18-16 Utah at 20-13 Portland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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