Preface: For Portland Trailblazer fans like me the 2009-10 season started with tremendous optimism. Every season we were told to lower our expectations, that the team was too young and inexperienced to make much progress. Yet season after season the team added double digit totals to the win column. They made it to the playoffs last year. They even won a couple games in the playoffs.
But then the season got off to a rugged start. Nicolas Batum went down to injury. No problem, Martell Webster is the better offensive player, and his defense has improved so we all thought it was a minor set-back. Greg Oden moved into the starting line-up and Andre Miller arrived.
Soon we had three new starters in the line-up with Oden, Webster and Miller replacing Joel Przybilla, Batum, and Steve Blake. Nobody doubted it was an overall talent upgrade, but all the new faces and roles had the team struggling.
Ugly home losses to teams like the Grizzlies, where the home team got wrecked by a massive 21-0 run, had us wondering how long it would take for this team to gel. Then, just as they started coming around, players started to go down.
Key 4th quarter performer Travis Outlaw went down. Oden went down. Przybilla went down. Rudy Fernandez went down. LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy both missed games.
Somehow, the Blazers kept chugging along, winning plenty and losing more than we expected in the preseason. Everyone stepped up from time to time. Eventually, a trade was made to bring Marcus Camby to the Blazers for Outlaw and Blake, both shoring up the center position and lightening what would have been a major playing time crunch.
The Blazers closed the season strong, achieving the 6th seed...lower than it would have been if they were healthy, but six slots higher than it should have been. We as fans were pumped, excited, ready to win a series against a team that many NBA fans still believe is soft and therefore exploitable in the Phoenix Suns.
As an aside...the Suns have changed. Beware, whoever faces them in the second round...these are not your Daddys' Suns.
We were ready for this series to start. Sure enough, even with Roy out for at least the first round of the playoffs, the Blazers came out in game one and played a classic Blazers game. Tough, inspired defense, bit step-up games from second-line players like Batum and Webster, and a will-not-quit attitude. This was the team that over achieved by over a dozen games.
But then something happened. The new Suns attitude reared its ugly head. They came out in game two and kicked the Blazers' teeth in, dominating them in every phase of the game. No problem. I actually had predicted it at work (though to be fair, my exact statement was, "Am I the only one who thinks the Suns are going to blow us out by 20?" If I had said 30, it would have been impressive).
That was not a big deal. The Blazers won their one game in Phoenix. Everything was set up perfect. Portland would win a close-fought game three, lose game four, then take games five and six to score the upset.
Except the Suns did not realize that was the plan. What they did to Portland in game three bordered on felonious assault. They not only kicked in the Blazers teeth, they added a few groin shots as the Blazers lay on the ground wondering what hit them. The Suns came into the Rose Garden and showed everyone the late-season road blow-out wins in Utah and Denver were n flukes, that they are a team that can not only win any time, any place, against any team, they can win those games handily.
The atmosphere leading into game four was somber. The series score might be only two games to one, but Blazer fans were wondering not just if they would not win another game, but if they would avoid getting blown out two more times.
Rewind: 1990: Kevin Duckworth, the Blazers' center, broke his hand in the first round against the Mavericks and was unavailable to the Blazers for Game 7 against the Spurs and their amazing David Robinson. Then, with everyone on the floor warming up, the fans were treated to a surprise and one of the greatest moments for fans...the unexpected entry of Duck.
Just thinking of that moment brings chills. It is the Blazers' version of Walt Frazier for the Knicks.
The Pre-game. My friend and I get to the game about 25 minutes early, settle into our seats. Their is a subdued atmosphere to the place. It is almost as Blazer fans have been completely demoralized by the back to back spankings the Suns laid on us.
13:00 to game time. The familiar music hits. The Blazers are about to be shown getting ready to leave their locker room for the playing surface. We casually glance at the Jumbotron as it pans over the Blazers...and suddenly the mood, the atmosphere, everything changes. The panning stops on Brandon Roy. And he is not wearing a suit...he is wearing warm ups.
Really? Can it be? Is there any chance he could...play? No way...no way...not possible...what the...the scoreboard now shows Fernandez on the bench and Roy starting!
The Garden is maybe a third full when they hit the floor for warm-ups, but suddenly the crowd is on its feet, applauding the players...well, okay, applauding the unbelievable, unforeseen entrance of Roy in playing gear.
Now there is energy in the building. Now we know he might play. And if he plays, then we win. Not might win. Not will keep it close. We win.
It is that feeling that defines why Roy is great. If you look at his numbers for the game, they were anything but phenomenal. 10 points on 10 shots is pedestrian. But his presence, that changed everything. It changed the way the game was played.
