This saying has been heard many different ways, in many different cultures, and has been told and demonstrated countless times in human history: Suffering builds the soul.
Through adversity, pain, and excruciating trials, the true character of an individual is revealed. When the times are tough, when the hurricane of big-time basketball comes around, are you going to be the steadfast tree standing tall in the storm, or are you going to fold like a shriveled leaf?
Throughout the NBA, many players and teams have proved to be the leaf, burning and crumpling under the heat of pressure. An example I point to is the 2006 Dallas Mavericks, who coughed up a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals to the Shaquille O'Neal and Dwayne Wade-led Miami Heat.
The Heat are not really remembered for winning that title. The Mavericks are remembered for losing that title, creating the shriveled leaf image that, to this day, they are still struggling to shed.
An example of the opposite has to be last year's Houston Rockets. Despite the mind-boggling injuries suffered by their two best players (Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady), the Rockets pushed on undaunted.
They used the lack of their stars not as an excuse to pack it in, as many NBA teams would have done, but instead banded together under the banner of their vastly under-appreciated coach, Rick Adelman.
They defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, possessed of home-court advantage and nearly unbeatable at the Rose Garden that year (34-7), in six games. Then, they took the Los Angeles Lakers, the eventual champions that year, to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
Now to the point: the Blazers' injury troubles have been well-documented throughout the league. I doubt a playoff team that loses both its centers, two small forwards, and a dynamic sixth man to significant injuries would retain much respect around the NBA—at least until teams actually played them.
Dallas always has been a team that folds when out-hustled, but the victory at San Antonio was the most shocking to me; even after Joel Pryzbilla joined his fellow center Greg Oden on the shelf for the year, the Blazers were still able to defeat probably the most disciplined and mentally sharp team in the league, on their home floor no less.
And then, Denver. The team that Portland always knew it would have to go through in order to achieve their goals.
The Nuggets have a walking match-up problem in Carmelo Anthony, guards that light up the scoreboard (J.R. Smith, rookie Ty Lawson), and perhaps most ominously for Portland, an extremely active front line that makes a living out of leaving their opponents bruised and battered.
All signs pointed to them walking out of the Rose Garden with a victory...again.
However, I sat there on Christmas Day, parked in front of my LCD TV, watching Juwan Howard and Jeff Pendergraph bang down low with Kenyon Martin and Nene, watching the Blazers scrap, claw, and bust their butts every minute.
The Portland-Denver game was easily the best game on Christmas Day, with the Blazers using great defense to keep it close, a heavy dose of three-pointers late, and the sledgehammer known as Brandon Roy throughout the game to defeat a team they would have had trouble beating before the injuries—if that can actually be believed.
Incredible as it seems, the walking ER known as the Trail Blazers have pulled out five wins in six games against teams with winning records, passing through one of the most trying parts of their season with flying colors.
But now, the other 29 teams are aware of them. The league will take notice of what Portland has been doing to some of its best teams, and they will again start bringing their A-game against the Blazers.
The question Portland must answer in the coming weeks is the one in the headline of this article: Are you going to be the steadfast tree, digging your roots deep into the ground in an effort to survive the eye of the storm, or are you going to be the fluttering leaf, possessed of fragile beauty and superficial existence, ready to be torn off and cast into oblivion at the first sign of trouble?