Nuggets to Blazers: We are still better

At the 7:19 mark of the fourth quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge found a red-hot Rudy Fernandez open beyond the arc. He made the extra pass, Fernandez drained the three, the Blazers led 81-74, the Rose Garden was rocking, George Karl called time-out, and the fans just knew the Blazers were off to a 2-0 start.

The win over the Nuggets would be especially sweet as Brandon Roy had arguably outplayed Carmelo Anthony, they were overcoming sub-35% shooting and a non-existent presence from Aldridge, and is the Nuggets. We hate the Nuggets, particularly their arrogant, strutting, inked up Birdman Chris Anderson.

Furthermore, even though the crowd was really out of it all night, possibly due to the combination of brick-laying shooters and fouls being called on average one per minute, this felt like a playoff intensity level game. Martell Webster and Carmelo Anthony were going all Marty McSorley on one another, Nene, Kenyon Martin, Greg Oden, and Joel Przybilla looked like they were having a WWE tag-team match, and every basket felt like a huge, vital event.

But then something happened. Anthony went all Anthony, scoring 17 points and adding an assist. Portland, who had been solid on the boards and at the free throw line all night, suddenly could do neither.

Anthony hit two free throws to give Denver the Lead. Roy hit the first...and missed the second.

With Portland down two inside 1:40 of the 4th, Nene got not one, not two, but three offensive rebounds in the same possession before scoring.

Aldridge missed one of two to keep the Nuggets ahead by one.

Anthony made two free throws.

Miller missed a free throw.

Greg Oden, down 1 with 4.6 seconds left, somehow missed both free throws, and then the referees...who whistled 60 personal fouls on the night...inexplicably could not call the 60th foul of the night for 2.7 seconds. It was not for lack of hacks by the Blazers.

Be that as it may, Portland had their chances. It was their inability to pull down key rebounds or make free throws that sealed their fate. The Nuggets, meanwhile, never panicked, ran the ball through their best player, and deserved to win because of it. What a huge disappointment for Blazer fans.

Back the truck up, though. This was a very entertaining game with plenty of grist for the rivalry mill. With Denver holding a 2 point lead and with the ball, Brandon Roy made a terrific defensive stand against Anthony, forcing him into a baseline fade-away contested jumper. It is a measure of how good Anthony is that I thought it would go. It is a testament to Roy's clutch defense that it was so tough and missed.

Ultimately, Denver still won, but that iconic duel was worth the price of admission.

So was watching Oden continue to flower. Despite being saddled with foul trouble all game long, he helped Portland control the boards for the majority of the game, including pulling down 9 in under 22 minutes. He also had an impressive block on Nene in that 3-offensive rebound possession the Nuggets scored on. His offense looked better with some nice spin moves instead of the turn-over plagued mess he turned in Tuesday.

It was also thrilling watching Martell Webster bring it at both ends. He moved fluidly, getting to the rim and throwing down a couple of tremendous dunks. His defense on Anthony was at times excellent and at others Caspar-like. He is improving game by game and it is great to watch.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Rudy Fernandez and his offensive explosion. It was so good, so impressive, so awe-inspiring that for a minute you could almost forget some guy named Roy was in the midst of a 30 point night...or that ace 4th quarter guru Travis Outlaw never hit the floor in the 4th quarter. I do not remember the last time the Blazers had him for a game and he was never on the floor in money time.

Nor can I figure out why. It is not like Steve Blake and Andre Miller were irreplaceable, combining for eight points (all by Miller) on 3-14 shooting with just 8 assists. I believe strongly in Coach Nate McMillan, but I did wonder out loud why Outlaw did not replace one of them with Fernandez or Roy handling the ball.

Perhaps it had to do with Outlaw following up his Super-trout night with a horrible 1-8 shooting night. Perhaps he just got lost in the mix.

Regardless, on this night, Denver wanted it more, and did what it took to get the win.

That hurts to write. I make no claim to being impartial. I love this edition of the Blazers team. I think it is good enough to win the division, win the Conference, and compete for a title.

