The Legend Grows: Roy leads the Blazers past the Rockets in game 2

Prior to the game I was shocked at how demoralized Blazer fans were. For example, at work there were 4 co-holders of season tickets. Two of them assumed the series was over to the point where one of them actually bet five bucks the Blazers would lose game two against the Rockets. 

All season I have had a very solid read on this team, from my pre-season prediction of 53 wins down to how they would fare in each month. As a result, they sometimes turn to me for my take on the game.

Blinded by my man-crush on LaMarcus Aldridge, I said, "L.A. will come out and have a huge game, Roy will have a better game, and the Blazers will win this one. It will probably be pretty close, but they will tie the series.

Got to the game and was talking with the guy who convinced me to get season tickets on my own, a good friend and poker buddy. He also thought the series was basically over.  I told him the same thing but he remained discouraged, even going so far as to say, "I don't even really want to go to a game 5 if they are down 3-1."

Nor was he alone in his sentiment. The buzz in the crowd was very similar. That game one crushing had the fans completely demoralized.

About five minutes into the game I turned to my wife and said, "They were right. Portland is going to lose." 

She looked at the scoreboard which showed the Blazers tied at 15. "Why would you say that?"

I pointed out that home teams which get humiliated in the first game typically come out super energized, build a nice lead, and then end up needing to hold on in the end. Visiting teams typically try to withstand the opening blitz without losing contact and then take over the game. Yet Houston not only withstood the blitz, they had led most of the way.

Furthermore, I had expected Aldridge to come out strong, looking for his shot, and take over the game. Instead, he was playing tentative, not taking the shots he normally took, and was a complete non-factor on offense.

Still, this team was so much fun to watch all year that we settled back to enjoy the ride.  And what a ride it was!

Some how, some way the Blazers overcame every obstacle. They overcame the demoralization from game one. They overcame being outnumbered eight to six on the floor. They overcame having scored 100 pints or more just once in a jaw-dropping 29 attempts against the Rockets. They overcame Ron Artest hitting some ridiculous, ridiculous shots.

Artest, by the way, deserves a lot of credit. He has rightly taken a lot of grief over the years for some of his actions, both on and off the court. But he has also done some things people ignore or do not know about. For example, during the down time between games one and two he searched out and performed some charity work. This was not well publicized.

He has also toughened up Houston and given them an edge that they did not have in prior years. More importantly, he saw this game was up for grabs and he did everything he could to grab it. Nicolas Batum is far and away the Blazers' best wing defender. He did a really great job on Artest. Several times he forced Artest into falling away to the left fade-away jumpers at or even beyond the three point line.

And Artest hit them. Sick, sick shots. He was destroying the Blazers. Roy was trying to match him but Portland needed someone to give Roy some help. As the early years of Michael Jordan  showed, no player, no matter how good, can single-handed win a playoff series. It takes a team.

Sometimes two players can. At the 8 minute mark of the second quarter we finally saw the Aldridge I expected early in the game. He hti a couple of post moves which opened the lane for Roy to score five quick points. Then he went back on the block and scored on four consecutive possessions. 

That forced the Rockets to double and triple team him, to focus their defense on him which then allowed Roy to go back to work.  Together they had 36 of Portland's' 53 first half points. Aldridge shot 8 for 10 in the first half. This was the guy I had expected to see.

Instead of passing the ball off and letting Luis Scola control him, he was imposing his will on Scola, on Yao Ming, on anyone who came near him. With the Rockets forced to divide their attention, Roy was carving them up inside.

The Rockets were also relying on two guys. In the first quarter it was Artest with 15 points. In the second quarter it was...well..unexpected. Yao Ming? I would believe that. Aaron Brooks? Yep, we have seen what he can do. But it was Von Wafer scoring 12 points of his own that kept Houston in the game. He simply could not be stopped.

At half time several things were obvious. First off, the Blazers were at a severe disadvantage. This was one of the worst officiated games I have seen in a long time. As in game one, the Blazers were getting into the paint with regularity. The Rockets were staying on the perimeter more except for Wafer. Yet the Rockets had a marked advantage at the line.

