An Undeniable Success Story, Trail Blazers Still Faced with Daunting Hurdles

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An Undeniable Success Story, Trail Blazers Still Faced with Daunting Hurdles
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Paul Allen’s smile from his Seattle Seahawks winning the Super Bowl a month ago had clearly worn off. He walked out of the arena quite straight-faced after his Portland Trail Blazers lost to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night.

Allen has had plenty of reason to enjoy the Blazers season, one of the feel-good stories in a league so eager to show small-market values are worth championing.

What is a fair question is whether the Blazers have patently overachieved to date—and whether this grouping of players can possibly be kept together long enough to blossom into a real title contender.

For now, the hope is fresh and the spirit is as usual.

In Portland there are no Seahawks or Mariners or even Vancouver Canucks. The Trail Blazers are the big game in town, though the support they receive still has a collegiate air. Unlike in some NBA arenas, the “Hustleboard” here is befitting the atmosphere, with rebounds and blocks appreciated more now that hard-charging Robin Lopez has arrived this season to provide them consistently.

They give out the paper at the arena for fans to make signs, and the fans actually use them to hold up messages both fun (“Robin and Batum-man!”) and fearless (“Daaamn-ian Lillard”). The supplementary scoreboards in the corners of the arena are sponsored by companies no one outside the area has ever heard of: Lorentz Bruun Construction, Office Products Northwest, Miller Paint. Not that anyone outside the area has ever heard of Moda, the health company that bought naming rights to the longtime Rose Garden arena—but how cool is it that it's running an online contest for a fan to design what the new Blazers home court looks like next season at Moda Center?

Cameron Browne/Getty Images

There was a unique small-town spirit in Sacramento in those years the Kings had the Lakers on the ropes. The Oklahoma City Thunder fans have such loyalty or naivete that they cheer on and brush off the reality of how much they truly gave up in not paying James Harden.

Reality here is as follows: As great and earnest as LaMarcus Aldridge has been, he’s not Kevin Durant, and as driven and clutch as Damian Lillard has been, he’s not Russell Westbrook. The Blazers made many good calls in recent years after the embarrassment of the Jail Blazers era and the bad breaks with Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, and they’ve been rewarded with this surprisingly good season. But there is so much still to be done—or more accurately, so much that still has go right for a small-market team like this to get to the top.

Aldridge’s impending 2015 free agency has the potential to be the biggest hurdle, which is why it was so smart for Blazers general manager Neil Olshey to land Lopez in an offseason trade. To quote Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, Lopez “covers Aldridge a little bit”…because Aldridge isn’t and doesn’t want to be a consistently dirty worker.

He shouldn’t have to be. He is exceptional at what he does do. Watching Aldridge practice mid-range jumpers before the game Monday night was much like seeing Stephen Curry’s pregame three-point shooting routine, the same simple stroke every time. Aldridge is able to vary how much lift he gets on his shot based on the game situation but keep the stroke the same—and usually the results, too.

Aldridge’s defense and rebounding have been better this season, too, and his improvement has still left room for Nicolas Batum to do some stuff only megastars do: Batum just joined LeBron James (2009-10) and Durant (this season) as the only players since 1985 with 400 rebounds, 300 assists, 100 three-pointers and 40 blocks in his team’s first 60 games.

Aldridge has had to share even more with Lillard’s star rising so fast. A game that featured the Lakers guarding Aldridge all game with stretched-thin stretch 4s Wesley Johnson and Ryan Kelly ended with Aldridge a nonfactor so that Lillard could play hero ball. The Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-roll, by the way, has been one of the NBA’s most unstoppable plays all season and led Portland to become the league’s highest-scoring team.

“That’s what he wanted,” Aldridge said of Blazers coach Terry Stotts’ last play call Monday night. “That’s fine.”

Actually, it wasn’t even a play call. Said Lillard: “We didn’t really draw up anything.” That’s how much faith Stotts has in Lillard, who this season has solidified such a rep for himself with fantastic late-game shooting that Stotts didn’t even want to run a pick for Lillard for fear the Lakers would force the ball out of his hands with a trap.

Stotts wound up second-guessing himself.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Lillard settled for a contested 25-footer that missed, and the Blazers were saddled with a 107-106 loss. It was one of those nights for a second-year pro point guard to learn the hard way, even though veteran teammate Mo Williams tried to get the message across with gentle words in the postgame locker room.

“You didn’t sell it,” Williams told Lillard about the hesitation dribble that comes before the usually killer step-back jumper.

No, the lasting image of Portland’s loss Monday night was not the glum Allen shuffling down the hallway behind his bodyguard; it was the glum Lillard in search of higher learning and future growth from the failure.

Lillard sat and stared into his locker, then buttoned his shirt slowly in front of the mirror before answering reporters’ questions and talking to Williams for a while en route to the locker-room exit.

There Lillard eventually stood, with his hand on the knob of the door, the exit half-open and the end of his night awaiting. Yet Lillard was holding on to it and holding on to it, talking about it and talking about it with Williams as they replayed the last moves for Lillard’s peace of mind tonight and redemption tomorrow.

Before this loss, the five-game winning streak had already pushed the Blazers past the oddsmakers’ preseason projection of 38.5 wins—with 25 games still to play. That’s an undeniable success story. It just doesn’t change the fact that this team has indeed overachieved and cannot possibly know what the future holds.

“In September, most people didn’t think we had a chance to make the playoffs,” Stotts said. “Now expectations have changed, both within and without. That’s part of it, and that’s a good thing.”

By “within,” Stotts was honest enough to include himself.

“If you’d asked me in October, I probably would’ve not expected this,” he said. “But if you’d asked me after we got off to a good start and we realized we’re a pretty good team, we expect to win when we go in to play a game.”

And when they lose, those higher expectations require better explanations. That, in turn, leads to faster, greater growth.

So there is real reason for hope from the locals who navigate the long, wet winters in their hoodies and Subarus.

The Blazers have reached the point where failure is unacceptable.

And in Lillard, fresh off a record five NBA All-Star events, they have a 23-year-old who can’t stand leaving a loss behind.

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