Nor am I alone. Nicolas Batum pointed out on his blog that McMillan called out the team and said anyone who did not think they were ready to compete for a title should leave, that is what they are playing for this year.

Roy called out the players for their practice habits, telling them it was not a championship contender level practice.

McMillan knows. Roy knows.

But on this night, the Nuggets showed that, whatever the Blazers and I believe about their chances, they still need to take another step.

My hat is off to the Nuggets. Portland will not lose too many more home games this year. In a Division race as tight as this one, now they have the huge, unenviable task of winning a game in Denver. The problem there is that by then, the Nuggets will get back JR Smith and be even tougher.

It is way early in the season to over-emphasize one game. In fact, if this serves as a wake-up call that gets the Blazers to act as a cohesive unit, to bear down and start dominating games instead of playing close and counting on Roy to win in the 4th quarter, it could turn into a good thing.

But at the moment, it really, really hurts.


Oh, is it Houston? We have no problem.

Change came early with the opening tip. That was not Joel "the Thrilla" Przybilla with the opening tip. Greg Oden did enough in the pre-season to earn the starting job.

The first quarter was pretty rugged as the Rockets did what they do and their defense, combined with Portland turn-overs, kept them tied at 23-all.

The numbers are ugly.

26 turnovers.

42.9% shooting.

42 points in the entire second half, including being outscored by a 31-21 margin in the crucial 4th quarter.

Greg Oden picked up 5 fouls, had just 3 field goal attempts, no free throws, and 7 turnovers.

Joel Przybilla played just 16 minutes and fouled out with only 2 points of his own. Thus the centers combined for 4 points, 9 turnovers and 11 fouls against a team playing a 6'6" center.

All-world Brandon Roy...who got his first "MVP chant during pre-game introductions...went 5-18 while projected All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge dialed up 4 points in the final 3 quarters and 9:32 of the first.

This is not good. Against an out-manned, out-gunned, out-talented Houston team depleted by injuries, those are some scary numbers.

What is scary about them is even on a night where Oden, Aldridge and Roy had extremely sub-par games, the Blazers blew out the Rockets. Oh, sure, the final score did not look bad and the Rockets even managed to pull within 6 with 1:47 left, but starting with the 12-0 run in the closing seconds of the first quarter and 3:25 of the second, this game was never really in doubt.

That speaks well of the talent the Blazers have this year. Travis Outlaw was in full Super-Trout mode, scoring seemingly at will.
Despite being detriments on offense, Oden and Przybilla controlled the boards and the paint, combining for 7 blocks and 22 rebounds...while Houston had just 33 as a team.

Martell Webster looked great, scoring 14 points on 7 shots in 25 minutes. But it was not just the points he scored, it was how he scored them. Instead of hanging out in the corner bombing threes, he took it into the paint, created havoc for the defense, and threw down a crowd-pleasing posterization on Chuck Hayes.

Aldridge got Portland going early, took arch-nemesis Luis Scola completely out of the game, and played cheerleader for his team while saddled with foul-trouble.

Rudy Fernandez looked much improved. He was hitting his beloved step-back threes, but also was doing a great job of crossing the lane and forcing Rockets defenders out of position. While his own defense gave up a lot of easy possessions, he also managed to knock a few balls loose and interrupt the flow of the Rockets offense.

There were certainly problem areas. Steve Blake continued to play Blake-fense on Aaron Brooks. Oden again looked stilted and confused on offense. Roy and Aldridge were the only two Blazers to finish with minuses in the plus-minus category.

But all those things show why the Blazers should be given a healthy dose of contender talk by the end of the year.

On a night when so many things went wrong, they still man-handled the Rockets and coasted to an easy win.

There will be plenty of nights when quick, agile point guards like Brooks, Devin Harris, Chris Paul and so forth create havoc for Blake and Andre Miller. But they can no longer penetrate the lane with impunity.