Unlike game one, this was not because they were playing solid defense. This was blown call after blown call. The real reason the calls were blown was because it was not being called the same way for both teams. Artest, Shane Battier, Scola, and Ming were allowed to knock people down without being called for fouls whereas  the Blazers were being called for a lot of pretty questionable calls. A couple of second half examples demonstrate it pretty well.

Scola ran off a screen on the left block. Aldrdige was getting by Ming, so Ming hip-checked him with a screen that moved about 3'. This hip check threw Aldridge into Scola, knocking Scola to the floor. We started celebrating that Ming would be picking up his fifth foul. Instead, it was called on Aldridge. Now, sure, he DID foul Scola...because he was fouled by Ming. This was Aldridge's fifth foul and would play a big role.

Greg Oden was under the basket on the defensive end. Brooks drove to the basket and Oden, seeing he could not stop him, stood there with his arms raised just as Ming had done at the other end. Moments later Brooks was at the line and Oden had fouled out. Had they made that call against Ming he would have fouled out in the first five minutes. 

If the games are officiated this way in Houston, look for two blow-outs because Portland cannot continue to compete five on eight. They were only able to in this game because of Roy and Aldridge. IN the second half, it was primarily Roy.

He scored 11 of the first 13 points in the second half, keeping them in the game until the rest of the team was finally ready to join him. The Rockets were scoring with regularity and only Roy kept this game from turning into a blow-out.

All game long it was Roy who kept the Blazers in contact when the rest of the team struggled except for the mid to late second quarter when Aldridge took over.  Roy scored from inside. He scored from mid-range. He scored from outside.

At one point late in the fourth quarter the Blazers were clinging to a tenuous 93-90 lead. Roy was given the ball at the top of the key with very little time left on the shot clock. Defending him one on one was Artest, a guy who is certainly one of the better wing defenders in the league. 

In fact, it was the ability of Artest and Battier to defend that had many Blazer fans convinced the Blazers would be unable to pull off a win in this game. And now, in a key moment, here was the match-up Blazer fans feared. There was a real feeling this possession could decide the game. And here was Artest via Roy with all the advantage to Artest:little time to work, no screens to free Roy, and officials who were unlikely to call a foul. Yeah, I know...he did shoot 12 free throws in the game. He should have had 20+.

Be that as it may, Roy did what All-Stars are supposed to do in these situations, even when matched up with top defenders. He found a way to score. He ball faked, got Artest moving and hit a contested three to give the Blazers a six point cushion. 

This game was about several things. First, it was Aldridge stepping up and having a big game. He did that. It was about Roy dominating, which he did with 42 points while adding seven rebounds and coming up with a key late block.

And it was about Joel Przybilla, Greg Oden, Aldridge, and everyone else focusing on not letting Ming dominate as he did in game one. 

They fronted, they double-teamed, they switched up on him, they came at him from a variety of angles, and just generally kept him from scoring. Certainly,. that opened things up for other Rockets to score as evidenced by six Rockets  scoring at least 10 points apiece. However, instead of shooting 60% plus when the game mattered, in this one they shot 50%. Still too high, but much more manageable.

By the time Roy hit a free throw with five seconds left to give Portland a 105-100 lead it was apparent that Portland had learned a lot of lessons from the first game. They grew up fast.

They never got down on themselves even when Houston took a five point lead early in the second. Roy hit all the right notes to keep the Blazers in the game. Przybilla provided some veteran leadership and Nate McMillan did a fantastic job of coaching to get their heads back in the game.

Even when normally reliable Steve Blake started to melt down, missing open shots and making uncharacteristic turnovers that led to dunks for the Rockets, the Blazers refused to cave in. They fought and battled their way.

Nor was it just Roy and Aldridge. Travis Outlaw showed us flashes of his Super-Trout persona, Greg Oden had a key follow-dunk, Rudy Fernandez had a crowd-inspiring steal and dunk, and the Blazers showed that yes, Roy is far and away their best player, but they are still first and foremost a team.

