LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy lead Blazers to First Place Tie with Nuggets in Northwest Division

Fan is short for fanatic. This aptly describes many NBA fans. For example, Portland is currently experiencing what is, for us, a record snow fall. My chariot clearly was not making it to the game tonight, nor was that of my wife.

Fortunately, the mass transit system is an easy mile and a half walk away so off to the game I went, managing to fall just once on my way. After all, if the Blazer Dancers can make it, so can I.

The game started poorly for Portland. The Nugget defense seemed to be everywhere. For the second night in a row they seemed able to get deflections whenever they wanted, force the ball away from Brandon Roy's hands and still get back in their rotations, and outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, no Blazer could score.

Worse yet, Portland could not seem to get their hands on a rebound. When Greg Oden picked up his second foul, the Nuggets held a commanding 9-3 edge on the boards. Rebounding is where Oden is most useful for Portland right now.

Enter Joel "The Thrill" Przybilla, aka Joelzilla. This was a Joelzilla night. He must have had stickum on his hands or something because every ball found its way into his mitts.
At one point he even had over half the Blazers' total rebounds. By the time the night ended he had 19 rebounds in 40 minutes. Every one of them was needed. With foul trouble limiting Greg Oden to eight minutes, it was left to Joelzilla to patrol the paint. This he did, while also contributing a better than average (for him) 10 points on an efficient six shots.

His offense was necessary because it was a slow night for Brandon Roy. Going into the fourth quarter he had only seven points and that had a lot to do with the Denver defense. Every time Roy got the ball in a scoring position, he found himself confronted with multiple defenders.
Even if he got past the initial double team, he would find Nene and Kleiza or some similar combination confronting him, making those lane shots he is so good at into virtual impossibilities. The Blazers helped Denver out with poor spacing. They would stand in the corners, immobile as statues, and by so doing not penalize the Nuggets for triple or quadruple teaming Roy.

That is unfortunate because Portland has the firepower to make teams pay. Early in the season they were getting help from unexpected sources. Nicolas Batum is an excellent example. Early in the season he would float to the open spaces on the floor , either forcing his defender to clear the lane or making them pay with a corner trey or baseline drive. 

However, as the season has progressed he has become timid about shooting and essentially become a non-factor. Additionally, his defense has suffered a great deal.

Early on, he was tipping at least four or five balls every game. He was also staying in front of his man, even the small, quick guards like Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul. Now, however, he is having trouble staying in front of his man and his tipped balls are way down.

Batum doesn't need to provide a lot of offense, but he does need to provide some, and the more his defense suffers, the more necessary it will be for him to provide some offense. With his tailing off, Portland is looking more and more anxiously for the return of Martell Webster who, even if he is not one of the NBA's top defenders by any means, at least is prepared to shoot. 

If Batum doesn't lose his timidity soon, his role could be relegated to teaching us all French.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets built an early 21-14 advantage and with just a couple minutes to go in the first quarter, the Blazers were on the verge of losing contact with the Nuggets and being blown out. Nene was dominating inside, Linas Kleiza could not miss, and the entire Nugget team looked amped up.

Enter Rudy Fernandez. 

He had a personal seven point run in about a minute of game time to change the complexion of the game. Suddenly, it was obvious that even if Roy struggled offensively, the Blazers were not going anywhere. 

It was not as if Roy was not contributing. On one memorable possession, he scored a fast-break lay-in that carried him a couple feet out of bounds. The Nuggets sprinted back up court with a man advantage...only to watch Roy take a charge and force a turnover. I had to watch the replay to make sure he had made both plays. That showed tremendous hustle to return up court that quickly after being furthest down court by a couple feet. 

With Roy not scoring, Fernandez scoring only in a short burst, and Oden playing all of 8 official minutes with foul trouble, it was up to the Blazers third star, LaMarcus Aldridge to carry the offense. 

All game long, when Portland went to him he produced. He shot 7-12 from the field and 8-9 from the line. That shows both the strength and weakness of the Blazers.

