Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Genius Moment with Dr. Jack Ramsay

As I stood with executive producer Scott Zachry conducting a rare interview before the Utah game, I had to stop and catch my breath for a moment as I realized how fortunate I was to be in the presence of a Trail Blazers coaching legend and Hall of Famer, Jack Ramsay. The man who once defined basketball as “a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, counterpointed by daring and imaginative flights of solitary brilliance” is just as eloquent, dynamic and commanding today as he was when he led the 1977 World Champion Trail Blazers to the only title in team history.

After Ramsay fondly described Bobby Gross as a player who “never asked for a big shot but always delivered” and Terry Porter as an “unselfish, team dedicated guy” who was “meant to be a coach”, the conversation turned to his thoughts on the current Trail Blazers. Clearly still an avid fan, Ramsay said, “It’s a young team, a highly skilled team and they’re still developing…I like the direction, I like the leadership that Nate and his staff has given this team. I like everything about it really. They are clutch, tenacious, and they are a team. The skies the limit.”

Without missing a beat, Ramsay grew much more specific describing Portland’s All-Star. “Brandon Roy is a special player. I noticed in his game this year, he’s taking the ball to the basket and finishing better this season. He said that’s what he worked on over the summer and it makes him so difficult to play. So now he finishes with his left hand as well as his right.” Three points Ramsay for being able to point out a detail that has won a number of games for the Blazers this season. He is just as sharp and insightful today as he was when he coached the team 32 years ago, and he certainly commands the same presence. So much so that Shavlik Randolph, who was working out nearby stopped to listen to his wisdom and later called the moment “moving.” I would definitely agree.

Before he left to assume his radio position for ESPN, I had to ask the original Confucius (with all due respect to my partner Mike Rice) one more question. What’s the Blazers’ X-factor?

He pondered and slowly smiled as he said, “Their team awareness. They have bought into coach Nate McMillan’s team game 100%. The fact that there are a lot of capable players on this team is only an asset if those players accept their roles. So when I watch the Trail Blazers play, the starters come out of the game without looking at the clock or without looking at the coach. They know they are going to come out. The reserves know they are going to get in the game and when, and for generally for how long and they all accept that.”

As I thanked him, one word came to mind. Genius. I have no doubt why this man led his team to a championship.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Double Props for Aldridge

November 30, 2008:

The Blazers, coaches and broadcasters have been stuck on the team plane in Detroit for the past 3 hours waiting for the weather to clear so we can fly to New York. Still with plenty of time on my hands after wearing down my cell phone battery, eating my second meal out of boredom, and taking some serious grief from Ricey about my “far-too-large-handbag”, I turned my attention to work. I realized that for the second time this season, one of the best veterans in the NBA gave props to LaMarcus Aldridge’s game. Here’s how the story unfolds:

Before the season started San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen said Aldridge was the one player in the Western Conference most likely to have a breakout year. And now before the Blazers battled the Pistons in Auburn Hills, it’s Rasheed Wallace. When asked about the matchup between the two players, Detroit Head Coach Michael Curry said, “Sheed really likes Aldridge. He thinks he’s got great footwork, plays both ends of the court and scores inside and out. He’s a young guy with the total package and you know if Sheed is even talking about him, he’s got to be pretty good.”

Ever since Wallace left Portland and Aldridge came in, the two have been coined “Big Sheed” and “Little Sheed” for their effortless high-release jumpers that are nearly impossible to block.

I caught up with LA post free throws that he always shoots last in warm-ups, and asked what it means to have yet another veteran respect his game. He said, “It’s an honor. When I was in college, I watched film on him (Wallace) when he played in Portland. He has that high release and gets to the baseline so I tried to model my game after him.”

By the end of the first quarter, the score was 25 to 13 Blazers with 13 of those points belonging to Aldridge on 6 for 8 shooting while Wallace was 0 for 2. After the game, with one win down and four to go on this five-game road swing, the Blazers shot 52.2%, with LaMarcus leading the team with 27 points. And in the locker room after the contest, despite the fact that LA was the dominant 4-man in the game, Aldridge said he didn’t mind the moniker “Little Sheed” because “He’s a great player, a hall of famer…he’s one of the best big shooters around, so I don’t mind the comparison.”