Roy could not win this game alone and the Blazers showed why they have been so good all year, turning in a team performance that resulted in overcoming an incredible final minute by Aaron Brooks in the final minute to hold on for a 107-103 victory.

Brooks is way more talented than advertised. His first desperation three was awesome. His ankle went about seventeen different directions as he tried to hold back from crossing the line, he went up for a desperation three that was well contested and somehow found the bottom of the net. Much as I hate any former Duck, that shot was simply spectacular.

In the end, it was everything we had expected from the first playoff game. The crowd was raucous and into it, even when the Blazers got down by a few points. They recognized the greatness they were seeing from both Roy and Aldridge, recognized the calls but did not get so caught up in hating on the referees that they forgot to enjoy the game, and in large part controlled the methods of cheering.

What I mean is instead of chants starting with the announcer or Blazer mascot, they started organically with the crowd. "Lets go Blazers" was probably the most popular one, though the ubiquitous "MVP" with Roy at the line and the "These refs suck" made a brief return when Oden fouled out. The point is, these chants did not start from electronic admonitions but from the fans getting juiced and rolling with it.

It remains to be seen if the Blazers have grown up enough to do what they need to do which is go into Houston and reclaim home court. Make no mistake, the Rockets did exactly what they needed to do in Portland which was get a split. Now the onus is on the Blazers to prove they deserved the higher seed by winning in Houston, which is no easy proposition.

They have only won once in the new Rocket arena and that was two years ago. It is tougher to win in the playoffs, but the Blazers have the talent to do it. Do they have the mental toughness? Perhaps I am blinded by my unapologetic love of the Blazers, but I think they do and will win one of the two. 

Then again, Houston is an excellent team that has the home court advantage. Games three and four should be a real war. Let's go along and enjoy the ride.


Game 1 Requiem:What does losing a home game mean to the Blazers?

I was looking for the right word to describe the first Blazer playoff game in six years. Destruction? Annihilation? Crushing? Ah, wait...I have it. Humiliation.

Make no mistake, Houston came out and pummeled the Blazers beyond all recognition. They started with a punch in the mouth. When Portland got up Houston got serious. They started the renewed assault with a kick in the groin followed by another punch in the mouth and then, as the Blazers lay there bleeding, they dropped a few elbows and followed those up with a piledriver that put the Blazers through the floor. They then started to walk away before returning to kick the prone body once more for just one measure.

The Blazers, for the first time since the first game of the season when they Lakers humiliated them in similar fashion, looked young, inexperienced, and unprepared. They also looked like a team that felt they had accomplished all their goals just by making the playoffs.

 The Rockets, by contrast, for the first time in recent playoff memory, looked like a team that not only wanted to make the playoffs, they wanted to get out of the first round.

It all started on the first Blazer possession. LaMarcus Aldridge posted up Luis Scola on his strong side, the low left block. This allows him to either spin baseline or come across the lane with a sweeping hook that is pretty tough to defend.

Unless, of course, you are 7'6", come off your man and swat it away as Yao Ming did. He executed a shot block so spectacular and intimidating it took Aldridge out of the game for the rest of the half and part of the third quarter. By the time Aldridge recovered, it was too late as the game was out of reach.

It was not only Aldridge who struggled, though. Early on it looked like Nicolas Batum might be a force. He ball-faked on the perimeter, drove baseline and hammered home a dunk. That opened things up. Brandon Roy started driving aggressively to the hoop and scoring regularly.

Unfortunately, that would be the last points for Batum, no other Blazer was scoring, and Houston started collapsing on Roy every trip inside and he stopped shooting. 

Meanwhile, Houston went inside to Ming early and often and he delivered. Barring injury or a precipitous fall-off in talent level, Ming will be in the Hall of Fame some day and in this game it looked like that day should be now.  His 9-for-9 shooting in the game (all in the first half) was more than enough to put the Blazers in a hole too deep to ever climb out of.

The good news is there are perhaps two Blazers who did not have the worst games they will have in the entire series. Those two were Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, though Roy is unlikely to play that poorly either.

