How can the Roy-less Blazers compete with the Boston Celtics?

Going into the Boston Celtic game on the 30th of December, it looked very bad for Portland. Even with super-stud Brandon Roy, they managed a franchise record low 78 points against the Celtics earlier this year. 

In that game, they looked good until late in the second quarter at which point the Celtics showed why they are the defending World Champions with a 21-0 run that essentially decided the game. 

During that run they were hapless to either score or stop the Celtics. Additionally, they looked intimidated. Certainly the Celtics are an intimidating team, and at times they have acted the bully, particularly Kevin Garnett.

So with the intimidation factor, the recent lack of success against the Celtics, and no Roy, it looked grim indeed for Portland. 

They were faced with a tough choice; who to start in place of Roy. The three primary choices were Rookie Rudy Fernandez, rookie Jerryd Bayless, or 6th man Travis Outlaw.

Bayless has barely played this year. All reports out of Blazer camp have him working very hard but being caught in a numbers crunch behind Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Roy and Fernandez. He is probably the best defender of the group but the worst at getting Portland into their offense. 

Outlaw has looked very uncomfortable in a starting role and is far more valuable providing scoring punch off the bench.  That left Fernandez. This would, of course, seriously alter the effectiveness of the second unit but it was ultimately the choice Coach McMillan made. 

Early on it looked like a very poor choice. The Blazers could muster but 13 points in the first quarter. All of those came from just three players; Blake had five and LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden chipped in four apiece.

Only Rookie Nicolas Batum seemed to be keeping Portland within shouting distance as he vacuumed up every board in sight. His play both on the glass and defensively was enough that he played the first 10 minutes, one of the longest consecutive stretches he has played all season. Typically he is replaced by Outlaw at anywhere from the eight to the six minute mark.

But even with his stellar defense and rebounding, the Blazers already trailed by 10 after the first quarter, 23-13. From the stands the Blazers appeared intimidated and the Celtics seemed to be deep in their psyches.

The second quarter was the Blake and Outlaw show, however. Blake hit a couple treys and scored nine in the quarter and Outlaw came alive to add seven. Portland slowly began to claw back into it. 

A lot of that had to do with someone who was not scoring a great deal. Greg Oden was everywhere. He was drawing enough double teams to end the first half with three assists and five rebounds. A lot of his points were coming at the line; he was drawing fouls and forcing double-teams. 

This allowed open looks for the remaining Blazers and by half time they had pulled to within five at 45-40. The impressive thing is there were no big runs. They plain and simple were outplaying Boston in every facet of the game but one. They were shooting a better percentage from the field and three point range, they were controlling the boards, had more blocks and more steals. 

In fact, the real difference was at the line. For the first half they shot a disappointing 7-for-12 while the Celtics also took 12 free throws but hit them all. 

Those five extra points from the line were the difference in the game in the first half. Nor was Boston due to cool down for quite some time. They ended up hitting their first 21 consecutive free throw attempts.
Meanwhile, the Blazers were scoring as a team. Aldridge got going a bit early in the quarter, Oden had a couple buckets, Outlaw had a couple buckets, and so forth. Everyone (except Batum) who set foot on the floor for Portland was scoring.

Faced with that sort of balance, the Celtics defense began to falter. By the time Oden completed a three-point play to give Portland their first lead since the 6:04 mark of the first quarter, the Rose Garden was rocking and the Blazers looked not just the equal of the Celtics but actually even better.

Paul Pierce hit a pair of free throws to send the game to the fourth quarter tied at 64, but it was too late. The Celtic mystique was gone. No longer were the Blazers accepting their bullying; far from it.

In fact, going back to the 5:11 mark of the second quarter, the bullying was no longer having any effect. Again it was Oden at the center of it. He had been being ridden, shoved, and hammered by a stream of Celtics with no calls. So when he hammered Ray Allen, he put a bit extra into it and really got his money's worth. 

When Allen flew into the crowd the referee gave Oden a technical. Sadly, he hit Allen little harder than Pierce was hitting Outlaw all night without even drawing a foul, but it had an effect. 

After Allen hit those free throws to give the Celtics their largest lead of the night, Portland went on their biggest run of the game, 9-4. The point was, they were not taking the cheap shots and dirty tactics without giving some back any longer.