Complete with a humble attitude, Aldridge’s game continues to grow and it is being noticed by proven veterans around the league...and beyond. Just like he watched Wallace in college, I’m sure there are plenty of “Little LA’s” out there who are now trying to emulate Aldridge’s game too.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Silence Is Golden

On the bus from the plane to the hotel in New Orleans, Mike Rice leaned over to me and said “It sounds like a loss”, despite the fact Portland had beaten Miami earlier that night for their second straight road win. Last season, the silence he was describing came after a tough loss, when no one is in the mood to talk, especially as the clock slowly moves somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. and the team is still traveling to the next city for the next game. Tonight, as the deep backcourt combined for 60 points, the silence is more like mission accomplished. The Blazers arrived in Miami, played hard, won the game and left, exactly as planned.

The good news is that team’s attitude is not cocky, but confident. Summing up the night, Brandon Roy said, “It feels good to get a road win, we’re playing some good teams, but we expect to win.” The great news is that the Blazers confidence is steadily growing and it’s apparent on this first long road trip of the season. Some of their confidence stems from racking up W’s on the road, but it’s also a growing sense of trust and expectations developing on the team.

After Travis Outlaw’s performance in Orlando two nights earlier, which sealed the first road win of the season for the second year in a row, Roy said, “I tell Travis everyday that ‘you having a good game is not good game, that’s standard for us now. We need you to be good off the bench every night.’ He understands that and he’s shooting the ball lights out right now.”

Outlaw defers and gives credit for his success to his teammates for getting him “open looks”. He went on, “Everybody stepped up, it wasn’t just me… LA did a nice job down low, Channing came in and hit some shots, Rudy did really well, it wasn’t just me.”

Combine a deep lineup with the team’s trust and unselfish respect for each other’s skills, and you have a Blazers squad that knows they will win games collectively. According to Channing Frye, “Everybody steps up, man to get these wins. With this team, you never know what’s going to happen with the minutes, but everybody has to be ready….my first three shots didn’t go in (in Orlando), and last year I would have been trippin, but now it’s like my number is called and I can go out there and do what Joel does and if its not my night (offensively) Brandon and Lamarcus and Steve will step up, so it’s like ‘what can I do to get this team going and create space and do something other than score.’”

At the root of their confidence is trust. Frye remarked, “I trust them a lot and they trust me that I’m going to make and unselfish decisions.” LaMarcus Aldridge agrees, “If we stick together, anything can happen…I think everybody can make big shots and it shows we have a total team.”

Sometimes, silence is golden.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is 41 Wins a Magic Number?

November 7, 2008

In 2005-2006, the Utah Jazz won 41 games, barely missing the playoffs. A season later they went to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the San Antonio Spurs, who ultimately became the 2007 NBA champs.

41 wins sound familiar? Last night in Utah, Coach Nate McMillan was asked whether his Blazers’ squad, fresh off the same 41 wins last season had the juice to make the same leap as the Jazz. McMillan laughed, “I hope so. I certainly hope so,” And then he added more seriously, “It’s a long season. I don’t think at that time the West was as deep or talented as it is right now. That’s so far ahead, but if it happens hallelujah! Right now we’re just trying to get better and figure out how to compete in the West.”

Minutes later I posed the same question to Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan who didn’t make any predictions, but had encouraging words about the Blazers. The ever classy and stoic Sloan said, “They have a terrific team. They‘ve got the whole package. Young players, size, big people, guys who can shoot the ball and they’re very well coached. We were lucky to beat them one time last year.”

Utah edged out Portland 103 to 96 in the final minute of the game, but the next time these teams face each other in Utah on December 11, the Blazers will be ready for a rematch. And who knows, maybe they will square off with the Jazz in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. After all, 41-41 teams have done it before.

Friday, October 24, 2008

October Previews

October 24, 2008

Preseason in the NBA is like previews at a movie theater. Coaches get a glimpse of what’s to come before the main attraction starts. A month ago, I asked Nate McMillan what he was looking for throughout exhibition play and his response was twofold; he wanted to evaluate the Blazers’ Inside Out game and condition a defensive mindset.