Oden did what you are supposed to do against shot blockers. He used ball fakes to get them in the air and scored virtually at will. Roy also scored well. But they were nowhere near enough in light of the team approach taken by the Rockets. Aaron Brooks was every bit as demoralizing to the Blazers in the second half as Ming was in the first and go plenty of help from Ron Artest. 

At some point in the third quarter the fans decided this was the fault of the refs. Admittedly there were a few rather questionable calls, such as Roy fouling the air three feet behind Shane Battier and Battier going to the line for three free throws. Problem was...that had no effect on the outcome.

Had the Blazers benefited from every call they would have still lost by 20. They did not get hosed in this game. 

True, they outscored Houston in the paint by 24 points (56-32) yet were out shot at the free throw line by 12. However, that had more to do with Houston's defensive prowess than it did any brutal refereeing hatchet job as the fans seemed to believe with their recurring, "These refs suck!" chants that threatened to rival the boos they lavished on Darius Miles when he returned with the Memphis Grizzlies..

That was partially fan disappointment at watching their team get absolutely drilled by a team that, on this night, was simply better.

Post-game comments by the players acknowledged as much. Ming talked about how the Blazers looked the way he had felt after his first playoff game. Roy talked about how many Blazers succumbed to the pressure, did not take the shots they normally take, and how little energy they played.

The good news for the Blazers is three fold. First, this was just one game. Yes, they lost a home game, but that was likely to happen at some point in the playoffs. They are quite likely to win one in Houston, thus recapturing the home court advantage. 

Second, outside of Greg Oden (who may miss the next game) and Roy, every player had what will probably end up being his worst game. 

Third, the entire Rocket starting line-up had unbelievable games. Ming did not miss a shot of any kind. Luis Scola shot an improbable 7-9 and added 8 rebounds. Aaron Brooks had 5-8 from beyond the arc and 10-17 total. Ron Artest was a solid 7-12.

In any given game you might see one of them repeat that, but it is unlikely they can repeat it as a group over the course of the series.

Sure, it was disappointing and discouraging, but it was also just one game. The Blazers have the right coach and players to recognize this and deal with it. Watch for the Blazers to come out more focused, relaxed, and ready for game two. 

Look for Aldridge to come out strong as he generally does after a poor outing. He will come out focused and ready and not allow himself to be taken out of his game again. Roy typically makes a point of establishing himself early in must-win games, which game 2 unquestioningly is. 

When those two are on their games, the Blazers are very, very tough to beat. Game two will be a nice bounce back, and after the Blazers take either game three or four in Houston, it will help us see that, though disappointing, the loss was just a bad start to a good run. It will start with a game two win.

It is unlikely to be a blow-out and indeed is quite likely to come down to the final few minutes, but they got their stinker out of the way early and are now ready and primed for a long playoff run. Much as the situations with the Spurs, Celtics, Heat, and so forth, the series is just getting started. 

In a seven game series, the better team generally wins. This series should be no different. Houston has a very good team that can win any game but the Blazers, as this series will bear out by the end, should prove to be better. 


Series Preview:Why the Blazers Will Knock the Rockets out of the Playoffs

Over the course of the season, the records of the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers were very similar. The Blazers checked in with a 54-28 record while Houston finished 53-29. Both records are spectacular in light of some of the trials the teams faced.

Portland spent the entire season without starting Small Forward Martell Webster. Webster had been showing improving defense on the perimeter but was more important in his role as defense-stretching 3-point specialist. His outside shooting forced teams to stay at home on him which would leave teams forced to help on the Blazers post men from other quarters. 

Without Webster the starting job fell to Nicolas Batum. This was not an anticipated move since as recently as summer league it was felt Batum was at least two years away from being ready for even a reserve role in the NBA.

The Rockets suffered an even more key injury, losing Tracy McGrady for 47 games.

Fortunately for both teams, they are deep enough and talented enough to mask the loss of key players. In Houstons case, McGrady is obviously far more important overall than Webster and their ability to vie for a Division Championship speaks well to their talent level. They are a very, very good team.