Several times Oden slid over and blocked shots after Brooks beat Blake and Miller. Przybilla did the same. They are moving their feet, going straight up, and getting clean blocks...including one that Oden did not get credited for because Brooks got called for an offensive foul.

In other words, this Blazer team can deal with set-backs. Even major ones. They are so talented, so deep, and most importantly, so cohesive as a group that they work together, follow the plan, and reel in the victories.

Even when their superstars have off nights, they know the team will pull them through.

Brian Wheeler likes to say, after a win, "Once again we can say,'it's a great day to be a Blazer'". He should get used to saying that a lot.


T is for title: The Blazers Season Pre-view

Last season, the Blazers tied with the Nuggets for the best record in the Northwest Division, 54-28. they then gave back all the hard work in the first game of the playoffs, getting rolled up at home by Utah. Once that game was over, they quickly showed they had what it took to win in the playoffs at home and competed in almost every road game, but never broke through and ended their season early and in disappointing fashion.

Yes, a team that most observers last pre-season thought were still a season away from playoff contention found disappointment in exiting in the first round.

They then went out and got significantly better in several ways.

First, they upgraded at their weakest position, point guard. Gone is inconsistent, disgruntled Sergio Rodriguez, replaced by the durable and skilled Andre Miller. Second, gone is erratic good guy Channing Frye and in his place is the steady Juwan Howard.

But it was not just free agents that changed the face of this team. Another year of experience has turned this team from young, hungry and talented into battle-tested, hungry and talented. Aside from that, they are essentially getting two guys back from injury.

The first is Martell Webster. He is an under rated defender and lights out shooter. He could have provided the offensive spark the Blazers sorely needed against the Rockets. While he is not as good defensively as Niclolas Batum, he usually does a creditable job.

Second, they get back from injury a guy who played in 61 games last year. But none of those games were at full strength. It is well known that microfracture surgery slows guys down for nearly a full year after their return, as Kenyon martin, A'mare Stoudemire and others can attest. So welcome back, Greg Oden.

Gone is the hulking mass of muscle that was Oden last year and in its place is a quick, agile guy who moves his feet, has good lateral quickness, has shown explosive leaping ability and excellent timing.

This is a guy who will defend the paint, clean the glass, and has shown some rapid improvement offensively. He turns the center position from above average defensively but non-factor on offense into decent offensively with the potential to be spectacular defensively.

Adding Oden, Webster, Howard and Miller to a roster that earned 54 wins last season shouts potential. This is a team that has everything it needs to win and win now.

The starting line-up looked set until Nicolas Batum went down with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, this team is so deep that his absence until possibly February should not slow this team down at all...and might even help it. The 18 or so minutes he played last year will be taken up by Webster and possibly allow a few more minutes for Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.

Now the starting line-up will probably see Oden at Center, LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward, Webster at the 3, Brandon Roy at shooting guard and Steve Blake at the point.

This is a team that has great interior defense and suspect perimeter guarding skills. At the other end of the court, with Blake and Webster manning the 3-point line, teams will have to pick their poison. Do they want to double team Aldridge on the block or let him wreck their interior? Oden is a threat to throw down some ferocious dunks off offensive boards.

Alternatively, they can double Aldridge and Oden, only to see Webster and Blake kill them from distance. All of this does not even take into account Roy, the best offensive player the Blazers have.

There is not much of a let-down off the bench, either.

Joel Przybilla is not going to score much, but he will block shots, rebound, and generally provide a physical presence.

Juwan Howard will play in short stretches and provide steady, veteran leadership...if he gets minutes at all. Those might go to Outlaw, who has played very well at the power forward spot. His length and speed make him a match-up nightmare. Not strong enough to bang with starter-quality big men, he is more than capable of taking on second unit players from almost every team in the NBA. Furthermore, he provides the second unit with a guy who can create his own shot at will.

