Portland has endured injuries to several key players: Brandon Roy's heel, Martell Webster's back, LaMarcus Aldridge's shoulder, Darius Miles' knee, Joel Przybilla's family jewels... last night was the first time everyone (minus Miles who is out for the season) was ready to go.
Nevertheless, the team that everyone except homer team commentator Mike Rice picked to finish dead last in the NBA is a half game out of the playoffs in one of the toughest conferences of the modern era. The press has, at various times in this young season, adored the likes of Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Sacramento, New Orleans, and the Clippers--but this morning Portland has a better record than all of them. Portland has beaten Detroit, New Jersey, the Lakers, the Clippers, Houston, and New Orleans--back when New Orleans was at the top of the standings.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to tell you their time is now or anything. This isn't one of those "nobody wants to face them in the first round of the playoffs" rants.
But this team does not suck. They are not doormats. They are not "the lowly Blazers." Beating them is an accomplishment. Losing to them is not disgraceful. Sure, they don't have the star power of a lot of teams, but it's time to recognize they have some nice pieces, they play hard, there's some cohesion, and this is a ship that's clearly headed in the right direction.
If I sound a little defensive, here's why: they're twelve for twelve. By that I mean after every Blazer win this young season, I have poked around online to see what the opposing players and coaches have to say about my team. It started out as a search for insight. Now it has become something of a joke. Every single time the opponents go out of their way to make clear: the Blazers didn't beat us. We beat ourselves.
This time, there was no Baron Davis heave to break their hearts, no Kobe Bryant magnificence to overcome.
This time, the Rockets pushed a game to its final seconds and then lamented the worst of could-have-beens. This time, they blamed themselves.
They took blame for everything from the way they started to the breakdown at the finish, when Portland rookie Brandon Roy was allowed to go all the way to the rim for the decisive late drive Wednesday night, lifting the Trail Blazers to an 89-87 victory that left the Rockets with three losses, all in the final seconds, in the first four games of the road trip.
"We killed ourselves,'' guard Rafer Alston said. "That's the bottom line."
UPDATE: Good line. Dwight Jaynes read this and e-mailed "liked 'we let brandon roy come down the lane...' yeah, pal -- a whole bunch of people are going to 'let brandon roy come down the lane' over the next several seasons..."
Look, I'm sure that, at times, the Blazers do benefit from being taken lightly. But every damn game? They'd have you believe that nothing anyone on the Blazer staff has made the slightest bit of difference. Like this is the worst team in the league, and that nearly half their schedule has, luckily, been against teams that for some reason decided to lose. All I can say is, if the Blazers are a crappy team, don't yap about it. Beat them. And you know why that's hard? One big reason is because they're buying what Nate McMillan is selling: that the team has to play hard. Jason Quick:
Juan Dixon first stripped the ball from Luther Head in the backcourt, converting the steal into a layup, then later dived two rows into the stands in pursuit of a loose ball. And Jarrett Jack sprawled onto the court after a ball, eventually tipping it off the toe of Rafer Alston, resulting in the Blazers getting the ball.
"That was my favorite play of the night," McMillan said. "That was a hustle play. . . . That's what we have to be about. That's the way we have to play."
OK, I'm taking off my Blazer fan cap now, and I'm putting down the rally towel.
On another note, last night's Portland/Houston game had a fascinating coaching decision. Blazers were up one when Zach Randolph was fouled with 0.8 seconds on the clock. Randolph made the first one. So now they're up two. What's the play?
Make the second free throw: Houston--without any timeouts--can inbound and hope to get off a heavily guarded three-pointer which, at best, could send the game into overtime (or I guess there's a tiny shot at a four-point play).
Miss the second free throw. Houston will have to grab the rebound and immediately fire a full-court Hail Mary. But if it goes in, it's the only scenario where you lose in regulation.
According to Mike Barrett, Randolph intentionally missed the second, and it worked. Blazers win by two, confetti falls from the ceiling. And I suspect it was the right call. But if Houston had made a miracle full-court three, everyone would have wondered: man, why not just make that friggin' free throw? What's so bad about overtime?