I would go so far as to argue the one game difference in overall records in meaningless. It is a mere statistical anomaly over the course of a long season. These teams are very closely matched.

Early in the season, a Rose Quarter game  illustrated that. Portland and Houston battled all game long with the Blazers holding 5 to 7 point leads until they took a 10 point lead with about 10 minutes to go. But Houston took it into overtime, setting up a Brandon Roy jumper, Yao Ming and-1, and Roy miracle trey in the last 1.9 seconds. The game was so tight it saw 3 lead changes in that space of time. They series might be that tight as well.

Except the Blazers are a much better team now than they were at that point in the year. One of my complaints about the team at that time was they had not yet developed a "killer instinct". They would often build comfortable leads only to see those leads melt away and the game decided in the closing seconds.

That is no longer true. They now know how to apply the pressure that turns comfortable leads into blow-outs. They know how to come back on teams, even very good teams as their recent double digit win in San Antonio after being down by 18 illustrates. 

More importantly, they finally know how good they are. Prior to the season they thought they were good enough to make the playoffs. As of a few weeks ago, they knew they were not only good enough to make the playoffs, but also to win some games and that they should at the least win a series.

In a series this close, the advantage lays with the home team. With that in mind, it is wise to look at the way teams closed the regular season. Both the Rockets and Blazers had chances to win games that would guarantee them home court. Houston was playing for a Division Title and Portland to maintain the tie-breaker over the Spurs.

Houston had a lead in Dallas but was unable to close it out, eventually falling to drop one game behind the Spurs on the last day of the season. Portland led the Nuggets all game and put the hammer down, blowing them out.

I am sure Rockets fans will correctly point out the Rockets were on the road against a team also fighting for seeding. Fair enough. In a game both teams desperately wanted...they did not get the job done. Call it the McGrady effect.

For whatever reason, recent Rockets teams have had a pattern. They are great regular season teams that find ways to lose series they should win in the playoffs. Of course, this will be their first time with Ron Artest, a talented wing defender and good scorer. He unquestionably makes them a better team.

He is also illustrative of one of the keys to the series. The Rockets are an excellent defensive team. Luis Scola is a very physical defender, Shane Battier is an above average defender, and the shot-blocking of Yao Ming can sometimes close off the paint.

They are no slouches on offense, either. They have seven guys who score over or near double figures. They can score inside or out. They rebound well. There is a reason this team won 53 games.

But the Blazers are pretty solid as well. It starts with their improved power forward.

LaMarcus Aldridge started the season as a good help defender who sometimes got torched by less skilled post players. As the season progressed, however, he developed his game more and more. If the All-Star game were held today and he were not on it, that would be a mistake because he has come that far this season.

He has developed a very strong post game. He is at his best on the left post where he can spin inside or come across the lane for a sweeping hook. If needed, he can step out to the perimeter for his silky smooth jump shot. 

At this point, people wonder why it did not start with Brandon Roy. Anybody who does not know what Roy can do yet is just not a dedicated NBA follower. He is the engine that makes the Blazers go. He can penetrate the lane seemingly at will, either to dish for open looks or to score on hapless defenders. 

His defense is all over the board. At times he is a lock-down defender but at other times he can be exploited. Fortunately for the Blazers, there is nobody on the Rockets who will be able to regularly explode on Roy from the guard position.

Joel Przybilla is a solid interior defender and above average rebounder. He is limited offensively, but the other starters for Portland cover up for that. Well, sometimes they do.

Nicolas Batum will in many ways be a key to the series. Defensively he brings it every night. He is the Blazers best on the ball defender and best help defender. He gets into the passing lanes, he tips balls, and harasses talented scorers into sub-par nights.

However, it is his offense where he needs to become more consistent. On some nights he is very aggressive. He takes the open shot, drives the lane with abandon, gets out and runs, and turns the Blazers into a deadly offensive unit that very few teams can stay with. When he is taking his shots, the Blazers are a cohesive, talented offensive unit.

