as his entire body of work in the Spanish League. Now they know it in the NBA. 

This is a man with ice in his veins. But it is not just his calmness...he gives Portland a third guy who can create a shot in a must-score situation. He can score on drives, he can score on threes, he is money at the line, and he is most definitely not afraid to take a key shot.

Case in point; Miami trailed 96-88 after Roy hit a jumper over Dwayne Wade with 3:37 to go. But then Portland started acting as if the game was over. They took their time, getting bad shots when they got any shot at all. Wade hit a pair of free throws. He hit a jumper. Now it was a 4 point game and it looked like Portland might give this one back.

Fernandez took the ball, curled into the foul line, spun, and with a hand in his face hit a tough jumper. Boom, suddenly Portland had their confidence back. Had he missed that, the thunderous Wade dunk over the Matador defense of Outlaw on the ensuing possession might have broken Portland's spirit. Instead they ran their offense, Roy found Steve Blake in the corner for a wide-open three and the game was over, even with a few ticks left on the clock.

Scoring is one thing. 10 Blazers scored in the game, including 4 in double figures. But there are times when scoring is tough, when it takes a certain mind-set to be able to create and make that shot. Dwayne Wade has that and it showed when Miami won their Title in 2006. LeBron James has it and that is why the Cavaliers made the Finals. Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce have it, and we all know the Celtics and Lakers are the favorites to be in the Finals again.

Now Portland has 3 guys who have that. Who do you defend in the fourth quarter of a close game? Want to stick your lock-down defender on Roy and your second best on outlaw? Okay, let me introduce you to Fernandez. And mix and match those names...pure poison. I would hate to be the coach trying to stop them.

All of which brings me to the main point. Portland is rightfully mentioned as one of the deepest teams in the League. They have 11 guys who either have proven in the past they are contributors or have shown it this year. But unlike some years, among that depth is a world of scoring.

Guys like Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster, Steve Blake, Channing Frye, Greg Oden, and Sergio Rodriguez are all nice to have. On any given night, any one of those can drop 20 points on opponents.

But it is the LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy, Fernandez, Outlaw group that really is the heart and soul of the team. They can drop 30 on you game after game for a week when they are going good. 

Lots of teams can roll out 7 or 8 guys who can roll for 20+ points  on a given night. But very few teams have more than one who can do it consistently over a several game stretch. That is one thing that makes Portland so scary and not just this year. They are a team that may no longer be "on the rise" but already risen.

When the early season schedule was released, they looked like a team that could easily start 1-5.  Instead they ran .500 and built a lot of confidence. They then went on the road and knocked off a very good Orlando team. 

Following that up, they went in and beat a Miami team riding a red-hot Dwayne Wade, a talented Rookie in Michael Beasley, and some solid players who can play off them. The game showed the difference between a team like Portland and one like Miami. 

There is a reason Miami is 4-4. At crunch time, Portland was able to throw out multiple scorers. More to the point, they were not afraid to put a Rookie on the court in crunch time because he is a Rookie who delivers. Miami, on the other hand, left Michael Beasley on the bench for the final 4:16  in favor of Chris Quinn. Beasley was the second leading scorer for the Heat with 14.

Meanwhile, Portland had Roy, Fernandez, Outlaw, Blake and Aldridge; only Blake failed to achieve double digits. More to the point, Outlaw and Fernandez are bench players who are good enough that Nate McMillan has confidence enough to put them in the game in a clutch situation and is not upset when Fernandez takes key shots. 

This is not a knock on Beasley who certainly looks like he will be an excellent pro and may even win Rookie of the Year. But the fact that Portland will start a Rookie (Nicolas Batum) and finish the game with another speaks volumes about how dangerous this team will be for years to come. They don't need big minutes from their starters, and that will matter at the end of the year.

How is that important?
Portland bench: 104.25 minutes, 47 points, 16 rebounds, and some clutch shots.
Miami Bench: 88.50,  26 points, 14 rebounds, no clutch shots. Portland was able to keep Roy slightly  fresher than Wade for the end of the game and that led to their win.

