Entering this season, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers. Would they hire a General Manager? Would Raymond Felton fit as the starting point guard? Would Jamal Crawford’s scoring mentality prove beneficial or disrupt the flow? Would LaMarcus Aldridge continue to grow as the team’s leader? It was difficult to predict how the team would do, how everyone would fit. So far, though, Felton fits, Crawford has been a pleasant surprise, and Aldridge has been the head honcho. The question regarding the GM situation is the only not to be answered in the affirmative.
Portland entered Tuesday’s game against division rival Oklahoma City with a 3-1 record. There are many reasons why they were in this encouraging position. Aldridge has had to work his way into game shape due to the heart issue that shortened his training camp and preseason, but everyone else immediately looked fresh, ready to run, and in sync. With two new players at pivotal positions – point guard and sixth man – a fast start wasn’t necessarily expected, but that’s just what they did. Felton immediately ran the show adequately, while Crawford wasted little time providing a spark off the bench.
Aldridge may not have been in shape at the onset, but he has produced. His 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals, and three blocks in the opener against Philadelphia proved just how good and well-rounded he has become. Everyone else has done a bit of everything, too, filling the stat-sheet. And everyone is hustling. There were some lapses on the defensive glass Tuesday night against Oklahoma City, but all in all Portland has played with plenty of energy on both ends, not just on offense. The intensity is there, the desire to dive after loose balls, take charges, and, overall, play smart. The turnovers have been kept at a minimum, while the defense has consistently forced opponents into difficult shots.
In beating Oklahoma City by 10, Portland’s play epitomized why they have been successful thus far. Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum played excellent defense on Kevin Durant, consistently affecting his shots and ultimately contributing greatly to the star’s paltry 8-26 shooting. That was what they needed to do to win. They knew that coming in, and they succeeded.
While the defense stepped up, leading to 43 percent shooting by Oklahoma City, including 15 missed three-pointers, the offense was a consistent force. Once again, Portland proved it has the kind of depth that can make some serious noise in the Western Conference. They are veteran-laden. Every player knows his role and excels in it. This balanced attack was on display against the Thunder, a presumed superior, in the season’s fifth game.
Wallace was relatively non-existent in Portland’s loss on Sunday against the Clippers and, not surprisingly, came out very aggressive against Oklahoma City. He didn’t put up very appealing statistics overall, shooting 4-14 from the field, but his early intensity was contagious. Aldridge and Matthews, notably, benefited from the contagion, scoring 27 points on 10-14 shooting in the first half.
Wallace’s play this season allows him to have off-nights once in a while. He is 4-19 for 13 points over his past two games yet he is still scoring 14 points per game on 50 percent shooting. Even if he isn’t scoring, he brings so much to the table. He had seven rebounds in a scoreless performance against the Clippers and had grabbed 10 rebounds to compliment his 13 points against Oklahoma City.
Feeding off what Wallace started, Aldridge, in particular, kept pouring in the points. He was aggressive around the rim especially and, as he often did last season, illustrated why he is rightfully the go-to guy. He finished with 30 points, including two thunderous dunks, and is now averaging 22 points on 48 percent shooting this season to compliment his seven rebounds and nearly three assists per game.
Batum scored 12 points off the bench and grabbed seven rebounds. He was very efficient on both ends, and, in the greater scheme of things, gives Portland another dependable option off in the second unit. He has increased his aggression thus far, with 27 points and 15 rebounds in his past two games in limited albeit increasing action. It is incredibly important for him to keep producing at this level because of Crawford’s inconsistencies. Crawford is going to catch fire, but when he’s cold he’s relatively ineffective offensively. For him to provide what he does, as someone who can deliver during Crawford’s dry spells and team up during his hot streaks, makes Portland that much more dangerous.
After scoring 103 points on the road against the Thunder, the team is averaging 102 points per game, good for fourth in the NBA, while also grabbing the second-most rebounds per game. Oklahoma City was hurting Portland greatly with their offensive rebounds, but overall the Blazers managed to grab more – 11 to 10. As has been the case throughout their 4-1 start, a negative was countered by many positives.
They have been so good, and they think this is only the beginning of something special.
“We haven’t put together a full game yet,” Matthews told The Oregonian. “That’s the scary and exciting part. I don’t think we know what we’re capable of yet, but we know that there’s something there.”
It’s a five-game sample, and there’s no telling what lies ahead for Portland. Yet, as of now, the team leads the Northwest Division and is playing at a very high level. What creates such an uplifting feeling about the team is not the scoring ability or the depth but the attitude that was in full force against the Thunder. Aldridge’s actions exemplified its effect. He had a tussle with Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, refusing to back down, and, offensively, had the angered look of someone who knows this is his team and his time to take the initiative.
Aldridge’s leading the Blazers to victory the way he did shows he’s in game-shape. “I’ve been tired,” he said postgame. “This is the second game where I’ve felt decent. I had my legs under me. … I wanted to work more on being a leader. I kinda got quiet last game [against the Clippers]. I talked a lot tonight.”
The Los Angeles Lakers are next, a team that no longer looks to be Portland’s superior. And the Blazers are rightfully confident they can keep the good times going.
“Guys are finding their rhythm,” Aldridge said. “We can get that game.” The way they are playing, this one and many, many more.