Nate McMillan has the Portland TrailBlazers off to a, well, blazing start
Yes, I do in fact know that five games do not a season make. But this attenuated NBA season is more of a sprint than a marathon, and the no-name Portland TrailBlazers have come out of the gates fast.
After last night's thumping of Oklahoma City, on the road no less, coach Nate McMillan's Blazers now sit on top of the Western Conference standings with a 4-1 record.
Here are six keys to how they can stay there.
LaMarcus Aldridge rising to a new level?
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge should give the mirrors in his house a good cleaning. He should bust out the LaMarcus's Growth Chart that his mom probably kept on the bedroom wall growing up.
He must begin to grasp the fact, every game, that he's a big guy.
Big as in the tallest, strongest Big Man on the team at 6'11" and 240 lbs. (with seven-footer Greg Oden perpetually recovering from injury and center Marcus Camby a skinnier, older version of L.A.). Often content to drift around the free-throw line and hoist jumpers (he took only two free throws in two of the last three games), Aldridge occasionally looks up, says, "Damn, I'm tall," and takes over games inside (30 points, 10-12 from the line and a key stare-down of Kendrick Perkins against OKC on Tuesday night).
When he plays big, the Blazers come up big. The short, scrappy Blazers need every inch from Aldridge to contend against the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the West.
No! Roy's aged knees made him walk away from the game before this season began, but his old pal from Seattle, Jamal Crawford, is suddenly doing a Roy impersonation with the Blazers, hoisting up shots and knocking them down (22 and 23 points against the Nuggets and Clippers, respectively), often at key moments.
The Blazers' ultra-complimentary group of team players spread the love and the points through most games, but when they need a crucial bucket or a sparkplug for an occasionally stagnant offense, it is Crawford whom they'll look to this year. And he's not afraid to put it up...perhaps after having watched Joe Johnson fling 'em up in Atlanta for the past two seasons.
Coming off the bench versus the Thunder on Tuesday for eight points, he looked like Jason Terry...another Seattleite who brings needed sixth-man spark to his offense. Crawford taking over games and scoring points in flurries will bail out Portland many times over this year.
Taking on the tough defensive assignments.
The Blazers' 6'8" forward Nicolas Batum is so self-effacing, so controlled and so, well, modest (if you've ever heard that word applied to an NBA player) that you half expect him to blush and apologize after...
A) harassing and swatting shots out of the sky against Kevin Durant
B) locking down Nowitzki
C) nailing six of 10 3-pointers in his last three games, including crucial shot-clock-beaters against OKC; and,
D) contributing everything from key boards to key steals.
He is the consummate all-around player in a team full of all-around players. A key part of his game is that nobody knows about him and he sneaks up on you. Pretend you never read this. Do not look behind the curtain at the Blazers' secret weapon. Think it's pronounced BAIT-um, or BAT-um or ba-TOOM?
Don't even ask, we're not going to tell you.
Andre Miller wanted to run last year; coach Nate McMillan said no.
Before Miller, the likes of Jerryd Bayless, Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Dixon wanted to run, coach McMillan said no. He took his chances with a half-court offense.
But last season the Blazers went out and snatched up speedy guard Raymond Felton, along with Gerald Wallace to finish the plays that Felton starts, and now the Blazers are running like faucets. No longer slowed down by a Przybilla or Oden at center, and with a fine group of racehorses led by Wallace and Wesley Matthews, the team is putting the ball in Felton's hands and urging him to attack.
At the same time, the Chris Pauls and Russell Westbrooks of the world now have to deal with Felton's quickness and speed on the defensive end; he has finally brought an end to the dribble-penetration that has killed the Blazers in recent seasons.
Raymond runs; Raymond stops the other team from running. Blazers win.
Nate McMillan is in his 7th season as Head Coach
Believe in coach Nate McMillan, who for the first time in his career doesn't have a single star player to build around. Which he loves. McMillan's team defense and team offense depend on everyone being on the same page and working together.
Believe that despite being undersized and lacking a superstar, the Blazers can put together enough stops, enough rebounds and enough points to be in every game. Players like Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are thriving in this system, and when LaMarcus Aldridge wants to act like a star, he can. And when he wants to act like a 6'11" shooting guard, the team can adjust.
Believe that you can survive with Kurt Thomas, Crawford and 6'7" muscleman Craig Smith holding up the bench, everyone hitting the boards and Marcus Camby staying healthy enough to continue to be a factor.
Go ahead, believe it. It's the first week of the season.
Little help please, from a weakened Western Conference
Timing is everything in this business, and the Trail Blazers may have chosen just the right time to put together a good, cohesive team. The Western Conference in general, and Portland's Northwest Division in particular, appear to be in decline as, for the first time in years, the balance of NBA power shifts to the East.
The Thunder and Mavericks will continue to be the class of the West, with the Blazers and Clippers running right behind them for high playoff seedings, but after that the West looks like a whole bunch of guys named Al Harrington.
The Lakers are struggling to find themselves in the early going and look old; the Spurs just lost Ginobili to a broken hand. Denver continues its decades-long search for an identity. Utah, Minnesota, Houston, Phoenix and Golden State all look like .500 teams who will beat each other up for the last playoff spots in the West, and Sacramento, the Hornets and Minnesota continue to be bottom-feeders.
It's early, sure, but the Trail Blazers are fun to watch and off to a good start. Even if they don't produce an All-Star again this year (Aldridge, man up), and if they can stay healthy, they'll be in the mix at the end of the season, too.