There are a lot of factors that go into winning. Portland is showing they have those, game after game. They are also showing improvement. Instead of losing leads late, they are closing strong; 31-21 in the 4th quarter against Miami, 34-26 against Orlando, against Minnesota was 28-23 (and 54-46 for the second half).

When teams have the talent to start fast, a bench that can bring them back when needed or extend leads at other times, and learns to close out games, they are going to sport a gaudy record in the long run. Look out world, Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, and the Portland Trailblazers are here and are going to win more games than most teams this year. 

So start the chant now. Rudy! Ruudy! Ruuudy! Ruuuudy! Rrrrruuuuuuuuudddddddyyyyyyyy!


Forget the "Need for a veteran", Brandon Roy leads the Portland Trailblazers

It sounds like the set-up line for a bad joke: "What do you call a road game against East Division contenders the Orlando Magic?"

Answer: A relief.

After facing 5 teams that all won at least 54 games in the first 6 trips out, Portland was looking for a break. Instead what they got was a 5 game Eastern swing that started at the home of the 4-2 Magic. Without Greg Oden to help slow down Dwight "Superman" Howard, this would be a tough nut to crack for a veteran, Championship level team, much less for a team often labeled, even by their most ardent supporters, as a "soft, young team that needs veteran leadership and experience."

Enough already. Let's put a few myths to rest. Over and over we hear Portland needs "a veteran" to turn them into some sort of super team that will achieve greatness, string together championships, and be a dynasty the likes of which the League has seldom seen. I call shenanigans.

Brandon Roy is in his third year. He already IS that veteran. He is the guy who, after Rookie of the Year and All-Star campaigns in his first two outings, already has the experience to be a veteran and has repeatedly demonstrated he IS the leader of this team, the guide to what Portland needs to do to win.

It would be easy to point to his 2 last-second shots against Houston or his late-game heroics against Minnesota and think that is what I am talking about it. I would be lying if that wasn't part of it, but mistaken if that were the only part. After all, Travis Outlaw has made more than a few late-game big buckets for the team and I don't consider him a team leader. He is a very valuable part of the team, but he is not the leader.

It is Roy who tells this team where they need to go. He identifies what needs done, how it needs done, and then does what he can to make sure that happens. Coming into the season, for example, he identified which teams he had poor records against and looked at why.

When Portland beat San Antonio, it marked the first time in his career the Blazers had a win against the Spurs. When asked how it felt, Roy spent less than a sentence enjoying it before pointing out the next game, in Phoenix, was another team he had not beaten and how it was time to end that streak.

Unfortunately Portland fell short in that game but the lesson is clear. Roy has an understanding of what Portland needs to do to take the next step(s). And after beating the Rockets and Timberwolves, his focus never wavered.

Actually, back it up a little bit. At half-time of the Minnesota game, only a 5-0 flurry in the closing couple of possessions got Portland within 6. They looked awful for the entire first half. Roy was credited for yelling at his guys, telling them to focus, buckle down and play their game.

After the improbable come-back win he was interviewed. Still dripping with sweat from his labors, he had already moved past the game that had been completed less than 5 minutes previously.

He quickly identified the next Blazers' need; going on the road and getting their first road win. He did not make excuses for their 0-3 road start. He easily could have said something along the lines of, "Well, our road games so far have been against the Lakers, who were the Western Conference Champions, against the Suns who almost made the Western Conference Finals, and against the Jazz who lose maybe 2 home games per decade."

He didn't. He said something along the lines of, "We let a couple get away. We need to focus on getting the first win on the road."

That is the leadership that turns good teams into great ones. Obviously Portland is not there yet. The point is, they don't need "a veteran" to provide that. Roy already does.

When Aldridge was injured last year, he told them to each pick up a couple extra rebounds and score a couple more points. Portland then won in Utah. He doesn't let them make excuses.