In a post-game interview, Aldridge was asked what it changed and you could hear the smile in his voice as he said, "He came in the game and I got the first open shot I have had all series."
A lot of Blazer fans have been down on Aldridge because defense like that pictured above has made his numbers minuscule. Personally, I think a lot of the blame goes to guys like Fernandez who have not made themselves available for his passes and/or have not made their shots. If three guys are guarding one, two guys should be open.
Be that as it may, with Roy back in the line-up, Blazer fans had hope. And when he entered the game for the first time, suddenly you just knew it was going to be a real series.
The Suns are still the favorites. They have two games left at home, the Blazers just one. But this was a moment worthy of memory.
I was not there when Duck made his unexpected return, but the impact that moment had on those great Blazer teams of the late 80s and early 90s went far beyond his modest stat-line against the Admiral.
Roy coming back from surgery in eight days to life the spirits and morale of an entire organization and sports town will have the same effect.
Obviously I hope the Blazer pull off the improbable and replicate the '77 run, though I more reasonably expect them to be done long before the finals. But the heart shown by Roy, the mind-set to come out and play...that will be there when this team is healed and whole and holding up the trophy a few times.
Thank you, Mr. Roy, for giving me my own Duckworth moment.
The Phoenix Suns are prohibitive favorites to defeat the Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs.
Lets get that off our chest first thing. The players who will be on the floor throughout the series have produced more effectively and more cohesively for the Suns than the Blazers.
In Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash they have the two best players who will appear on the court. In Grant Hill and Jason Richardson they have guys who are above average secondary players that can light up a score sheet.
In Channing Frye, Louis Amundsen, Leandro Barbossa and Jared Dudley they have guys who know their roles and take pride in them.
The bottom line is the Suns record is no accident. They got the three seed on the last day of the season, but they put themselves in a position to get that seed by winning tough, important games in tough situations like Utah on the road when both teams were fighting for high seeding.
Any Blazer fan who looks at this series as anything other than a very probably second consecutive first round exit is delusional.
At the same time, any Blazer fan who does not have at least some hope that the upset is likely enough to induce them to purchase tickets for the playoffs and have a fair amount of optimism they will get to see the Blazers in Game 6 has not been paying attention.
The NBA season is a learning experience. It takes time for players, no matter how talented, to learn to play together. This was evidenced early in the season when a Blazer team that was more talented than last seasons' 54 win edition was struggling, giving up bad losses on their home floor.
Part of the answer was they were struggling to adapt to a different playing style, to a different mix of players on the floor.
Entering the playoffs, that is happening again. The addition of Marcus Camby turned Portland into a better team. The loss of Brandon Roy makes them worse...but presents an opportunity.
Lest anyone misunderstand what comes next, let's get this out there. The Trailblazers with Brandon Roy are vastly better than the Blazers without Brandon Roy.
With that said, arguably the best line-up the Blazers currently possess does not necessarily include Roy. Camby, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster and Andre Miller is a team that can give any team in the NBA fits.
Defensively, they are quick, agile, aggressive, and interchangeable. Camby calls sets, has the agility and willingness to cover everything from a post-up center down to brief periods of at least contesting the small, quick guards. Under his tutelage, Aldridge is showing flashes of being a superior defender who plays off the Camby style and has, with the exception of the shot-blocking, the same set of capabilities, though not at the same level.
Batum and Webster both get up on their man, switch with little to no drop-off, and this season have shown a consistent dedication to defense.
This unit is capable of putting out stretches of defensive coverage that can hold even explosive offensive teams to sub-20 quarters or multiple minute stretches of scorelessness. Nor are they hapless offensively.
Blazer fans regularly label Aldridge as soft because he does not post up as often as they would like. I reject that assessment. He knows his strengths, plays to them, and has been working at his post game, showing improvement from season to season, month to month, and at times game to game.
Last year, I would have said trying to run the offense through him against Stoudemire would be a disaster. This season, he has improved to the point where it is something Portland can do. Aldridge has improved to the point where he commands the double team which opens up Webster and Batum to stretch the defense with their very capable outside shooting.
The problem is, that line-up cannot play 48 minutes. So what are the Suns weaknesses the Blazers can exploit over the course of the game?
Frye, Amundson, Dragic and Dudley. Please note; I have respect for their games. I am a big Channing Frye guy to the point where I encourage you to check out his blog. I want him to tear it up against every team except Portland.
But they are the weak link for the Suns. They do not have a history of producing in the playoffs. (The cynic might point out Hill has as many second round appearances as this Blazer team, but I have too much respect for his game and do not think that is his fault.)
