For Trail Blazers and Knicks, Fortunes Changed Drastically in Two-Year Span

Howard BeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 6, 2014

Brad Penner/USA Today

NEW YORK – It is rare, amid the grinding monotony of an NBA season, to have so many fates shift in a single night, in a single game. Someone wins, someone loses and they all move on to the next one, largely unchanged.

But occasionally, destinies get redirected rather dramatically in the same 48-minute span.

On March 14, 2012, the listless, dysfunctional New York Knicks pulled together and celebrated a 42-point rout of the listless, dysfunctional Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden.

It was a promising new start for the Knicks, playing their first game under interim coach Mike Woodson, who had just replaced Mike D’Antoni. They finished the season on an 18-6 kick.

For the Blazers, it was a bleak, depressing harbinger. Coach Nate McMillan was fired the next day, the first casualty of a disengaged locker room.

“That was definitely our lowest point,” forward LaMarcus Aldridge recalled late Wednesday, sitting in the same visiting locker room at the Garden. “You feel helpless. Because I want to win. I’m a winner. I felt like I was helpless, because I was trying to do everything I could. But when guys don’t want to play anymore, there’s not anything I can do.”

It was, as it turned out, a cleansing and clarifying moment for Portland. It was, as well, a deceptive turning point for New York.

The Blazers, who seized a 94-90 victory over the Knicks on Wednesday, are now a rising power in the Western Conference, having undergone a rapid and brilliant transformation.

The Knicks, who won 54 games last season, are again barreling toward self-destruction, imperiling Woodson and stirring doubts over Carmelo Anthony’s future.

Woodson’s dismissal is considered a near certainty, with only the timing in question. Steve Popper of The Bergen Record reported Thursday that the Knicks plan to fire Woodson within the next two weeks and appoint assistant Herb Williams as the interim coach. Several sources with ties to the team, however, believe Woodson will be allowed to finish the season.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Even at 19-30, the Knicks have a chance to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference, though their postseason run is likely to be brief.

The Trail Blazers, fueled by the All-Star tandem of Aldridge and Damian Lillard and a sturdy supporting cast, expect to be playing deep into the spring. The Blazers are a surprising 35-14, third in the West, with the NBA’s second-ranked offense, beautiful chemistry and a renewed spirit.

“We definitely see ourselves competing for a title really soon,” Aldridge said. “We feel like we have all of the core pieces.”

The seeds of this revival were planted in the wake of that humiliating rout at the Garden two years ago. The housecleaning began the next day, with the Blazers firing McMillan, waiving former No. 1 pick Greg Oden and trading Gerald Wallace (to New Jersey) and Marcus Camby (to Houston). Two months later, the Blazers remade the front office, hiring Neil Olshey as general manager.

The Wallace trade netted a first-round pick, No. 6 overall, which Olshey used to draft Lillard. Olshey then tapped Terry Stotts as the new head coach.

Next weekend, Lillard will make his All-Star Game debut. Stotts is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. And Olshey is firmly in the running for Executive of the Year, after an offseason haul that included Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright.

The Blazers figured to improve on last year’s 33-49 record, perhaps even break into the lower tier of the playoff field. They stunned the league, and probably themselves, by racing to a 22-4 start, forcing their way into a now-crowded discussion of Western Conference contenders with San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“I definitely didn’t think that things would get so good, so fast,” Aldridge said. “They made some great moves.”

Lopez has given the Blazers a defensive presence and relieved Aldridge of that burden. Williams and Wright have provided some needed depth and scoring punch off the bench. The blossoming of Nic Batum as a versatile two-way force and the emergence of Wesley Matthews have been just as critical.

Anonymous reports of Aldridge’s discontent last summer have now given way to on-the-record proclamations from the player that he wants to be in Portland long-term, with this promising group.

“Everybody can get better,” Aldridge said. “I think the core—Dame, myself, Wes, Nico—I think those guys are going to be here.”

The Blazers should make the postseason for the first time since 2011, and they have the talent to win their first series since 2000. But in Portland, the optimism is always tempered by a generalized anxiety, the fear that something will inevitably go wrong and ruin the Blazers all over again.

Not long ago, Oden and Brandon Roy were the young franchise stars, teeming with talent and the potential to become one of the best center-guard tandems in the league. Both had their careers derailed by knee injuries, leaving the franchise adrift.

Aldridge and Lillard now have the chance to deliver on the promise that Oden and Roy could not. Whether the Blazers are ready to make the leap immediately is in question.

Portland’s offense is as potent as they come, producing 109 points per 100 possessions, just a half-point behind Miami. But the Blazers defense is a work in progress, to be generous. It ranked 20th in defensive efficiency as of Thursday, allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions. That could be a problem come April and May, when the Blazers might be battling the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers or Rockets, all of whom rank in the top 10 defensively.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

“We knew we would be able to score,” said Stotts, who is known as an offensive innovator. “And the plan was to start with the defense and have it improve over the course of the season. It hasn’t gotten to that point.…We’ve been able to show in stretches that we can defend, but we haven’t done it for long enough periods of time. There’s no question that, as our record was at the top of the league, that to sustain that we knew that the defense would have to catch up.”

The Blazers showed a little promise in that area Wednesday night, with Wesley Matthews holding Carmelo Anthony scoreless in the fourth quarter and the Blazers holding the Knicks to 40 percent shooting.

Aldridge, displaying his own growth as a go-to star, secured the win with a smooth turnaround jumper over Tyson Chandler, then celebrated with a slight grin and a friendly stare at Spike Lee, who had been taunting him most of the night.

“He was like, `My bad, my bad,’” Aldridge said with a chuckle. “Part of being here in the Garden. Definitely, that was fun for me.”

On this night at least, Aldridge could leave the storied arena with a pleasant memory and a smile, while the turmoil raged down the hallway.