After a lockout that lasted far too long, it was clear the Portland Trail Blazers and their fans were pumped up for the series opener. That enthusiasm was on display throughout the team’s battle against the Philadelphia 76ers, but one sequence in particular exemplified how explosive and dangerous their offense can be.
The game was close throughout, as the 76ers also proved how incredibly talented they are. It was no surprise, then, that Portland led by just three, 77-74, early in the fourth quarter. That lead, however, would drastically and quickly increase, backed by a lineup the Blazers had never before featured. Jamal Crawford was playing the point. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, and LaMarcus Aldridge rounded out the five. On paper, it is a very potent arsenal, and the quintet lived up to its potential. The crowd was electric as always; a packed Rose Garden collectively on its feet as the potential game-changing run was made. These five gave them plenty to cheer about.
Portland’s play was tumultuous before and after this sequence. They had other stretches where everything was clicking — where the chemistry was clearly there. Yet, no period of the game compared to the four-minute span in the fourth, when Portland used the aggressiveness of this lineup to turn that three-point advantage into a 92-77 lead.
Crawford had two assists to conclude the outburst, finding Matthews for three and then Gerald Wallace for another. To set up the latter basket, which had the Rose Garden rockin’, he passed up an open look. He also had a three-pointer of his own and a driving layup. He is the best of both worlds, with point guard and shooting guard attributes, and he appears to know when to display which characteristics.
The game changed when the Blazers went away from this unit, including Crawford. They missed free-throws, didn’t close out on defenders, and were cold enough from the field to make Philadelphia’s comeback fuel to a nail-biting finish.
The overall inconsistencies made the 107-103 win far from a satisfying victory, but there was plenty to be content about. Aldridge showed little signs of rust early on, scoring 18 first-half points by continuously being aggressive. Wallace, with his role clearly heightened, was everywhere. Nolan Smith hit a three-pointer he won’t soon forget. His mentor, Felton, ran the show well. Crawford, as alluded to, had his moments, too, as another player making his Blazers debut. Camby also worked his tail off, grabbing rebounds at a prolific rate while also frequently setting up his teammates. And the offense, until the pace was slowed following the electrifying five-minute stretch, was uncharacteristically uptempo.
“We can,” Aldridge said postgame, when asked about the team’s ability to maintain that fast pace. “But we’ll slow it down in the fourth.”
To keep the team composed and to keep the mistakes at a minimum, that seems to be the best strategy. That said, head coach Nate McMillan needs to keep using the lineup that created the nearly squandered lead. Crawford, because of his reputation as a scorer, keeps defenses guessing. Aldridge can score inside and out. Similarly, Batum, Wallace and Matthews can be successful near the rim and on the perimeter.
The bottom line is that, despite the negatives that come with the opening victory, Portland looks to be greatly improved. It is early. There will be some fatigue. There will be some rust. Free throws may be missed. Games may not be closed adequately. But no one lacks confidence.
“We have a bunch of guys who want to win. Ray, who is a great point guard. Jamal, who brings great offense. We have some great pieces,” Aldridge said following tonight’s victory.
These new pieces, and the new lineups they create, give the Blazers the chance to be even better than years past. The entirety of their opening win over the 76ers may not exemplify this potential, but their exciting play midway the fourth certainly did.