They are exploitable. Dudley and Amundson are not the type of players who dominate a game so much as fill a role. Those roles can be stifled which creates an opportunity for the Blazers to steal a game here and there. When they are going good, they make the Suns great if not unbeatable, but they are less likely to show greatness game after game after game like Stoudemire, Nash, Richardson, Hill and Barbosa.
Of course, the problem for the Blazers is that all the negatives I just pointed out about the Suns point to some pretty important guys for the Blazers; Batum, Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless...
All of which means the Blazer need several things to break right in order to pull off the upset.
Aldridge needs to have the oft-cited "breakout series" where he dials up 25+ points a night, as does Miller. The second tier guys like Batum, Webster, Bayless and Fernandez need to be the players they are in flashes rather than the players they are that keep them fighting for time and recognition.
Webster, Fernandez and Batum in particular are vital. These are three guys who, when hitting their shots, make the Blazers nearly unbeatable when combined with the stifling defense the Blazer line-up referenced above is capable of playing. When they are engaged in the game, hitting their shots, and involved there is no team in the NBA that they are not capable of beating or even blowing out.
That defines the series. Not necessarily the play of Nash, Stoudemire, Richardson, Hill, Aldridge and Miller...but the play of guys like Frye and Fernandez.
If the second tier players of one team are more consistent than the production seen by the other, that decides the series.
As a Blazer fan, I dearly want the upset. I want to see the Blazer defense slow the Suns, guys like Webster to have those scoring explosions we sporadically see, and the Blazers squeeze into the second round.
They have the talent to do it. they have the will.
At the end of the day, whichever team wins this series is the one I want to see in the NBA Finals. I am fully aware it is a long-shot for the Blazers. I am just grateful that they have a team talented enough that, even if it is unlikely, it is at least a remote, remote, remote possibility.
I hope this series goes seven games in a call-back to the classic battles of the Kevin Johnson/Dan Majerle Suns verse the Clyde Drexler/Terry Porter Blazers. I want to see 7 games decided in the final minute with clutch shots from unlikely players. I want to see the upset.
The recipe for the Blazers is simple. Pound the ball inside to Aldridge and play off the double teams to generate open looks which their role players must convert. Dominate the boards, play stifling defense, and hope Nash, Stoudemire, Richardson and Hill forget that is who they are and play like mortals.
Throughout his long and very successful career Don Nelson has received a lot of criticism from time to time. Much of it has been directed at his unorthodox use of smaller line-ups. Some has been directed at him for never winning a title.
This past Wednesday, Blazer fans directed a lot of criticism at him for wanting to put Devean George back into the game.
In many ways, it was a silly argument.
Portland had long demonstrated that winning this game was of at best tertiary importance...their starting line-up was primarily sick, injured, or playing a modest nine minutes (except Nicolas Batum who got a lot of run.)
At one point Portland had a whopping four years of NBA experience on the floor; Rudy Fernandez with two years and Nicolas Batum with another two. Joining them on the floor were rookies Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, and Patty Mills.
If Portland was not taking the game serious, why should Nelson?
It is to his credit that he did take the game serious. More important, he took the health of his players serious.
When Devean George fouled out, he (rightfully) argued that it was dangerous to the health of his bench players to insert them.
He whined. He begged. He pleaded. He had the veins on his neck popping out as he yelled at the referees.
He ignored the raucous and prolonged booing of the crowd. He ignored the rather sarcastic music selections played by the Rose Garden sound crew. He ignored the insistence of the referees. And he did it all for the right reason.
He was trying to protect his players.
It was no different than Coach McMillan yanking Marcus Camby from the line-up moments before tip-off or playing Andre Miller just nine minutes...enough to maintain his consecutive game streak, no time for injury. No different than him riding players like Dante Cunningham, Jeff Pendergraph, Patty Mills, and Travis Diener for heavy minutes in a game that was meaningless yet undecided.
Wait...yes, it was different. It was easy to tell that Chris Hunter could barely walk. Ronnie Turiaf looked better...but not much. And any but the most casual fan knows Anthony Morrow is far too talented not to use unless he is legitimately injured.
Nelson was doing what more coaches should do. He was trying to protect the health of his players.
I am going to also somewhat defend the referees in this situation, too. They were bound by rule to do what they did. Fair enough, one could...and perhaps should...that this would have been a fine time to bend the rules and not make the ridiculous three foul sequence take place. But that is neither here nor there.
What the referees did that I appreciated is they did not assess Nelson technical fouls for his arguing. This was not an objection to the officiating or showing them up. This was a man fighting hard not to win a game but to protect his players.