On the bright side, Aldridge is worthy of praise for his inside-outside game. He has shown an ability to score down on the blocks with a variety of moves and is also a very good shooter from 15 to 18 feet. Again and again he creates offense for the Blazers. If there is no double team is he a high percentage shooter on post moves. When the double does come, he is excellent at finding the open man. Typically he does not get an assist because the Blazers typically prefer to rotate the ball one more time for an even more open shot, but the success of those possessions goes back to Aldridge identifying the double and making the correct pass out of it.

The thing that needs to be explained is why he is getting only 11 or 12 shots per night on nights when the Blazers are struggling from the field. This is a reminder the Blazers are a young team overall. They do not always do a great job of identifying their advantages and riding them. 

They really need to focus more on plays for Aldridge when they need consistent high-percentage possessions and Roy is being kept under control.

Of course, Roy is still Roy and when the game is on the line, Portland is wise to find ways to put the ball in his hands. As he is wont to do, he took over in the 4th quarter, scoring 12 points in that frame alone. He also played some tough, intimidating defense. 

That was impressive because of the flow of the game. Chauncey Billups gets away with a lot of pushing and grabbing. So does Kenyon Martin. All night, Blazers were getting called for touch fouls while the Nuggets were mauling them pretty good.

This is not a critique of the officials; they were calling the game the way it was being played. Portland was often tentative, reaching in a lot, playing defense with their arms extended while Denver was bodying up. Yes, the Nuggets play probably should be called as fouls, but the reality of the NBA is that when teams establish that style of defense, the officials do not call fouls on them.

In the fourth quarter, Roy began fighting back. Now it was him in the face of Nuggets guards, breathing their air, making it all but impossible for them to see the floor or generate any movement towards the basket. It was the Nuggets who melted down, with both Chris Anderson and Chauncey Billups picking up technicals for complaining about calls...including the one on Anderson coming after he had scored.

Following Roy's example, Aldridge became more active as well. When the long arms of Aldridge start waving around the paint, it really helps close it down. On top of that, Travis Outlaw had a couple of spectacular blocks. Ironically, a Chris Anderson after-the-foul slap out of bounds of a Sergio Rodriguez shot made ESPN Sportscenter while neither of Outlaws' did. For the record, both of Outlaw's were credited, the highlight "block" that showed up on ESPN was not an official block. 

The game was great fun to watch. Both teams built leads of seven points or more. Both teams came back from those deficits to take the leads. Without Carmelo Anthony, this is perhaps more impressive for Denver, but it does speak to why they are a dangerous team. They have several players who can score, great energy from Nene and Anderson, and an above average defender in Billups

But they don't have Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joelzilla, or Fernandez. Tonight, those players made the difference. It was great to watch. Even on a night where Roy "struggled" to 19 points and six assists, Portland had what it took to get the job done and pull back into a tie with the Nuggets.

Greg Oden is developing an offensive game thanks to Maurice Lucas

Greg Oden has experienced a lot of negativity from the media. Apparently, anything short of coming out throwing down six dunks a night, scoring 20 points, pulling down a dozen boards, and blocking three shots a night is a colossal failure.

Never mind he is playing his first uninjured season in four years. Never mind that he is coming back from micro fracture surgery. Never mind that he is still developing physically, still learning how to play night after night against players with nearly the same size he has.

If anything, Oden has been very impressive under those circumstances. It generally takes over a year after players return to the floor to regain their lateral movement, their quickness and explosiveness. And Oden certainly has not shown those things too much.

Coming out of the draft the line on Oden had him showing the lateral movement, the agility and quickness of a guard. What we have seen is a slow big man who tries to overpower everyone and everything.

His development was also hindered by an unexpected event that fell under the radar of all too many Blazer fans. Take a look at LaMarcus Aldridge for what I am referring too.

Aldridge was criticized for having no post up game. However, some time spent with Maurice Lucas turned that around. Aldridge has shown continued development. He has a back-to-the-basket game that is now reliable, has recently started using a sweeping hook across the lane, and has gone from a power forward at his best shooting 18 foot jumpers to a guy who at times has shown moves reminiscent of the Dreamshake

Unfortunately for Oden, Lucas developed pneumonia. For several weeks he was battling a serious illness. His return to the bench was rightfully greeted with a huge cheer...and it showed up on the floor shortly thereafter.