It also doesn't hurt that he can flat-out ball. He has been off his game about all year. His shooting percentage is down, his rebounds are down, his assists not up to normal. And he is still one of the top Shooting Guards in the League. Even with his numbers down he is a stat-packer who impacts every single game.

He makes the team better. He is an extension of Coach Nate McMillan's will on the floor. He lets the team know what they need to do with his words and backs it up with his actions.

Sure, there will be times he misses key shots or lets winnable games get away. But that is part of the NBA. You win some, you lose some. With the right players, you win more.

Last year most prognosticators had Portland winning about 30 games and they won 41. This year I heard a lot of numbers in the mid-40s. Maybe.

Then again, this is a team that had the toughest 6 game opening schedule in history and went .500. This is a team that went on the road and took down a tough Orlando team. This is a team that has inside scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge, clutch outside shooting from Rudy Fernandez, outstanding role players in Joel Przybilla, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Channing Frye, and so forth...and an indomitable leader who knows what they need to do, identifies it for himself and his team, then leads by example.

Whether he is again appointed to the All-Star team or not, whether he is in the conversation for League MVP or not, the fact remains; Portland has their All-Star MVP, their guiding light, their veteran presence, and their leader for the foreseeable future; Brandon Roy.


1.9 seconds: long enough for a tie, 2 lead changes, and redemption

After the Rockets one the tip they went inside to Yao Ming for a short lay-up attempt. Somehow, someway Joel "The Thrilla" Przybilla blocked it. A quick outlet pass, a streaking LaMarcus Aldrdige, and the Blazers were ahead 2-0 on that most rare of plays; a Blazer fast break. It was excellent and entertaining.

Even more entertaining was the next Houston possession; they went to Tracy McGrady against Rookie Nicolas "Boom Boom" Batum who forced McGrady into a tough shot. At the other end, the Blazers went inside to Aldridge who hit a beautiful post-up move to give Portland a 4-0 lead and set the tone for the night.

The first half was about Aldrdge and Batum. Aldridge could not be stopped on those occasions Portland remembered they had him on the floor. Meanwhile, Batum completely stifled McGrady.  That was key because at the other end, Ron Artest was putting to rest recent rumors he was "washed up" as a lock-down wing defender.

He put the clamps on Brandon Roy almost completely. It was a terrible, terrible half for the Natural as he turned the ball over, threw up awkward, low-percentage shots, and just generally looked completely out of sorts.  

Fortunately for the Blazers, they got huge contributions from Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, and even a few points from Batum. Defensively, they were doing a great job. Artest and McGrady were non-factors for the first half offensively and if not for Luis Scola, the game might have been out of hand.

Portland looked dominant almost everywhere; they had a 10+ rebound advantage, more blocked shots, more steals, better shooting percentage...they just struggled with turnovers and free throws as the line kept Houston not only in the game but in great shape, trailing just 52-51 at the break.

The second half was a different story. Early, Batum was doing a nice job on McGrady and when Outlaw was put on him, McGrady hit a couple easy buckets to get going. When Batum returned, McGrady was in a rhythm and the early-game shut-down was over. For the rest of the night McGrady would terrorize the Blazers. 

Still, Portland led most of the second half, usually in the 5 - 7 point range. Early in the 4th quarter they took their biggest lead of the game, 10, with just less than 10 minutes left. A quick 5-0 Houston surge had Portland reeling and it would be a dogfight.

That highlights one of the early-season struggles for Portland. They are not closing out games. They had excellent chances to win in both Phoenix and Utah but gave back second half leads both times. This team needs to find the killer instinct. They need to go to what works; feed Aldridge until he is stopped instead of perimeter passing and against the clock off-balance heaves. They do not yet have the great 4th quarter intellect or killer instinct. 

So when Houston tied it at 90, things looked bleak. It looked like Portland would give away a game they should have won handily. But Houston is too good to lay down and die. 

