Some of you are probably wondering why I've put the "encouraging" part in the title. After all, the Blazers have been hit extremely hard by the injury bug, and have had their best start in nine years dampened somewhat by a mediocre December.
Greg Oden went down...again. Travis Outlaw broke a foot. Rudy Fernandez is trying to recover from chronic nerve pain some believe to have been caused by that hard foul put on him by ex-Laker Trevor Ariza last March.
The injury most grievous to me, however, is to Nicolas Batum. The talented young Frenchman has yet to play a minute this season after aggravating a torn labrum suffered while playing for his native country; the Blazers have yet to get consistent or adequate play from the small forward position (Brandon Roy does not count in my view).
After all these injuries, Portland was left with just nine active players on the roster, reducing their talent level from being able to compete with the big boys to, as Roy put it, "busting our butts just to not get blown out."
So, why am I encouraged, you ask?
To steal quotes from Little John, these guys have hearts of oak and balls of solid rock.
Watching and following the Blazers recently, I'm convinced that they've finally figured out how to play within themselves and seize the day, so to speak. To show you all that I'm not just talking out of my nether regions, I'll highlight Portland's last three games:
Against Phoenix, the Blazers were playing from behind entering the fourth quarter, which was a very bad sign: to my knowledge, Portland had not made a fourth-quarter comeback yet this season.
However, behind Bayless and Roy, the Blazers were able to overcome big nights from both Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire to score a humongous win at home.
At Orlando, despite shooting in the lower 30 percentile and accruing a franchise-low seven assists, Portland kept that game very close until the last few minutes.
The Blazers actually led at halftime, holding Dwight Howard and his mates on the perimeter to a paltry 39 points in the first half.
At Miami, they rode big nights from Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end, with Aldridge repeatedly grinding down low against the smaller, slighter Michael Beasley.
Defensively, the Blazers were good when they had to be, forcing Dwyane Wade to miss his last four shots, and making him earn his points by turning him into a Vince Carter-type player: a volume shooter who doesn't get his teammates enough good looks.
Even when they get Fernandez, Batum, and Outlaw back from injury, Portland will have to channel their first-round opponents from last year, the Houston Rockets, if they are to go where they want to go.
They have to play gritty, tough, in-your-face, determined, scrappy, and intense basketball.
They have to play smart, with poise and intelligence, and they must always be looking for an opportunity to prove that they're a force to be reckoned with, even when they have men down.
After all, the Rockets beat the Blazers and took Los Angeles to seven games with nothing more than Ron Artest, lockdown defense, and clutch shooting.
If Nate McMillan takes a page from Rick Adelman's coaching book and has his team play the same way, how deep will Portland, with much more talent than that Houston team had available last May, go this May?
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