This article is written by Phil Kovalev, Hoops4Life columnist. This article also can be found at Hoops4Life.com
Alongside the breezy winds and the arousing sound of bird tweets, that the month of April brings within itself, there's something out there that no man expects. With 8 games separating the No. 1 (LA Lakers) and No. 8 (OKC Thunder) seeds in the Wild West, nothing is predictable.
Yet, most unlikely, and very similar to the Houston Rockets of 2009 (Beating Portland without home advantage in the first round and taking the Lakers to game 7, without Yao in the second), my honest opinion tells me the Portland Trail blazers are going to be the Black (with red and silver trim) Horse of the Western Conference this year.
Elaboration is a must.
Well, a lot of you would probably think i've gone into some kind of a self-destruct mode, but the truth might just stand for me here. The Portland Trail Blazers have played some of their best offensive basketball this year, with Brandon Roy on the sidelines.
Now, I'm not saying Roy is a ballhog—every coach in the NBA will tell you Roy will prefer the assist over the bucket—but when Roy is not playing, it makes the other players on the court think. It makes them step up. Suddenly, there's much more ball movement on offense. Coach Nate McMillan calls less and lesser ISO plays.
Blazers have played 16 games without their franchise player this season. In only six of those games did the Blazers put up less points on the scoreboard than their season average. Yet, in another six, they put more a hundred (Blazers avg. 98PPG). Plus, They averaged one more assist (21) without Roy. That same team-play, would be most necessary to create some confidence—building easy points on the road, in the first two games of the first round.
Battling cancer, Mr. Allen is still there, sitting, witnessing the live action from his courtside seat at the Rose Garden. Allen barely misses games. The players always rave about their warm, down-to-earth relationship with their owner. There is absolutely no way, that the Blazers are going to be outplayed or outhustled at the Rose Garden with Mr. Allen sitting there.
The Blazers' dedicated owner has done everything in his power, to make this franchise successful, and that's a good opportunity for the players and coaches to step up a notch, for the man who was diagnosed with cancer last November.
Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster, Jerryd Bayless—two of those three will come off the bench in case Roy won't be cleared to play in the first round. While being unpredictable, Webster enters the playoffs hitting 50 percent on 10 three pointers in the last 6 games, followed by a sharp fourth quarter performance that got the Blazers a much needed win at Staples Center.
It's much of the same case with Rudy and Bayless—each one can suddenly explode, especially speaking of the Spaniard, who buried five long-range bombs at 71% at last year's Game 4 in Houston, only to see the Blazers lose another thriller. (86-83).
Don't underestimate the rest of the blazers bench either. Rookies Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph are as tough as you can find in the current draft class, and could at ease, provide some vital hustle off the bench. Patty Mills and Travis Diener are bench-bound—each one of them, though, presents a unique skill (Speed and 3Pt shooting respectively) that can be deadly if used well.
Say what you will, when it's the month of April, I'd take Marcus Camby or Andre Miller over almost any point guard and center outside probably, Billups and Dwight.
It's not about the skill level right here. It's about the knowledge. It's about the focus level. It's about doing the right things, in the locker-room, before and throughout the game. Stepping in to take the charge. Knowing the momentum of the game, and that one of the referees.
Last year, The Trail Blazers got the 4th seed, and were ready to face a McGrady-less Houston Rockets in the first round of the Playoffs. You all should've seen the faces of the Blazers players during intros of Game 1. I wouldn't call it arrogance, because Sarge McMillan knows how to handle that stuff most of the time. But something was missing. That knowledge.
The Blazers were just too innocent. Too innocent to predict the bombs Yao Ming would drop just 10 minutes later, and boy...when It rains, it pours.
“Because this was the first game, and also the first couple of minutes of the first game – the first couple of minutes can set the tone for the game, and the first game can set the tone for the series,” Yao said.
The 7-foot-6 Yao scored nine of Houston’s first 11 points and finished with 24 in the Rockets’ 108-81 Win. Yao barely played the rest of that game.
One thing I guarantee you. Be it Utah, Denver, whoever. This year is going to be different. No. it's not that I'm sure the Blazers will come firing in all cylinders, beating their opponent by 20+ like Houston did last year. But add the savvy Miller, Camby, Juwan Howard and the last year's experience, and it's a progress you can never measure on the stat sheet.
Andre Miller is my X-factor here. In the past month-and-a-half, Dre's been taking almost every PG in the League to the Miller academy of basketball. Schooling J-Kidd, (19,10,3,3) Steve Nash (22,9,3,2) and simply handling Russel Westbrook like a child in one of the most important games of the season (26 points, 9-18 FG, 7-7 FT, 4 AST, 6 REB, 3 STL). This guy has some Denzel 'He Got Game' magic within him.
Well, last but not least, the real X-Factor. The Karma. This has been a season from hell for the Blazers.
Greg Oden, has started the first 21 games of the season, giving the Blazers 2.3 Blocks per game, alongside an unexplainable relaxing presence, one that makes sense only if you truly watch all the games from start of the season. Heck, even statistically, Greg averaged 15.6 Points, 9.2 Boards, 2.4 Blocks on 62% shooting from the field while shooting 77% on 40 Free throws in the last seven games before the season ending injury. You simply had to watch those games and see how dominant he was, only to go down with an heartbreaking injury.
Along came Roy (16 games), Nicolas Batum (45 games), Rudy Fernandez (20 games), Joel Przbilla (51 games). Should I mention that Travis Outlaw became available only after the All-Star break?
I'm not about whining, but there's a reason for all that. There's a reason Kevin Pritchard has transformed this franchise from a jail-breaking team, to a group of guys that spend most of its free time on “Make-it-better” and “NBA Cares” projects. There's a reason that Andre Miller and Marcus Camby have shared some of their most productive years in Denver together. There must be. And for once, even though I'm sure the refs will be there to blow the party, the gods of basketball should be there, watching for their Trail Blazers.
Ask 'sheed, Ball don't lie.