It sounds like the set-up line for a bad joke: "What do you call a road game against Eastern Conference contenders Orlando Magic?"
Answer: A relief.
After facing five teams that all won at least 54 games in the first six trips out, Portland was looking for a break.
Instead, what they got was a five-game Eastern swing that started at the home of the 4-2 Magic. Without Greg Oden to help slow down Dwight "Superman" Howard, this would be a tough nut to crack for a veteran, championship-level team—much less a team often labeled, even by their most ardent supporters, as a "soft, young team that needs veteran leadership and experience."
Enough already. Let's put a few myths to rest.
Over and over we hear Portland needs "a veteran" to turn them into some sort of super team that will achieve greatness, string together championships, and be a dynasty the likes of which the League has seldom seen.
I call shenanigans.
Brandon Roy is in his third year. He already is that veteran.
He is the guy who, after Rookie of the Year and All-Star campaigns in his first two outings, already has the experience to be a veteran and has repeatedly demonstrated he is the leader of this team, the guide to what Portland needs to do to win.
It would be easy to point to his two last-second shots against Houston or his late-game heroics against Minnesota, and think that is all I am talking about. I would be lying if that wasn't part of it, but mistaken if that were the only part.
After all, Travis Outlaw has made more than a few late-game big buckets for the team, and I don't consider him a team leader. He is a very valuable part of the team, but he is not the leader.
It is Roy who tells this team where they need to go. He identifies what needs to be done, how it needs done and then does what he can to make sure that happens. Coming into the season, for example, he identified which teams he had poor records against and looked at why.
When Portland beat San Antonio, it marked the first time in his career the Blazers had a win against the Spurs. When asked how it felt, Roy spent less than a sentence enjoying it before pointing out that the next game, in Phoenix, was another team he had not beaten, and how it was time to end that streak.
Unfortunately, Portland fell short in that game, but the lesson is clear. Roy has an understanding of what Portland needs to do to take the next step. And after beating the Rockets and Timberwolves, his focus never wavered.
Actually, back it up a little bit. At half-ime of the Minnesota game, only a 5-0 flurry in the closing couple of possessions got Portland within six. They looked awful for the entire first half. Roy was yelling at his guys, telling them to focus, buckle down, and play their game.
After the improbable come-back win, he was interviewed. Still dripping with sweat from his labors, he had already moved past the game that had been completed less than five minutes previously.
He quickly identified the next Blazers' need—going on the road and getting their first road win. He did not make excuses for their 0-3 road start. He easily could have said something along the lines of, "Well, our road games so far have been against the Lakers, who were the Western Conference Champions, against the Suns who almost made the Western Conference Finals, and against the Jazz who lose maybe two home games per decade."
He said something along the lines of, "We let a couple get away. We need to focus on getting the first win on the road."
That is the leadership that turns good teams into great ones. Obviously Portland is not there yet. The point is, they don't need "a veteran" to provide that. Roy already does.
When Aldridge was injured last year, Roy told his teammates to each pick up a couple extra rebounds and score a couple more points. Portland then won in Utah. He doesn't let them make excuses.
It also doesn't hurt that he can flat-out ball. He has been off his game about all year. His shooting percentage is down, his rebounds are down, his assists not up to normal. And he is still one of the top shooting guards in the league. Even with his numbers in decline, he is a stat-packer who impacts every single game.
He makes the team better. He is an extension of Coach Nate McMillan's will on the floor. He lets the team know what they need to do with his words and backs it up with his actions.
Sure, there will be times he misses key shots or lets winnable games get away. But that is part of the NBA.
You win some, you lose some. With the right players, you win more.
Last year most prognosticators had Portland winning about 30 games, and they won 41. This year I heard a lot of numbers in the mid-40s.
Then again, this is a team that had the toughest six-game opening schedule in history and went .500. This is a team that went on the road and took down a tough Orlando team. This is a team that has inside scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge, clutch outside shooting from Rudy Fernandez, outstanding role players in Joel Przybilla, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Channing Frye—and an indomitable leader who knows what they need to do, identifies it for himself and his team, then leads by example.
Whether he is again appointed to the All-Star team or not, and whether he is in the conversation for League MVP or not, the fact remains that Portland has their All-Star MVP, their guiding light, their veteran presence, and their leader for the foreseeable future.
His name is Brandon Roy.