Artest finished a miserable regular session for Roy by stripping him as he went up for a shot and the ensuing Roy kick-ball gave the Rockets one last shot in regulation.

The first overtime had Portland fans nervous. Suddenly, they were struggling not just to score but to even get reasonable looks at the basket while giving up dunks to Carl Landry. When Aldridge missed 2 free throws in a tie game, many of the faithful started leaving the building. "Best fans in the League" indeed. Stay true, you weasels. Stick it out to the end.

McGrady capped what was ultimately a 30 point effort to give the Rockets a 2 point lead. But Aldridge came back to hit two pressure free throws to tie it. When McGrady was forced into a low-percentage shot, it seemed Portland would have a chance to win it. 

Roy dribbled into a double team, took a turn-around fall-away jumper from a weird angle in an area of the floor he seldom works from. At that point, he was 4-16 from the field. It was not the shot we wanted to see...until it tickled the twine with 1.9 seconds left. Game over!

Well, not really...Houston inbounded from mid-court. Inexcusably, Portland let them make as perfect an entry pass to the post as you will ever see. Ming went to shoot a turn-around and Roy gave him a love-tap across the arms. Clearly a foul, but a soft one...and Ming hit the shot and free throw. Groan!8/10ths of a second left and now Portland is down 1.

The inbound went to Roy way outside the 3 line, he turned, gathered, shot...nothing but net. Unbelievable! The place went nuts. We were slapping fives, hugging, maybe a kiss or two. What a finish!

And this was big not just for the finish but because it was a game Portland HAD to have. They were 1-3. Sure, all 5 teams they faced at first won54+ games last year and were in the playoffs. Sure, 3 of those games were on the road. 

But this Portland team, even without Oden, is that good. .500 with that schedule will be acceptable (after they beat Minnesota Saturday, which they will by double digits). It shows this team is ready to compete. They held serve, winning the home games. They played tough on the road. 

It would have been nice to get Utah without Deron Williams, but as the League is discovering, Utah is a pretty good team even without him. Would they win 50 without him? Probably not. But they still have plenty of talent, and thinking "no Williams = no chance to win" is just foolish. Portland was one of 6 teams that took their shot and missed it. No shame there.

I was nervous prior to the season. If Portland could finish .500 after 6 games, I believed and still do that they will win about 53 games this season based on the schedule, their talent, and their expectations. That last trey by Roy might mean a 5 or 6 game difference by the end of the season because had he missed, Portland probably wins no more than 46 or 47 games. Confidence means that much.

In closing, I have a new mission in life. In light of Przybilla's nickname "the Thrilla", I have begun doing the little Thrilla dance every time he blocks a shot or scores on a dunk. I encourage all Blazer fans to do likewise. That means you...


Why the Outlaw hate? A Phoenix hangover

Portland played pretty well for half a game in Phoenix. Unfortunately, that half extended from late in the first quarter until early in the third quarter. Before and after those periods, they flat-out got toasted.

Making a mockery of my assertion that Joel "the Vanilla Gorilla" Przybilla plays him better than most, Shaquille O'Neal had a dominating game, missing something like 2 shots all night. As expected, Steve Nash ran wild, Amare Stoudemire scored seemingly at will, Matt Barnes and Raja Bell scored a great deal...well, if you are going to beat the Suns and let Stoudemire, Nash, and the Big Cactus score big numbers you certainly better shut everyone else down completely if you want to win. Letting Barnes hit for 21 is not going to get the job done.

There were some good signs from the game. For one, after getting kicked in the teeth early and getting down by double digits, the Blazers' second unit came back to get them a lead which they then carried into the third quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge had a better offensive game against Stoudemire than he typically does and is showing improved aggressiveness in looking for his shot.

And Nicolas "Boom Boom" Batum is looking more and more like a guy who can be used at crunch time to play defense on scoring point guards, talented wing defenders, and so forth.