Even without the presence of Lucas, Oden was showing occasional flashes of the player he will eventually develop into. Against Sacramento there was the flash into the lane that surprised everyone with its quickness, he easily handled the pass on the move and dunked. 

There was the moment against the Hornets when he came off his man across the lane and blocked a shot that had flown over the tips of Aldridge's fully extended arms...and Aldridge is 6'11" with long arms. That was a moment of such speed, agility, and skill that I watched it over a dozen times. 

He has also shown a real talent for rebounding. He is pulling down almost 8 boards a game in just under 23 minutes a game. He is blocking 1.63 blocks a game. In other words, he is already showing a big effect on the game from a standpoint of defense and controlling the boards. 

Nor are all his rebounds of the "I am big, tall, and under the boards, rrrrraaaaaaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhhhh" ball falls into his arms type. A lot of them are the long bounces off the rim that he is reading well and getting to before smaller, quicker players can. At times he is showing the same sort of dominance that Joel Przybilla did late last season where any ball coming off the rim that lands in anyone elses' hands is a minor upset.

After struggling to rebound all season last year, this year the Blazers are out rebounding opponents by over 5 per game. Oden is making a huge, huge impact.

But since the return of Lucas, we have been seeing things that show Oden is going to develop into an offensive force as well. For now he is doing just fine, shooting over 53% but the truth is, the majority of his shots come as the result of guard penetration that pulls away his defender or else offensive rebounds. Working with Lucas is giving him a bit more to work with.

Early in the season, an Oden offensive possession was essentially catch the ball and go bull in a china shop, trying to bulldoze his defender and dunk. The few hooks or turn-arounds he threw up were painful to watch and more likely to break the rim or bruise a fan in the second row than go in the hoop.

Lately, particularly since he has been working with Lucas, he is turning into a real offensive player. The Denver game showed four fine examples of his development. 

Early in the game, he caught the ball on the low block. Instead of trying to run over his defender, he started the back-down, then went with a short turn-around. It gave him a clean look at the basket and he buried it. 

Later, from the other side, he caught the ball and went with a quick move across the lane, throwing up a left hook from about six feet. Early in the season it would have dented the rim. Now it smoothly went through the net for another deuce. It was a gorgeous move.

Even more impressive, however, were two third quarter possessions where he did not attempt a shot. In the first one he drew a double team. With no hesitancy he found an open shooter for three. 

The next possession, he again drew a double and again found the open teammate, this time for a dunk. 

Those two passes were smooth, quick, decisive, and led to open looks. They were a result of his developing offense where he actually is showing moves and demonstrating a touch around the basket. 

His legion of critics will point out he is scoring "only" eight points a game. It is  ridiculous criticism. Portland does not need him to score 15 a game this year. Brandon Roy is a man on a mission, scoring almost 23 a game. Aldridge is chipping in close to 17. Shots are needed for Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, and even a few for Steve Blake to stretch the defense. 

There simply are not 15 to 20 shots a game available for Oden right now. To put it bluntly, almost every play run for Oden has a lesser chance of being effective than a play run for any of the aforementioned players. 

In the next year or two as his speed, explosiveness, and agility return, that will change. He will provide a nice addendum to Aldridge's post-up game as he continues to develop under the tutelage of Lucas. Already we are starting to see flashes of what will come.

The main thing Oden needs right now is time and patience. He needs to know we the fans are not as critical as the media. We just appreciate his talent and loo forward to watching him develop. 

The other night when the Blazers retired Terry Porter's jersey, they interviewed Porter and several questions were about the Championship seasons. Again and again, Porter responded with comments along the lines of, "What I really remember was the journey" or,"I really enjoyed the journey". 

The same sentiment holds true with Oden. Don't demand things he is not ready to provide. let him work with Lucas, learn the NBA game on a terrific team, and for yourself...just enjoy the journey.