Outlaw will also see minutes at small forward, but will share those with swing-man Rudy Fernandez. Coming off a year where he set the rookie record for 3-pointers, he provides dynamic offense. He kind of reminds me of Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson from the Bad Boys days. he can light it up in a hurry. when his shot is not falling, he has shown the capability and willingness to drive the lane and put up points there. His defense is somewhat suspect, but he fills the passing lanes very well.

That brings us to Andre Miller. He will start the season coming off the bench. With this line-up, there is some potential for him to do what he does best, which is to run the floor and play an up-tempo game. Fernandez and Outlaw look to benefit from this style of play.

So Portland is stacked. There second team would compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and their starting line-up is as good as any in the league.

The only thing that can keep them from doing serious damage in the playoffs is not believing in themselves.

This is not to make light of teams like the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and Nuggets. the Spurs have an incredibly potent starting line-up, the Nuggets have the potential to be one of the most explosive offensive juggernauts not named the Suns in the last few years, and the Lakers, coming off a title, only got better with Ron Artest replacing Trevor Ariza.

But the Blazers are actually that good. Yes, I might be looking at them through rose-colored glasses...but I do not think so.

Starting the moment they drafted Brandon Roy and got Aldridge in a draft-day trade, they have gotten better and better. They got to 41 wins quicker than (almost) anyone thought possible. They got to 54 wins when most people thought 47 or 48 wins would be a great year. And now we are hearing a form of the same thing.

"The jump from 21 wins to 32 was one thing, but getting to .500 is a lot harder." was the assessment after 2006-07.

"It is one thing to get to 41 wins, but the jump to 50 wins is a lot harder," was the belief after 07-08.

"Getting to 54 wins is great, but getting to 60 from 54 is a lot harder than getting to 54." is a pretty common pre-view this year.

Maybe. But this team has not only shown steady improvement, they have shown they know what the next step they need to take is.

Roy, time after time last year, in post-game interviews would discuss the next thing the Blazers needed to do rather than gushing about the things the team had accomplished up to that time. And one thing after another fell. They beat San Antonio. He almost single-handed ended the long losing streak to the Suns when he poured in a "quiet 52 points". He was not going to lose to the Suns on that night.

This season, the Blazers will have Roy's drive, the return of improved Oden, the natural progression of Aldridge and Fernandez, the steadying veteran influences of Howard and Miller, and the hunger to take them higher than people believe possible.

This is a team that should finish north of 60. "It is harder to get to 60 than 54". Only if you do not have the talent. This team has the talent to win well over 60 games.

It is a team that has the talent to win any series they encounter in the playoffs. They have seen it now, they know what it takes. They have won in Utah. They have won in San Antonio. They need to get Denver out of their heads and get a win there.

Their goal this year should be one thing. It is not, "getting to the playoffs". It is not "getting home court". It is not "getting out of the first round". Their goal, plain and simple, should be winning it all.
They need to start Tuesday night against Houston. They need to come out and set the tone for the season, taking it to a decent but over-matched Rocket team. Then, Thursday, when Denver arrives, they need to serve notice the Northwest Title is staying in Portland this year, but this time it will not be shared. Then, on Halloween, they need to go into Houston and accomplish that which eluded them in the playoffs; a win.

No excuses. No saying, "it is a tough place for us to win". Plain and simple, they need to come out and show they are the team to beat this year.

Unlike last year, when they started with a schedule so brutal it ranked as the toughest start since the 60s, Portland has a relatively soft schedule this year.

I am going to come out and flat out say it would be a choke job to lose to Houston on opening night. Denver is good enough to win in Portland, but that is what sets great teams apart from the very good; defending home court. So I will say Portland should win that one, too.

They then have road games at Houston and Oklahoma City. Both are eminently winnable.

They then have a 3 game home stand in which only San Antonio should be tough. then 5 road games, with only the Hornets and Hawks being games Portland should not be favored in. Home versus Detroit, a game at Golden State, then 4 more at home before closing November out at Utah.

It would not be a huge shock for Portland to be 15-4 by the end of November. They are that good.