On the downside, it was obvious to me even when Portland had a third quarter lead that they would eventually lose. It had to do with the Blazers' radio announcers.

"The Wild One" Mike Rice is a complete and unapologetic homer. Any given Blazer could put a choke-hold on an opponent, drop a couple elbows, kick the guy in the groin, and Rice would think it was clean. Conversely, if there was no opponent over the mid-court line when a Blazer missed a dunk, he would be screaming for the (non-existent) foul to be called.

Brian "Wheels" Wheeler on the other hand is much more even-handed. He leans slightly towards homer-ism without being as over the top as Rice.

Yet in this game, both guys were livid about the officiating, going on about horrific calls (an Aldridge block called a goal-tend, a few hack jobs by the Suns not called while touch fouls were being called on the Blazers, free throws awarded when the Sun was kicking the ball outside) for minutes at a time.

This was while Portland was LEADING. When a young team gets distracted by the officiating...and it was clear from Wheel's call of the game they were...they are eventually going to lose. The only question remaining is by how much.

I suspect the calls were not as egregious as Wheels and Rice made them out to be but when things start going south against a team that is in your head, as the Suns are after their recent dominance of the Blazers, you start looking for reasons to fail. Portland found one in the officials.

Not that the Suns need much help. They remain a top-shelf title contender. At home against a team that needs to click on all cylinders to beat them, the Suns are simply too good to let this game get away.

Ultimately, I figured Portland would come up short and they did.

After the game, I noticed another trend which somewhat stems from the unexpected success of Batum. Many Blazer fans are howling for Travis "Trout" Outlaw to be traded.

This is something I don't understand. Take Outlaw off last year's squad and the Blazers are maybe a 30 win team. Take him off this year's team and they are 6 - 8 games worse at least. He provides the team with so many valuable assets.

As of this moment, Portland has 2 guys who can create their own shot: Brandon Roy and Trout. Roy of course looks to pass first. Outlaw's jab-step fall-away is all but impossible to block and not much easier to even contest. There are times that is a much-needed commodity.

He also provides versatility. He has the length to guard power forwards while still having the quickness and agility to defend small forwards and shooting guards. To be fair, one of the complaints against Outlaw has been his defensive weaknesses. On a team that has given up 50% plus shooting even on a night they won, that is hardly unusual or a fair criticism. He has defensive holes, but who doesn't?

Finally, he provides a very key component. He is a great chemistry guy. He is regularly referred to as the most-liked guy on the team, is credited for building a friendship between Aldridge and Roy, and is able to bring the team together.

So let's look at his positives: good scorer, clutch player, versatility, unstoppable offensive moves, 50%+ from three-point range.

Now let's look at his negatives: He can stop the flow of the offense at times, sometimes has trouble getting to the right spot on defense, and is unsteady as a rebounder.

Why would anyone be in a hurry to get rid of this guy? He is working on a cheap contract, fills several valuable roles that nobody else on the current team can fill, provides a more than serviceable back-up at both forward positions and sometimes the shooting guard...and he can be a game-changer.

Every so often, there will be a game that completely changes direction based on one play or a short period of time involving 2 or 3 key plays. Outlaw has a knack for providing those. Sometimes it is a spectacular blocked shot, at others an adrenaline-boosting highlight reel dunk. He brings intensity to the Rose Garden and the Blazers. Players who can do that are few and far between.

There are some deals out there I would listen to that involve Outlaw. But they are not deals that the other teams would listen to: Outlaw and Sergio Rodriguez for Tayshaun Prince, for example. Good for the Blazers as they would acquire a talented, versatile veteran who can play some lock-down D and is a good team guy. Why would the Pistons do that?

Outlaw, Blake, and Channing Frye for Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. I heard rumors of Portland offering Outlaw straight up for Conley and pretty much laughed them off. Yeah, as if Portland would trade a clutch 4th quarter guy, a player who last year was one of Portland's big three, why would they trade him straight up for a guy who is sliding down the depth-chart of Memphis, a team that will consider it a success if they top 30 wins this year?

