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 less...one 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.