Blazers Are Burning
The hottest team in the NBA this side of the Boston Celtics doesn't reside in Phoenix or San Antonio, but in Portland, where the Trail Blazers weren't expected to be this good - okay maybe that's a stretch, this average - this fast.
The Trail Blazers were supposed to terrible this season, then really competitive next season, when Greg Oden - the No. 1 pick, the franchise - was expected to come back after being shelved for microfracture surgery (although there are some murmurs around the league that Oden is ahead of schedule on his rehab and might come back before the season ends).
But Portland is a surprising 12-12 after winning its seventh straight game last night, an impressive 116-105 road win over the increasingly confounding Denver Nuggets (more on them later).
Brandon Roy scored a team-high 26 points but the game played out like the revenge of Steve Blake, the one-time Nugget (albeit briefly) who scored 12 points after being shut out when the teams met last month. The Blazers also got big nights out of Channing Frye (20 points) and Travis Outlaw (17 points).
During this current seven-game run, Roy is averaging 24.1 points, Outlaw is adding 18.9 points and the Blazers have defeated Denver, Golden State and Utah (twice). And, the most impressive part of this latest run is that LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the best young big men in the league, has missed the past four games with a plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
Blake, one of the elder statesmen on the Blazers at age 27, has held off Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez and Taurean Green to be the starter in Portland. He is providing steady play and a consistent shot from three-point range, where he is second on the team at 39.4 percent (James Jones is shooting 61.1 percent). He has quietly been one of the best dollar-for-dollar free agent pickups from last summer.
Denver tried to keep Blake, but he wanted to return to Portland, taking less guaranteed money to be with the Trail Blazers, the team he signed with after leaving the Washington Wizards in free agency in 2005.
Blake played great in the second half of that season, but got shipped to Milwaukee and later Denver after that. Still, his wife Kristen and young son Nicholas loved the place and he had planned on residing there permanently. Blake's dad, Richard, who used to drive up from Miami to see his son play at Maryland and for the Wizards, even moved out to the Pacific Northwest.
"We love it up there," Blake said when the Blazers visited Verizon Center last month.
But considering how well Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard has assembled the team, there is plenty more to love about Portland.
The prevailing opinion going into the season was that Oden's injury would be a blessing in disguise because the Blazers could have a dreadful season, then have two lottery picks join the team in 2008-09 - Oden and take your pick, Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose.
Rip City, the catch phrase during the Blazers' successful NBA Finals runs in 1978 and the early 1990s, was about to be reborn. Surprisingly, the Blazers have already rallied into contention. As the prepare for tonight's game against the New Orleans Hornets, Portland is just a game behind Golden State for the eighth-best record in the Western Conference.
"That's why I signed, to play with these players," Blake said. "We got players who will be good in the future, but at the same time, we're doing everything we can to be good now. We're on the right track. Eventually, we'll be real, real good."
Portland Coach Nate McMillan understands that the Blazers are rebuilding but he is highly intense and competitive. He doesn't care if he's hitting the floor with a stocked, veteran-laden team or an AAU squad. "Everybody that's really important knows it [is a rebuilding situation], but winning is what we're here for," McMillan said. "I try to continue to motivate them. It's going to be a crapshoot every night. I'm in my 3rd year with Portland, you want to win; they want to win. Everything has to go perfect for us to win and it's tough to look at the record and see that you're still rebuilding. We've got to be patient because of where the organization is."
McMillan knows that with a young team, the Blazers could bottom out as quickly as they as have risen this season. But the process is a little easier when the Trail Blazers have two building blocks in Roy and Aldridge, the super sophomores who haven't shown any signs of slumping. Roy and Aldridge have had to deal with being the focus of opposing teams' defenses this season. But they displayed tremendous character and ability as rookies "which is why we chose to give them this team," said McMillan, who has watched the franchise transition out of the Jail Blazer era. "We saw the potential of these two guys for the future to get better. We felt these two young guys, how they carry themselves, you're looking at a Malone, Stockton . . . We also have a No. 1 lottery pick. The three of them, that's the core."
Roy, the reigning rookie of the year, had a mini-slump to start this month, but he has put that behind him. This season, he has improved in almost every statistical category (18.7 points, 5.4 assists) and has grown into the team leader - something that he had begun to do last season when he challenged veteran Zach Randolph to step up his game after Randolph offered criticisms for everyone else on the team.
(Side note: Isn't it funny that when Isiah Thomas acquires a player in a trade, his former team gets better - or at least better than the Knicks - when he's gone? Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Stephon Marbury and on and on.)
Aldridge, who along with Roy is looking to challenge Howard and Memphis' Rudy Gay for the league's most improved player honors, is having a breakout campaign (18.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds). He's drawing comparisons to former Blazer and Bullet Rasheed Wallace for his graceful offensive game - not Wallace's sometimes disgraceful temper. Aldridge can score from anywhere 16 feet and in, and if Chicago Bulls general manager could take back one move, trading Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas might be at the top of that list.
But the Blazers are more than Roy and Aldridge. Portland is finally getting consistent contributions from two preps-to-pros stars who appear to be figuring it out.
Outlaw, the 23rd pick of the 2004 out of Starkville High (Miss.), has supposedly been a breakout-ready-to-happen for past two or so years. People often raved about his athleticism and leaping ability but Outlaw managed to be more hype than anything. Now, he appears to have game. The 23-year-old is making Pritchard look wise for signing him to a three-year, $12-million extension last summer, averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds - off the bench, no less.
Webster, the sixth pick of the 2005 draft out of Seattle Prep and a former AAU teammate of McMillan's son, is chipping in with 11.2 points and a team-best 36 three-pointers - solid numbers though he won't make anyone in Portland forget that the organization traded the No. 3 pick in the draft (which could've yielded either Chris Paul or Deron Williams).
Word out of Portland, though, is that the Blazers are banking on Paul passing on signing a long-term contract extension with the New Orleans Hornets, which would leave them with an opportunity to steal him in a few years. Talk about the rich getting richer. . .
For now, the ball is in Blake's hands and no matter how the season ends, the Blazers are poised for an extremely promising future, sooner than later.
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