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.