Now, in the fourth quarter, there was no chance they would cave in. Bayless hit a pair of free throws, Aldridge hit a jumper and then dunked. In fact, the 4th quarter was largely about Aldridge. Going into the 4th quarter he had just eight points.

For the last couple of years, Portland fans have grown used to watching Brandon Roy enter the fourth with eight or 10 points and finish with 20 or 22. He is the money man in the fourth. Last season Outlaw helped but he has gotten off to a slow start this season.

Against the Celtics, Aldridge became the man. He hit shot after shot, scored 12 points in the quarter, and finished with 20. 

But it was Outlaw who put the exclamation point on the fourth. Pierce had hit seven of eight free throws to pull Boston within a deuce. Portland was struggling to get the ball to Aldridge and the ball ended up in Outlaw's hands in the left corner. Pierce closed out on him. 

Whereas breathing on Pierce is a foul, he was allowed to body up on Outlaw, reach, push, clutch and grab. Somehow Outlaw got past him, exploded to the basket and threw down a thunderous dunk in the face of Kevin Garnett. 

It was a seminal moment. Perhaps it signals the return of Outlaw. He scored "just" six points in the quarter, but they all came at key points. Furthermore, they were the type of points Portland needs from him. Instead of hanging out in the corners settling for contested threes, he was driving to the hoop and drawing fouls or scoring on dunks. This aggressive Outlaw is the guy Portland had last year.

If he continues to play this way after Roy returns to the line-up, Portland will elevate its game yet again. 

Already there are signs they are improving game by game. First, there is the improvement of Oden. He is more aware on defense and is picking up fewer fouls. On offense, he is starting to show a few moves that are not just back-them-down-and-try-to-dunk. In this game, he started that move, switched it to a soft finger roll and scored. Just a small moment, but one we did not see earlier in the year.

That elevated their game. Roy becoming more aggressive elevated their game. Having outlaw return to the high level play he showed last year would move Portland further yet up the ladder.

After his dunk it was just free throws. With both Fernandez and Serigo Rodriguez hitting pairs, the Blazers held on for a 91-86 win.

It was a big win. It is the first time in years they have had winning records the first two months of the season. They finished the first two months exactly where I predicted they would: 19-13. 

(Ninja edit: I was wrong. They are a game better than I thought, 20-12. So I actually was not optimistic enough! Something must have distracted me...)

Some wags have pointed out this is only one (Correction:two) game(s) better than their pace from last season and claim the team has not improved. Those people need to do a little better research.

The Blazers played the toughest opening schedule any NBA team has faced since 1982-83. They had very few games against the Minnesota/Memphis/Oklahoma City type teams and have had plenty against the likes of the Suns, Hornets, Celtics, Magic, Nuggets (two apiece), Spurs, Pistons, Mavericks, Rockets, Lakers and so forth. And they are winning against all of those but the Lakers and Mavericks.

Furthermore, they came through a schedule where after 18 games they had averaged a game every 41 hours, where they had a five game road trip, were home for the second game of a back to back to close that out, then went on the road for three more.

Last year their record relied on a 13 game winning streak. Take away that streak and they were three and thirteen. This year they have been much more consistent and won in a lot of different ways.

The  early January schedule is tough as they have home games against the Hornets and Pistons sandwiched around another trip to the Forum to face the Lakers. After a soft home game against the Warriors, they then head back East for another five game road trip. 

The momentum and confidence gained from beating Boston without Roy should be the shot in the arm they need to keep improving their record. It won't be long before the NBA has to take notice. The Blazers are back, and they are coming hard. 

They are no longer a team that can be intimidated. They are not a team who fears any other team. Night in and night out they know they have a better than average chance to win the game. 

It is extremely possible that at the end of the year when they are sporting a nice 53-29 record (or better) they will point back to a handful of moments that defined the season; Roy's 5 point 1.9 seconds against Houston, the Phoenix win, and two moments from the Celtics game; Oden's foul on Allen that let the Celtics (and the NBA) know it was time to stop pushing the Blazers around and Outlaw's dunk on Garnett and Pierce. This was truly a memorable game.