So yeah, I am going to go out on a limb here. The low end expectation for the Blazers is Conference Finals and it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to win a title. Not next year. Not three years from now. Not after they start losing guys because they cannot afford to keep them around.

This year.

60+ wins, at least Conference Finals is my prediction.

Partying in the streets is my hope. I think they are probably about 5-1 against winning a title, but that is not beyond reasonable to see. Lets get this party started.


Preseason Melt-down; How the Jazz wrecked the Blazers

Last night was the first pre-season game I have been able to attend this year. I settled comfortably into my old home, took a picture with my camera phone of the Rose Garden and sent it to a couple co-conspirators under the title, "I'm Home!" and got ready to watch the game.

About the time they announced the first starter, I went, "Uh-oh!"

Now, make no mistake about it. Juwan Howard will be a very, very valuable player for the Blazers as he has already shown. His veteran leadership, much ballyhooed, has already proven its value as he has gotten Greg Oden several touches, he has shown players little moves they can do to enhance their effectiveness, and so forth. His teaching has been extremely valuable.

He also can still play a bit. There is a reason he is the last man standing from the Fab 5.

But that is the problem, too...he was part of the Fab 5, a reference that is probably lost on a great number of NBA fans. In basketball terms, Howard is old. His value now lies in practice, in teaching veteran type things, and in short stints off the bench against second line players. He is not, at this point in his career, a starter-quality player.

By the time the stating line-up was read off, it looked like another poor start. Joel Przybilla, Howard, Nicolas Batum and Steve Blake all get their points by playing off other players. Only Brandon Roy is really a point producer in that line-up.

At the same time, while Przybilla and Batum are strong defenders, the other three are not strong enough defensively to match up with a high scoring team like the Jazz starters.

It did not help when 54 seconds into the game Batum went down with an injury and would not return. In came Travis Outlaw. this was both good and bad.

When he is in Super-Trout mode, Outlaw can carry the team. He is very capable of 10-15 point quarters. Scratch that, he is capable of 10-15 point 5-minute outbursts. He is also capable of going 3-9 and having 10 points for the he did on this one.

Nor was Roy on his game in the first half, ending the first quarter with more turnovers than shots attempted.

This just in; Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer and Andrei Kirilinko are good enough to destroy a Blazer team that is without LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, and Rudy Fernandez unless Roy, Outlaw and Andre Miller score in bunches.

It did not help watching Blake try to defend Williams. I would not really call it defense. Maybe Blake-fense. And his Blake-fense on Williams showed why Williams is going to put up some huge numbers this year.

It is not just that Blake is not fast or agile enough to keep up with Williams. Honestly, how many players in the NBA are? Short answer; not very many. The problem is, he does not have the anticipation skills to impede Williams in any meaningful way, yet he consistently tried to body up on Williams, only to get torched again and again and again.

While on the subject of defense, this just in; Jarron Collins against Boozer is a mis-match, and not in Collins' favor. Strongly dislike him or hate him, there is no denying that Boozer is a beast on the court and he clearly showed the Blazers will need Aldridge to step up his defensive game if they want to stay ahead of the Jazz this season.

There is not a whole lot of point to dissecting this game. The players both teams threw on the floor for significant sections of the game clearly illustrated this was not a meaningful game. If Portland has Jerryd Bayless, Dante Cunningham, Jarron Collins, and Juwan Howard on the floor together for more than 30 seconds at a time this year, it means either the game was won quite early by the Portland studs or else the Blazers are headed for the lottery.

And while I do not follow the Jazz all that closely, I would say the same thing about Matthews, Fesenko, Dupree and Koufos. Nothing against them as players, but they are not the guys Utah wins with.

What this game was valuable for was as a study tool. The Blazers have a tremendously talented roster. Roy, Aldridge, Outlaw, Andre Miller, Fernandez, and Martell Webster all have the ability to score well into the teens. Oden might be added to that mix if his pre-season play is any indication.

Przybilla and Batum provide above average defense, Aldridge is getting there, and Oden looks like he has a chance to be a game-changer on defense this year.