Seven pre-season games and four wins later, with a Trail Blazers squad more ready than ever to start the regular season, I asked McMillan to evaluate October previews. Starting with offense, he said, “Teams have given us different looks. We still have to learn to play off each other in terms of spacing, where to go, and reacting to teams when we drop the ball inside. It’s an adjustment for LaMarcus. Last year he was pretty much the only guy who was double-teamed in the post, so he played with the ball. This year, with Greg inside, LaMarcus needs to learn to play off the ball and where to rotate.”

The developing game in the paint is a great step forward for a team that, last season, won or lost games based on perimeter shooting. McMillan is happy to have options in the paint, claiming, “The fact is, we can go down there to several guys, Greg, LaMarcus, Brandon, Travis. If they are going to give us single coverage, we like that. If they are going to double, we’ll have to learn to read and react.”

On the other side of the ball, McMillan believes his team has the skills to make stops, but simply needs a few more reps. He said, “We’re making the effort, but we’re not consistent with it. And the reason for that is that they aren’t conditioned to it. We have to keep conditioning ourselves to play aggressive defense - good weakside help and finishing the play with a rebound. They’re offensive minded guys and the effort is there, but sometimes you revert back to old habits…Those habits will come as we play games.”

Overall, McMillan is encouraged by the way October unfolded. “It was a good training camp,” said McMillan. “We got our work in, we’ve come out of camp healthy, everyone is ready to go and you can’t ask for more than that.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the preseason stats: The Blazers averaged 96.4 points per game on 47.1% field goal shooting, while conversely holding opponents to 91 points per game on 43.7% field goal shooting. My favorite stat of preseason play falls under hustle. The Blazers ranked 1st in the NBA in offensive boards, grabbing 33.2% of their missed shots, putting themselves in position to earn a significant number of second chance points. If the previews are any indication of the main attraction, the Blazers might be on their way to Four Stars.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blazers' Depth & Dimes

October 8, 2008:

In a rare moment when a Blazer’s game isn’t on TV, I get the privilege of being a fan, watching the game from seats in an entirely sold out Rose Garden. At the first pre-season game of the year against the Sacramento Kings, I found myself in awe of the Blazers’ depth as TV analyst Mike Rice and I watched the game (and he yelled at the refs). Coach Nate McMillan used 8 different players in 12 different rotations at the 1, 2, 3 spots alone. That’s unbelievable considering a lot of teams use an 8-man rotation total. Of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s pre-season. McMillan will tinker with the lineup all month long. But, there’s more to it.

McMillan has the luxury of doing a double take on the perimeter anytime he wants this season. Think about the guards: Olympic Silver Medalist Rudy Fernandez is a shooting guard who can play point or small forward; Olympic Select Jerryd Bayless is a point guard who can play shooting guard; All-Star Brandon Roy plays shooting guard, point and small forward. Plus, starting point guard Steve Blake owns one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the league. Now consider the 3: Martell Webster stretches any defense with his long shot, Travis Outlaw provides fire power off the bench and Nicolas Batum’s length and poise might just surprise everyone in the league this season.

I asked McMillan about his versatility at the 1,2,3 spots this morning, and he said, “Wow. I had no idea I played that many combinations. It won’t continue, but I’m glad I’ve got the options.” The question: With so many different possible rotations, how will the minutes get split? What a great “problem” for the coaches. I look forward to watching the solution, which comes complete with a pass-first attitude and a whole lot of dimes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

October 1, 2008:

WELCOME to the launch of and the very first entry of “Off the Sideline”! The NBA season is a little less than a month away and I cannot wait for another year of action to unfold, especially if it ends with a playoff run for the Blazers. With a mix of stars from a couple continents, talent running as deep as the entire bench, and an experienced coaching staff, it will happen. Since so many great stories go untold on the air, I’ll relay some of them here when I’ve got a moment “Off the Sideline”. Please check in whenever you’re in the mood for a break, and in need of a quick sports fix. Thank you for the look!