The final starter is oft-maligned Steve Blake. Blake is a weak perimeter defender. Fortunately, the Rockets do not have Tony Parker or Chris Paul. Aaron Brooks is a fine player but he is not going to torch the Blazers night after night, thus covering one weakness for the Blazers. Offensively, Blake is a perfect fit.

He has gotten better about creating havoc for opposing defenses by getting into the lane more often and is able to play off Roy's penetrations by staying home and hitting the open three. He is generally good about not turning the ball over. He is a very steady player who can score when needed.

Off the bench the Blazers bring a lot of firepower. Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez have excellent chemistry. Rodriguez finds Fernandez for so many open looks that Fernandez set the Rookie record for most threes in a season. Defensively they can be exploited as they focus too much on playing the passing lanes and sometimes forget to defend their man. Still, they should outscore former Blazer Von Wafer and Kyle Lowry.

It is in Travis Outlaw that the Blazers really shine. Outlaw has been overlooked by the rest of the NBA but should have been considered both this year and last for the Sixth Man of the Year.

Defensively, he is an enigma. At times he is dominating. His agility and length can cause problems for even a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. At other times he gets lit up by D-League scrubs. He is at his best coming from off the ball to block shots or getting spectacular blocks in transition.

It is on offense that he really shines. He has improved his shooting from deep but is at his best slashing to the hoop for highlight reel dunks or using his jab step and incredible leaping ability to create clean looks at the hoop, often against double teams. He gets so high so quick that defenders not named Dwayne Wade have no hope of reasonably contesting his shot.

Additionally, if he is not the Blazers best fourth quarter player then he is at least in the conversation. When you consider the fact the Blazers have Brandon Roy playing for them, that is quite a statement but one Blazer fans recognize.

Again and again Outlaw has provided a spark for the Blazers. He explodes in huge bursts, often racking up double digit points in two or three minute spans. The more the Blazers need  a big fourth quarter, the more likely they are to see Outlaw turn into "Super-Trout"*. 

All of this does not even address rookie enigma Greg Oden. He can be awe-inspiring and game changing or in and out of the game so quick you almost do not even notice he was there. 

Defensively he can be outstanding. When he is feeling it, he is a premier shot-blocker. He has developed into a well-above average rebounder. He has regained his quickness and agility to the point where it is not as big of a mis-match as you would suspect when he gets caught on the perimeter. He moves his feet quick enough to stay with all but the quickest of players. It is offensively where his game is unsteady.

Oden is somewhat limited. He has an increasing repertoire of post moves but for the most part he wants to be Shaquille O'Neal. He likes to back people down and run over them. Unfortunately for Oden, the offensive fouls O'Neal committed for years that were called on the defender actually get called on Oden.

The playoffs should help that. For whatever reason, playoffs see things that were fouls in the regular season become "no-calls". This helps guys like Bruce Bowen, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, Joel Przybilla, and Greg Oden. Yeah, I know Bowen isn't in this series, but he illustrates the points.

When players are allowed to be more physical, it benefits players who have the ability and desire to be more aggressive. That means Oden should see fewer calls against him which will lead to his being a greater presence in the series.

Overall, this series should be very close and entertaining. I would not even be surprised to see both teams get a game on the opponents home floor. But in the end, the improvement the Blazers have shown combined with their overall slightly higher talent level and having the home court will make all the difference. Portland should win in either five or seven games. 

*(Outlaw's nickname is "Trout" for T-Outlaw" and when he has one of his patented explosions some people refer to him as Super-Trout).


What the Blazer demolition of the Oklahoma Thunder Tells us about their Playoff Readiness

This just in. Brandon Roy is pretty good. That is not news. But what is news to a lot of people is the entire Blazer team is pretty good as well. The 113-83 destruction of the Thunder showed that in many ways.

Early in the season Portland struggled against bad teams. They gave away games to the Thunder, the Clippers (at home, no of only 7 home losses all season) and twice to the Warriors. Even in the games they won, frequently the score was close. If the final score was lopsided, it was generally because of a late run.