Conversely, why would Memphis give up Rudy Gay, perhaps their most talented player and best drawing card? I suspect they would not think of the trade as good for them. I don;t know (or care since it is irrelevant) whether the salary match. I am only demonstrating how much regard I have for Outlaw and what I would want back.

Outlaw did not get worse over the course of the summer. He is not a cancer on the team. He is still a guy who will score double figures, bring energy to the second unit, and help the team win. Saying you would trade him straight up for an inferior player is just non-sensical. Hopefully Blazer fans wake up soon and stop their bleating.

We have a seminal collection of talent on the floor. The only reason to get rid of any of it is to improve the team. Getting rid of Outlaw makes the team noticeably worse in so many let's not think about it unless we get like value in return. And frankly...that ain't going to happen.


1-1 Portland at 1-1 Phoenix

Coming off the emotional one point home win against the Spurs, the Blazers face another team that has been a tremendous nemesis. Suns games have been an exercise in futility for the Blazers recently. It isn't just that they have lost 9 straight...spanning more than the length of Brandon Roy's is that they have not even completed.

At least games with the Spurs had been close. Phoenix, however, tends to blow Portland out. A lot of it started with Amare Stoudemire.

Early in the season last year he had gotten inside the head of LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge had some extremely ineffectual games as a result and other Blazers shot poorly. Late in the season LA showed some improvement and it seems a match-up he is now ready to face. Of course, it is not the same Phoenix team that Portland will visit.

Interestingly enough, Joel Przybilla seems to do an above average job on Shaquille O'Neal. Despite the fact O'Neals' numbers looked good overall against the Vanilla Gorilla, those numbers were largely skewed by one game where Joel played poorly and O'Neal went off. 

As a general rule, Przybilla makes O'Neal take a lot of shots to get his points and does a nice job on the boards. He does not turn the match-up into a draw by any stretch of the imagination, but he generally at least makes the points coming out of the center into tough ones.

Joel's ability to match up one on one with the Big Cactus allows the other Blazers to stay with their men instead of fading low to double team. Unfortunately, they historically have still been lit up. 

Steve Blake struggles with guards who penetrate. He showed last night against Tony Parker that little factoid has not changed. Steve Nash figures to have a field day against him. The penetration of Nash is what will lead to open shots for Amare Stoudemire, Raja Bell, Grant Hill, and the other Phoenix shooters. 

It does not help that Stoudemire is quicker and stronger than Aldridge. He already scores easily and when that ability is amplified by the break-downs of the Blazer perimeter defenders, Stouedmire figures to have some big, big nights.

The Suns also are switching up their defensive structure under former Blazer great Terry Porter. It remains to be seen how completely they will buy into his system, but so far this season the points they are giving up seem to be down a bit. In Bell they have a superior wing defender, and in Stoudemire and O'Neal they have some serious rebounding potential. 

That makes it imperative for Portland to shoot a good percentage, something they have yet to accomplish this season. Roy looked like he was starting to get his groove back against the Spurs, as was Aldridge. This is a good sign as the Phoenix defenders are similar to the Spurs who matched up with them.

Bell is not as good a defender as Bruce Bowen, so in theory Roy will be able to get some good looks at the basket as well as create some open shots for his teammates. Aldridge will have to figure out ways to keep Stoudemire from poking the ball away as he did so effectively last year, but if LA can do that, he should score the ball well.

Meanwhile, the need to guard Roy and Aldridge should put a lesser defender on Travis Outlaw. This can be good or bad. It is bad if Outlaw falls in love with his jump shot and starts bombing away from the perimeter.

To be sure, Outlaw can be deadly when he is on. His jab step/fall back jumper is incredibly tough even to contest, much less block. Unfortunately, he gets overconfident and goes to that move to often from a little to deep on the floor. 

