Portland Trail Blazers Sending A Message
It’s taken some longer than others to buy into the Portland Trail Blazers as championship contenders. No matter what pundits or doubters say, however, the Portland Trail Blazers know they have something special going. Last night’s 127-111 victory over the Dallas Mavericks put them in first place in the Western Conference. At 31-9, their first half of the season could not have gone much better.
“We’ve had a good season up to this point,” says Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It’s tough winning in San Antonio; everybody knows that. It was a good game, a well-played game on both sides. I liked the way we defended in the fourth quarter. We made timely shots, but it’s been a season where we try to keep getting better. I think the fact that we’ve been playing with an edge and the fact that we didn’t make the playoffs last year, we continue to go out there and try to prove ourselves every night.”
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The Blazers still have plenty to prove, of course, and they are quick to point out that they really haven’t accomplished anything yet. They also work hard to tune out the noise from fans and media alike by sticking together as a team and focusing on each other and what’s happening in the locker room and on the court.
“I think we’ve done a good job of staying to ourselves,” says Stotts. “Whatever the noise is out there, we’ve really been unaffected by it one way or the other. I think that one of the things we’ve done very well is stay focused on the next game, we haven’t looked in the past and we haven’t looked ahead. The stage where we are – where our players are and where we were as a group – was our approach at the beginning of the season and we’ve done a good job maintaining that.”
Two things that drive the Blazers day in and day out are a hunger to prove themselves in the playoffs , as well as the special chemistry that has developed among players and coaches alike.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” says Stotts. “We went into the season basically with a feeling like we have something to prove and we haven’t accomplished anything. We don’t have a player on the roster that played in the playoffs last year. Everything was focused on what we needed to do to win games. I think one of our strengths has been our chemistry and how well we get along and play together. The thing about chemistry is you don’t know when that moment is, but over time it just grows. I think that being rewarded with some wins early helps kind of consolidate that feeling. We lost the season opener at Phoenix; didn’t play very well after a very good preseason. I think that got us kind of grounded and shortly thereafter we won 11 in a row. I think that really was good for a team that hadn’t been together to realize how we needed to play.”
One thing that’s been important for Portland is that after years of talking about who was out of the lineup and for how long, they finally have the team intact and focused on developing talent. The driving force behind that has been second-year point guard Damian Lillard, who is emerging as one of the best floor generals in the NBA.
“I like it when you see growth in any player,” says Stotts. “I’ve seen in it in a lot of our players from last year to this year. After a remarkable rookie season – (Lillard) did that on will power and talent – he took what the league gave him and powered through the season and had a remarkable season. This year he’s even more confident, but he’s more driven to be an even better player.”
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Another significant factor for Portland is that they have a much-improved bench, and that starts with the arrival of playoff-tested veteran Mo Williams.
“Mo has been terrific,” says Stotts. “He’s the perfect backup point guard for us because he can play with Damian and he allows us to rest Damian more than we rested him last year. He has an impact when he comes into the game. You sense his impact with the speed of the game and the tempo changes; he’s been in big games, he’s been around the league, and he’s been in tight situations. (Friday) night, for example, when things were going the wrong way in the second half in San Antonio, and even in LA, he kind of got the team together and kept our wits about us. He’s been a very important part to what we’ve done so far this year.”
More than anything, the fact that the Blazers have been able to field the same starting unit every night out this season has been a refreshing change from the recent Brandon Roy/Greg Oden era of injuries.
“It’s been extremely important because our starting unit is our starting and closing unit,” says Stotts. “We’ve been good in the fourth quarter, winning games. That unit plays very well together. Health in general, regardless if it’s your starters or guys that you count on, is extremely important and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to be in that position. I think one of the things in some of the situations I’ve been in, when you have that structure where everybody knows their roles; the starters know that they’re going to start and we’ve been able to have a continuity of rhythm to the game without having a lot of wrenches thrown into it. I think it helps the players prepare for their games, both the players starting and the players coming off of the bench.”
The Blazers have plenty left to prove, and they have the second-toughest schedule over the rest of the season, with only the Denver Nuggets playing more teams with good winning percentages. That said, the Blazers are showing they belong among the NBA’s elite teams, particularly with recent wins in both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Portland Trail Blazers once again look like a team to be reckoned with in the ever-tougher Western Conference.