Lately, however, things have been different and the Thunder game was a prime example. The Blazers set the the tone early, letting the Thunder know this would not be a good night for an upset. After the first quarter they had nearly doubled the Thunder at 29-15 and the game was every bit as lopsided as the score.

Portland scored inside and outside. They made great passes, moved without the ball, and executed their offense to perfection. Of course, they have done all that several times this year. The difference was two-fold.

First off, as they have done during their recent hot streak, they ratcheted up the defense. The 15 points the Thunder managed in the first quarter was no accident. When they tried to pound the ball inside, the Blazer defense collapsed or, in the terms of Coach Nate McMillan, "built a wall".

When Oklahoma City was reduced to shooting jumpers over the top it was with a hand in their face and frequently late in the shot clock in scramble situations.

Second, many times this year the starters would build a lead only to see the reserves fritter it away. Conversely, at times the starters have struggled only for opponents to see the Blazer reserves put on runs that changed the games. For much of the season, however, it was one or the other.

Lately, both units have been hitting on all cylinders at the same time. Ironically, it has coincided with the return of Greg Oden to a reserve role.

Oden is still working his way through the learning curve and tends to dominate weak competition while struggling against better competition. This is no knock on Oden. He has shown steady improvement and has improved against even the top centers in the NBA. But the truth remains that, at this stage of his young career, he plays much better against younger centers and against teams with little interior defense.

Or, in the case of the Thunder, no defense whatsoever, interior or exterior.

With the starters and reserves scoring seemingly at will lately, there is only one thing even slowing the Blazers down and that is their defense. Lately, that has not been an issue either. In this game they did not let up in the second quarter, holding the Thunder to just 16 points. Their 62-33 half time lead was no mistake and no fluke. Portland has improved that much.

Early in the season the reason would have been Brandon Roy.

Roy can score from inside or out. He passes well. He rebounds well. And when the mood strike, he defends well. More importantly, he sets the tone. Over and over this season, in post-game interviews, he would spend mere moments talking about the game before detailing the next goal the Blazers had. More often than not, they would then deliver on that goal. They broke long losing streaks against the Suns, Spurs, and Pacers, for example. They had six consecutive winning months. They made the playoffs.

But the real key has been LaMarcus Aldridge. Over the last month or two of the season he has become a dominating player. Some...okay, most nights, it is his offense. But his defense has improved by leaps and bounds as well. He has developed into an above average interior defender. He can also do a credible job when he gets caught on the wings.

With Roy and Aldridge playing at All-Star levels and the team as a whole turning into a defensive machine, they are truly an awe-inspiring sight to behold when they face a weak team such as the Thunder.

They also are more than ready to face the pressure of playing against the best teams in the league as their recent home win over a frustrated, whining Laker team and their surprising road win over the Spurs demonstrate. Yes, the Spurs were short-handed. But they also built an 18 point lead at home. Seeing the Spurs give back 18 points to lose by double digits is not something we are used to seeing against ANY team, Manu Ginobli or no.

Portland has improved by leaps and bounds in all these ways and more. As they approach the playoffs, looking for home court in the first round, it remains to be seen if they have come far enough to get out of the first or second round. They have the talent. They have the coach. They have the desire. But do they have the mental toughness to beat veteran, talented teams on the road in win or go home situations? Can they deal with facing the same players night after night when those players get under their skins?

As one of the earliest 50 win predictors for this team (my pre-season review had them finishing 53-29), it would seem natural to see me predict a deep playoff run. And, in truth, I believe this team has the talent to go a long way. It would be a long shot, but them reaching or even winning the Finals is no longer a pipe dream. They should do no worse than winning at least two games in the first round regardless of whether they get home court for the first round. If they do end up with home court, they should win the first series. If they do that, it will be interesting to see how far their new found confidence can carry them.

They have realized it all starts at the defensive end. They come out with aggression. They play hard beginning to end.

Of course, I do realize they are more likely to lose in the first round than get to the Finals. But games like the Thunder game show how far they come and how it is no longer out of the conversation.
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