Yet with all that talent, Portland can still put combinations on the floor that are not going to be effective.

Look again at the starting line-up; Przybilla might get you 5 points in a game, Howard another nickel, Batum another nickel, Roy 20+ and Blake roughly 10 if they are full-time players. You are not going to win many games with a team that is going to score 45 points but is not tough enough defensively to hold the team to 44 or less.

Yeah, I know...pre-season, blah blah blah.

The point stands. With all the talent at their disposal, Portland is capable of putting line-ups on the floor of players who regularly play that will lose games. In bunches.

Of course, they are also capable of putting out line-ups that will win games in bunches.

And that is where we get to Coach Nate McMillan.

As important as Roy, Aldridge, Oden, Miller, Webster, Outlaw, and Batum are to the Blazers chances this year, the defining factor might be McMillan.

Somehow, some way, he has to find the right combinations of players to provide enough scoring punch combined with solid defense. He has to find that combination not just for the starters but also for the bench.

People have been talking about Oden having earned the starting job with his strong play and lingering antipathy towards Blake combined with the exciting tools Miller brings to the table have led to the same argument there. But I am going to argue that starting the same guys as last year is a better move.

They have built some chemistry together. Never underestimate the sum being greater than the parts when you know how a teammate will react to any given situation. With Roy and Aldridge creating, there are enough shots created for Blake from distance, Batum from the corner, and Przybilla off pick and rolls. Put Przybilla, Blake or Batum on the bench and their inability to create their own shots limits their effectiveness.

At the same time, Aldridge and Roy are going to dominate the shots in the starting line-up. Putting in Oden or Miller is going to minimize their potency.

It is not that they are better or worse as players, it has to do with how they fit together. Steve Blake hanging out by the 3-point line keeping defenders from sagging on those spectacular Roy drives is a good thing. It makes Roy better and makes Blake better.

Blake hanging out by the 3 point line with the ball in his hands while the other players try to figure out how to get open? Not so good.

By the same token, Miller has a similar game to Roy but does not have the distance shooting capabilities, which allows his man to sag and clog the lane. So despite being a better offensive player than Blake, playing in the starting line-up could potentially make Miller, Blake, and even Roy worse even while playing with greater talent.

As has been pointed out, there are ways around this. Drop Webster on the side of the court with Roy and nobody is sagging off Webster. Yet this still does not seem to make the best use of Millers talent.

It is figuring out how to maximize the tools at his disposal that will determine whether McMillan guides this team to the dizzying heights they are capable of or produces a disappointing season.

Having watched him for several years, both with the Sonics and now the Blazers, I have little doubt that he will do a great job. McMillan is a tremendous coach who has always seemed to get more from his players than seemed possible. I look for that to continue.

Now to get the taste of the Jazz game out of my mouth...


What can you learn in the pre-season?

Lase season, the Blazers were done in by two things in the post-season; first, they were not physical enough and second, when they absolutely had to score they could not do so.
So as this pre-season gets rolling, they have several questions to answer. Will LaMarcus Aldridge turn into the dominating defender that showed up in flashes? Will Travis Outlaw find a home as a back-up power forward? Will the Greg Oden Portland drafted return or will we still see the walking wounded coming back from micro-fracture surgery?
Obviously there are more questions, but there is a mantra that you hear over and over from good teams.
"There is only so much you can learn from pre-season".
There are things you can learn, however. Here are some examples.
Oden spins on Spencer Hawes, leaves him searching for his jock strap, and throws down a thunderous jam. Now, deep in the regular season, you will still be excited, but it is in pre-season you learn to suppress the "YYYYYYYYYYYYYYYeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssss!" scream accompanied by a double fist pump.
It can be quite awkward trying to explain you truly are thrilled by the opportunity to step up and do more than your share due to the staff reductions just announced that you missed because you had a radio headphone discreetly tucked into your ear.
So pre-season is a good time to get your surreptitious listening skills fine-tuned.