Ricky Rubio Hype Unwarranted?
Since the long-anticipated arrival of Ricky Rubio in Minnesota the Timberwolves have been a team apparently on the cusp of being back in the playoffs long-term.
On paper, anyway.
Until this season it was hard to get a feel for just how good the Timberwolves might be with Rubio and Kevin Love as their franchise cornerstones. They just couldn’t seem to get enough players healthy to establish much of anything on the basketball court. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Kevin Love appeared in 55 of the team’s 66 games, and that was above average for the injury-riddled Timberwolves. Rubio and new addition JJ Barea appeared in just 41 games and starting center Nikola Pekovic was in the lineup just 47 times. It was surprising that they managed to pull off the 26 wins they notched.
The following season wasn’t any better, with Love out of the lineup for all but 18 games, Rubio missing 35 games and Pekovic out for 20. Head coach Rick Adelman established a reputation for being able to make something out of nothing when he coached the Houston Rockets to the playoffs despite being without Yao Ming much of the time, but even Adelman’s magic couldn’t get the Timberwolves past 31 wins.
This season was going to be different. They spent the money to keep Pekovic in town, got everyone healthy over the offseason, and they came into training camp looking to prove to the rest of the NBA that they could make their mark and ascend to the ranks of the perennial playoff teams. The only problem is that they aren’t much better this season than they were last, though their stars have stayed healthy and even have the vast majority of their second unit healthy. They’re still below .500, and they’re still out of the playoff picture.
The offensive end of the floor is definitely not the problem. The Timberwolves are second only to the Portland Trail Blazers when it comes to scoring, averaging 106.6 points per game and shooting 52.7 percent from the field. That’s despite the inefficiency of Rubio, who shoots a paltry 34.6 percent from the field. Kevin Martin has been everything the Timberwolves hoped he would be and more, pouring in 19.1 points per game as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Love. The only thing missing from Minnesota’s attack was a top-notch starting shooting guard, and Martin has answered the call.
Rebounding also hasn’t been an issue, with one of the best front lines in the NBA in Love and Pekovic corralling 22.1 boards per game between them and the rest of the squad chipping in to help Minnesota average 45.8 rebounds per game. That ranks them fifth in the NBA, but just one rebound per game behind league-leading Oklahoma City. Only the Detroit Pistons are better on the offensive glass, where Love and company grab 13.6 per game to Detroit’s 14.6.
No, where things start to get messy is on the defensive end, an area where Adelman’s teams have often been among the best in the business. The Timberwolves are 15th in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference, the Indiana Pacers own the category, yielding just 92.6 points per 100 possessions. Despite their big front line, the Timberwolves are also dead last in blocked shots per game, averaging a lackluster 3.2 as a team.
Stats don’t lie, and Minnesota’s defensive ratings tell quite a story. But there’s something else that jumps out at you when you’re watching the Timberwolves play that you don’t often hear people talk about.
What, exactly was all the hype about concerning Ricky Rubio? It caused such a stir when he was drafted, and the way everyone talked about him during the two-year wait between the 2009 draft and his NBA debut in 2011 made it sound like Minnesota was getting the next All-Star point guard. The Timberwolves were so sure that Rubio was the real deal that they didn’t lock up Kevin Love as long as they could have because they were concerned about being able to keep their young point guard.
This season a finally healthy Rubio is averaging 8.6 points and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 34.6 percent from the field. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but they aren’t nearly impressive enough to warrant the kind of hype that Rubio’s arrival in the NBA sparked.
Rubio’s sub-par play is not the only reason why the Timberwolves are struggling to play .500 ball despite boasting one of the league’s most potent offenses. To his credit, he’s saying the right things and taking the credit for his team’s shortcomings, but the reality is that in the modern NBA point guard play often dictates how well a team will fare.
It would certainly help Minnesota’s chances if they added a player or two who could help instill a defensive mindset, but what would help more than anything else would be for Rubio to finally live up to the hype. If he doesn’t, the Timberwolves could very well lose Kevin Love to free agency (he can opt out in 2015) and be stuck rebuilding with a player who never found a way to translate superb Euroleague play into NBA stardom.
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