I am not going to lie. Meaningless though the game may have been in the standings, I still wanted to see a Blazers victory.
But not at the cost of a serious injury to another team's player.
So here is hoping the fans give credit where credit is due. Love him or hate him, people should recognize that Don Nelson is a guy who genuinely, legitimately cares about his players. And that is something worthy of a cheer.
The last couple games have been pretty rough for Portland Trailblazer fans.
First, there was the debacle of the Dallas game where the referees had a huge impact on the game. They did not decide it, but they were a major, major factor with a huge number of blown calls that certainly put the Blazers in a difficult position they could not overcome.
We were aghast when, as we debated whether the call was flagrant one or two and they ruled it was merely out of bounds...or the way we debated which of the fouls committed against Andre Miller was going to be called only to see the Mavericks awarded the ball instead...or how Jason Terry twice elbowed Nicolas Batum in the face and Batum was called for the foul...or the way...well, I could go on for a long time.
Then there was the Laker game where Derek Fisher put a shoulder block on Martell Webster to free up Kobe Bryant for a three...no call, then Andre Miller got HAMMERED, no call, then Bryant charged into a clearly set LaMarcus Aldridge and Aldridge got called for the foul.
It becomes frustrating to be a fan when you feel like not only are you not getting the breaks but that Tim Donaghy was a far better, more accurate official than the jokes you are seeing play the part in important, franchise destiny affecting games.
Tuesday against the Thunder it started much the same. Aldridge was fouled by not one but two Thunder players, no foul was called, and at the other end a far less egregious violation put the Thunder on the free throw line.
It can cause a lack of interest in a sporting events to believe it is being dishonestly officiated. Things are or are not called fouls not based on whether they are a violation but rather based on who would be affected.
An example would be late in the game when Kevin Durant, with four fouls, clearly commits a foul and it is called on Serge Ibaka because he is nearby and they do not want to put it on Durant.
Flatly stated, that is cheating.
It affects the game's outcome. Ibaka may have a nice career...but Durant can and does win games with his talent.
When you experience an extended series of plays or games where it looks and feels like your favorite team is getting shafted, it can make it more difficult to enjoy the game.
Until that special moment.
With Brandon Roy out with yet another injury, there was quite a debate over who needed to step up. Aldridge, Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Batum were all mentioned. And to some extent, all of them did.
But it was import Marcus Camby who did something I have never personally experienced.
I have seen more impressive statistical games than his 30 point, 13 rebound performance. I have seen games where players have had more impact than their statistics show. But I have seldom seen one alter the course of a season.
There is little doubt the officiating of late has been in the heads of the Blazers. After picking up virtually no technical fouls all season, they combined for six in the last three games. They were barking at the officials, showing frustration, and facing a hole against the Thunder in a key game.
A win here put the Blazers in the driver's seat to finish in sixth place, a loss put them pretty firmly in the eight hole.
A first round date with the Lakers is a recipe for a first round exit. And regardless of reasons...last year's inexperience, this year's injuries, etc., a history of first round exits soon becomes the proverbial 500 pound gorilla.
The Nuggets, Mavericks, or Jazz will not be any cakewalk, either...regardless of who they face the Blazers will be an underdog long shot to win the first round. But they have a better chance against any other possible opponent than they do against the Lakers and they also needed to win a big game on their home floor for confidence reasons.
And Marcus Camby made it happen. He scored early. He scored late. He passed well. He directed the defense. he hit the floor.
It was such an impressive performance that in a late time-out the crowd did something I had not seen in Portland before.
The entire time-out had the Rose Garden rocking with a "Marcus Camby (clap) (clap) (clap) Marcu Camby "chant. It was loud. It was long. It was heart-felt.
It was a show of appreciation for a guy who, on a night Roy was out with injury and Aldridge on the bench with foul trouble, with Fernandez disappearing and Miller not getting any calls despite mass contact every time he penetrated the lane, showed the heart and dedication to winning that make this team, if an underdog, a reasonable one.
This is a team that, if it defends like it can, and shows the heart Camby showed, the scrappiness and dedication, has the potential to get out of the first round.
If players like Webster and Aldridge and Fernandez play with the heart, fire and passion that had the crowd screaming his name, the Camby could be the move that moves Portland from also round "team that nobody wants to play...oh, wait, they bowed out in five" to a team that has at least a chance.
And it also is the type of moment that shows us why we watch the games. His performance and that of Durant across the aisle were a genuine pleasure to watch. They created memories that last long after the near-inevitable bitterness of another early round exit from the playoffs has faded.