If you're like most NBA fans, then you aren't used to seeing the Portland Trail Blazers (yes, two words) on national television.
This season started with the Blazers on TNT in Los Angeles against the Lakers, for the much-anticipated debut of Greg Oden. Oden, as you surely remember, missed all of what was supposed to be his rookie year last season when he had to shut it down to rehab from microfracture surgery.
And it was Oden who was supposed to take the young Blazers from a pesky fringe playoff team to an up-and-coming power knocking on the door to future NBA championships.
When Oden couldn't even make it out of the first half of his first game unscathed, Portland's playoff hopes were supposed to go crashing down with him.
Every team looking to be a championship team in the future has to start by taking their lumps. For this Blazers team, making the playoffs in 2008-09 after a five-year hiatus from the postseason was the very first goal.
So when guard—no, check that—when All-Star guard Brandon Roy hit the equivalent of two uncanny buzzer-beaters in the span of two seconds in overtime to beat the Houston Rockets Thursday night on TNT, the prospect of playoff basketball (and more) became realistic again in a rejuvenated Rip City.
Even—maybe especially—without Oden.
Right now, Greg Oden is like a tall tale. He's like Paul Bunyan, or Big Foot. You've heard a lot about him, you've heard about the outrageous things he can do, and some have even claimed to see him in action. But for most of the world, he remains a myth.
Fortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, their young Oden-less cast is a dangerous reality for the rest of the league. With one All-Star already and several others potentially in waiting, the Blazers set a foundation in 2007-08 with a 41-41 season that didn't even involve the much-hyped seven-foot center from Ohio State.
In Roy, the Blazers have what every contender needs, first and foremost—a face and an identity. After that, Roy provides leadership, fearlessness, and an attitude. He's not LeBron. He's not Kobe. And although their games are eerily similar, he's not Dwyane Wade.
But if you've heard the cliche, "I don't know what it is, but he has it," then Roy's attributes are the very underlining of that phrase.
It would be enough to just have him by himself. But GM Kevin Pritchard has done a jaw-dropping job surrounding Roy with the talent he'll need to take Rip City back to the Finals for the first time since 1992.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was criticized for being "too soft," coming out of Texas after his sophomore year. Three years into his NBA career, Aldridge has already posted a sophomore season that saw him post 17.8 points and rip 7.6 boards while shooting 48.4 percent from the field and blocking 1.2 shots per game.
Look around the league, and there are accomplished veterans who would pay good money for those numbers. But the former Longhorn did that in just his second year in the league.
Roy's shots at the end of the game against the vaunted Rockets will be the lasting image from Thursday night's national telecast, but it was Aldridge who did the heavy lifting: 27 points on 12-20 shooting, nine rebounds, and three blocks in 45 minutes of burn. And he did this against a tough Rockets defense that threw combinations of Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, and Chuck Hayes at him all night.
Like Oden, reserve swingman Rudy Fernandez has been a product of the "hype machine" as well—but unlike his rookie counterpart, the Spaniard has delivered.
The 6'6" Fernandez was greeted by a mob of Blazers fans when he made his arrival at Portland International Airport over the summer. While many nationally may have thought it odd to welcome a guy that most casual fans haven't even heard about—and maybe still haven't heard about—Fernandez's game has done the talking for him.
Against Houston, Fernandez made tremendous contributions—15 points on five-for-nine shooting from the field and three-for-five shooting from beyond the three-point line. Many may label Fernandez as a one-trick pony because of his one-dimensional ability to score from the perimeter, but he fits his role perfectly as an energizer off the bench for now, with the prospect of being much more than that as his career in Portland progresses.
If you want to analyze this roster, you can go on all day: 2008 lottery pick Jerryd Bayless (who was supposed to be a top-five pick), the absolutely clutch Travis Outlaw, and versatile '05 lottery-pick power forward Channing Frye.
But it all goes back to Roy.
The last time a team was put together by throwing together a bunch of high draft picks to form a young nucleus, we saw the birth of the "Baby Bulls" in Chicago. Those Bulls are on the verge of becoming also-rans, just a few years after supposedly "getting it together" with their maturing young corps.
But what makes this Blazers team different from that Bulls team is an identity. An edge. An attitude. And it all stems from Roy, who, unlike anybody on that Bulls team, is already an All-Star by his second year in the league.
In a league where it is not easy to find natural born leaders, who keep their eyes on the prize at the end as well as become sources for civic and community pride, the third-year guard out of Washington has the strut of a 10-year veteran hungry for that elusive championship ring.
So as Portland embarks on a five-game road trip over the next week and a half, Roy's buzzer-beater to drop the Rockets will loom larger as the Blazers depart Portland. Miss that shot, and they are 1-4 looking to come apart at the seams fast.
But if, unlike most NBA fans, you've been following the ascent of this team for the past several years, watching the ball find the bottom of the net after coming off of No. 7's hands really shouldn't have surprised you much—if at all.