Conversely, when he penetrates good things tend to happen for Portland. The defense has to scramble which creates some holes for offensive rebounding and often leads to foul problems for the big men. Outlaw has the speed, agility, and quickness to create havoc when he drives.

In a similar way, Rudy Fenandez has the potential off the bench to cause problems for Suns defenders. If he is hitting his shot he will be a nightmare and a difference maker. If not, it could be a long night for Portland.

The other wildcard is Nicolas Boom Boom Batum. He got about 21 minutes at home against the Spurs. However, Coach McMillan has shown a real reluctance to play him on the road. Will that continue or will he get some minutes? If he gets minutes, don't be surprised to see McMillan revert to the ploy from last night of putting Batum on Nash.

While Parker did get past Batum a couple times, the length, instincts, and surprisingly good footwork of Batum did cause Parker more problems than anyone else the Blazers put on him. If Batum can slow Nash, it will give Portland a chance.

Not much of one, though. Phoenix is still a top team in the League, is playing at home, and is facing a team that has yet to show they are anywhere near the road team that they are home team. An average Phoenix effort still beats a good Portland effort.

For Portland to win they need a good shooting percentage, to have at least 3 scorers over 15 and several more close to double figures, they need to limit the Suns breaks and keep Nash from going off with his penetration.

It could happen, I just don't think the Blazers are ready yet. Look for a Phoenix win.

Boom Boom Batum: Did Portland find their defensive stopper?

In L.A. the Blazers started slow. They came close to recovering at one point before fading. Tonight against the Spurs they again started slowly, shooting in the low to mid 30s throughout the first quarter.

But on this night they would not fade away. With contributions across the board, Portland led most of the way while gradually improving their shooting percentage. It all began with their post game.

They started well, going to LaMarcus Aldridge inside against Kurt Thomas. It took Aldridge just one possession to get a feel for what he wanted to do. Throughout the night the Spurs would send a variety of defenders against him, from Thomas to Tim Duncan to Ime Udoka. It would be to no avail.

Aldridge showed the range of his game. He got assists on fast breaks. He scored facing up to his defender. He scored with mid-range jumpers. He even drained a corner three, draining one of his two attempts. But the most impressive move of the night came when he backed down Duncan and, as a second Spur came to defend, gave a move reminiscent of the great Hakeem Olajuwon's Dreamshake that had the fans standing and screaming.

Meanwhile, he was also a difference maker defensively. Twice in the first 3 minutes and nine seconds he blocked Tony Parker, once on a lay-up and once on a jumper. Though those would be the only two blocks he was credited with, he had set the tone. San Antonio would not drive at will.

Brandon Roy also had his fan-pleasing moments. He started slow, but once he hit his groove he was money. He also showed the breadth of his game. Ace defender Bruce Bowen was no match. Above average defender Ime Udoka got lit up. And time and again Roy posted up Roger Mason and time and again made him look foolish.  And he hit a trey with less than a second left in the first half to give Portland a nice 51-45 half time lead.

Roy scored inside and outside, from mid-range, off the drive, and on stop and pops. He distributed the ball. He tipped balls on defense. He did all the things that make him special. 

With their leaders showing the way, the Blazer role players stepped up. Channing Frye had an electrifying dunk where he shook Duncan at the top of the key, drove by a falling-down Duncan for the emphatic throw down. He also played some rugged defense, a nice switch for a guy sometimes criticized as soft.

Outlaw struggled from the field but was everywhere on defense. He tipped a lot of passes, picked off three steals, had a spectacular block and altered numerous others. He looked lost at times on offense, but that is to be expected with his changing role.

Rudy Fernandez had a weak stat line as he scored just 6 points on 1 of 5 shooting but as will be usual for him, he contributed in other ways. For example, in the first half he had 7 rebounds. He also made sure the ball was moving when and where it needed to move to.

