The Blazers are 2-1, and looking like they might have a respectable basketball team this year. Following a disappointing performance by the team on Friday night in the Bay Area, they rebounded to come back from a 16-point deficit and beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on a Dixon three-pointer with six seconds left.
Travis Outlaw and Brandon Roy were the stars of the game, with Zach Randolph doing his "good Zach" thing down-low in the second half. But THE story for Portland this year is Brandon Roy. I think most of us expected him to be a very solid player who would grow into a leadership role, but this is already his team. I've never seen a rookie energize and change a Portland team like Roy has. He's quick enough to drive by even very good perimeter defenders (as Mike Barrett correctly pointed out during the broadcast on Saturday night), smart enough to know how to use the pick-and-roll to get himself an open jumper, and sees the floor well enough to find the open teammate when he draws the open team. He didn't have a great shooting night on Saturday, but you really can't ask anything more of him than what he's done so far.
I also thought it was interesting that Portland's crunch-time lineup was Roy, Dixon, Webster, Outlaw, Zbo. That's an incredibly small lineup, and interestingly I think you can make the argument that it's one of Portland's worst defensive lineups. With Joel having missed the game due to a "lower abdominal injury" (read: he got kneed in the balls by Troy Murphy), Portland had to make adjustments, but it was a curious decision by Nate. Clearly he wanted speed and shooting, and both paid off despite a few defensive lapses.
And speaking of Nate, I have to give him major credit. First, on Dixon's game winner Nate set up a play where Roy attacked the rim, with shooters on each corner (Dixon on the left and Martell on the right). Sure enough, Roy goes right by Trenton Hassell, draws the wing defenders in, and kicks to Dixon. Great setup there; it's like a triple-option play for a QB.
A few additional thoughts on the past two nights:
- This whole "Outlaw at the 4" thing is an interesting experiment, and it seems to be working. Following Portland's first two games against teams without dominant post players (although Seattle's Chris Wilcox is getting there), you would think if that strategy was ever going to blow up in Portland's face it would be against Minnesota and KG. But Outlaw was fantastic on Saturday -- he's got the quicks and the hops to always have an offensive option no matter what type of defender is guarding him. 18 points and 15 rebounds in 32 minutes in what was in my mind his best game to-date as a Blazer.
- Not living in the pacific northwest, Saturday's game was my first chance to see Portland's home-town broadcast. And I have to come clean: I'm okay with Mike Barrett -- even enjoy him. But I cannot stand Mike Rice. He's like a poor-man's Joe Theisman -- gets way too excited about certain players, is a blatant homer to the point of annoyance, and says foolish things at inopportune times. A painful color-man to listen to.
- Another positive from this season that's gotten lost in all of the Roy hullabaloo is the growth of Martell Webster. He looks to have taken the first major step: going from a relatively lost rookie to a valuable asset off the bench. He's finally learned how to use his shooting skills as an asset without forcing shots of screwing up the offensive flow, and I thought his game on Saturday -- 16 points on 6-8 shooting (4-5 from 3pt) was EXACTLY what this team needs from him.
- One of the most encouraging things to me about Saturday's game (and despite the sluggish-at-times offensive performance, there was a lot to like) was that Roy and Zbo shot a combined 12-of-34, yet Portland still had enough to win thanks to Outlaw and Webster.
- A quick note about minutes played. Brandon Roy (38.3), Jarrett Jack (35.7), and Ime Udoka (25.7) are first, third, and fourth respectively in minutes played on the team. This is a little concerning, as Roy will inevitably hit the rookie wall around late February-early March that every rookie hits, it's Jack's second year and first as a full-time player as well as Udoka's. We know these guys are going to slow down at some point, I'd like to see Nate ease back a little bit so we might at least be able to prolong their "good production time" a bit.
- And finally, what a great sign that the team was able to come back from a bad performance on Friday and play much better on the back end of a back-to-back. One thing you frequently see with young teams is disappointing play on those back ends, but you have to give Nate credit for keeping them up and fresh.
The Blazers put on the Big-Boy Pants this week, as they start to play a few of the teams in the upper-half of the league. The've got games against the Clippers, Hornets, Lakers and Mavericks in the next seven days so we'll get a chance to see if Portland truly is a Tier-3 "Middleweight" team as they've looked for these first few games.
Enjoy your football today, and Go Blazers!