At one point in the first half when Outlaw was holding the ball, Fernandez started directing him, got the ball moving and the Blazers ended up scoring on that possession and going on a little run. These are the types of moments that matter for this Blazer team. Outlaw is a valuable player for the Blazers but sometimes does get a little lost. Having players like Roy and Fernandez who are "coaches on the floor" should keep them from completely stalling as they sometimes did last year.

But the real unexpected contribution came from a guy who was not expected to get any time at all for this Blazers team. Nicolas Batum was a difference maker in this game. His stat line is pedestrian...12 points on 5-9 shooting, just 1 rebound, 1 assist, one steal, 1 turnover...but 2 blocks. And that is where he really made the difference, on defense.

Batum guarded almost the entire Spur line-up. He slowed down a Michael Finley who turned back the clock to when he was a 28 year old stud. Batum guarded Tim Duncan briefly. He guarded a red-hot Roger Mason. Most telling, at key points in the game he even guarded lightning quick Tony Parker. 

Parker scorched the Blazers all night. He made Steve Blake look positively foolish several times. Not that there is any shame in that...Parker can make some pretty good defensive players look foolish. 

So it was revealing indeed of how far Batum's stock has risen when he was put man on man on Parker with 3 minutes left in a 1 possession game. And when he was on the floor for that purpose with less than a minute left. 

Batum did not lock him down, per se, but he did make Parker's life more difficult. He showed his athleticism and versatility. On one drive, Parker eluded him and drove into the teeth of the defense. Batum recovered so quickly that he was one of three defenders who surrounded Parker. When Parker kicked the ball back to the center Batum was there to force a second pass. This pass went to the corner for a trey. Batum somehow got there in time to contest the shot. In about 4 seconds he made as many changes of direction and single-handed forced the Spurs to take a contested three. Parker beat him a couple other times, but not as often nor as badly as he was beating Blake. 

Batum was spectacular all night. His block of a Duncan dunk attempt was awesome. His tip of a pass which he recovered led to his redirecting 2 Spur defenders and converting a 1 on 2 fast break with ease. He tipped balls, he forced tough passes and shots, he redirected the Spurs offense. 

It was a clinic. It was the type of performance the Blazers need with Martell Webster out until January. Suddenly the Small Forward spot looks a whole lot better. 

This game was what Portland needed. Had Finley made the final shot, it would have hurt badly. Portland got big numbers from their stars...Roy had 26, Aldridge 23 including a clutch deuce from just inside the three point line with 34 seconds left for Portland's final points of the night.

They also got scoring from the supporting cast. Outlaw hit for 11, Batum for 12, Frye for 10. They rebounded well, piling up a 37-31 advantage and picked off 11 balls to only 1 for the Spurs. It was a close game because the Spurs got great shooting...56% from the field as a whole and from the 3-point line...and 14-15 from the line.

The Blazers finally got the Spurs monkey off their back. They found a reliable defender in Batum. They got Aldridge and Roy back on track, survived bad shooting nights from Outlaw and Fernandez, and showed they can play with the Spurs.

The biggest disappointment of the night however has to do with Batum. He is a budding star for Portland and as such needs a nickname.

Greg Oden is "G.O."
LaMarcus Aldridge is "L.A."

Okay, those are so-so. But then you get:
Brandon Roy with both "B-roy" and "The Natural."
Joel Przybilla with "The Thrilla" and "The Vanilla Gorilla". 
Travis Outlaw is either "T.O." or "Trout". 

So Batum should have a name. "Batum-shaka-laka" is gaining steam as a play off of Brian Wheeler's signature call, and it works. "Boom Boom Batum" also works to an extent. It is alliterative, it rhymes, and alludes to his surprisingly good range and tendency to provide the spectacular.

However, with his being French and wearing 88, it just feels wrong to not reference the classic German flak gun that rained bombs on Paris back in the Great War. So we will keep working on that. Under the radar local stars need great nick-names. Still working on it for Batum. 

Meanwhile, it was a great win for Portland and has them right where they need to be after 2 games: 1-1 and looking for more.