Game report: Blazers 100, Nets 97
Memo to Portlanders: Be very, very careful around this year's Trail Blazers. For if you open up your eyes and hearts to these guys, you may find yourself in love again.
We were once again graced with complimentary tickets, tonight for a game against the New Jersey Nets -- four seats this time, as opposed to the usual two -- and the whole family went and had a great evening. The home team played quite well, especially considering their youth, and they defeated a Nets squad (with two legitimate Hall of Fame candidates aboard) for the second time in less than a week. If you're serious about hoops, you have to sit up and take notice.
It was a classic NBA script, and with Bennett Salvatore's crew refereeing, that script usually seems to play out in the end. Home team falls behind early, comes close to the visitor a few times but keeps falling back, then stages a rally over the last few minutes and pulls out a close one. Championship Wrestling has nothing on the NBA, and tonight was a perfect example. One of my favorite people on the planet, the judge I clerked for ages ago, used to say of American pro basketball, "They should just spot both teams 100 points and play the last two minutes." Tonight it was 90 points each and the last three minutes, but his comment was proven deadly accurate, for the umpteenth time.
The crowd was sparse -- not as many fannies in the seats as at the Dallas game -- but they were much more partisan and a whole lot louder than against the Mavericks. The excitement level in the fourth quarter was right up there with some of the classic Blazer games I have attended over the last 28 years, but with far fewer fans there to partake.
There is nary a discouraging word to utter about the Portland team's performance in this one, and so let me start with an emerging truth: Hustle is back. Remember what an offensive rebound looked like back in the day? This squad is actually out there snagging those. Rookie LaMarcus Aldridge knows his way around the offensive glass, and a missed Blazer shot is no longer an automatic run down to the other end. Zach Randolph is in on that action as well, and tonight even Jamaal Magloire, whose effort against Dallas seemed a little dull to me, was a force inside.
In the backcourt, I've got news for you, and his name is Sergio. When nothing was working for the Blazers in the second quarter, coach Nate McMiilan moved Jarrett Jack from point guard to shooting guard and inserted Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez into the lineup at the point. That kid can distribute the ball. He made every other Blazer on the floor look better, and the offense clicked its way back from something like 14 points down to a very close game. Way to go, Sergio. (But work on those 3-point shots -- the air balls are a bit disconcerting.)
Jack resumed the point duties in the second half, and he turned out to be the key to the Blazers' success, with 17 points, 5 assists and even 3 rebounds. Travis Outlaw was out there for a long time, and he also turned in a pretty good show, including 13 points.
For all the mess he's created for himself off the court, self-professed gangsta thug Zach Randolph is having a monster year; nobody in the league really knows what to do about him. The key Portland plays down the stretch were all either by or through Zach, and he made each and every one of his 9 free throws. I hope he can clean up his act and stay here. He's an All-Star.
Ime Udoka played pretty well, not that it shows up in the stats. He got into foul trouble and kind of lost it toward the end. Salvatore whistled him for some nonsense call, and an upset Udoka promptly followed it up with an obvious foul that got him disqualified. He seemed to let the refs get to him, which is never a good thing to do.
Martell Webster is playing hurt. After the Dallas game, I wondered aloud why his playing time was limited and why he was carrying himself so gingerly. Turns out, it's back spasms. He, too, seems a bit frustrated out there, especially when the officiating crew is calling a foul on him for breathing too hard on guys like Vince Carter and Jason Kidd. If I were he, I'd stop reading the media rap that he's "struggling," and just try to get whatever I could out of a season in which I was injured. The Blazers made a big p.r. point out of Martell's weight training regimen over the summer. Well, now it's screwed up his back. His heart was in the right place. We know that we're going to have to wait a while before he can shoot everybody's lights out again. We're willing to wait, and he needs to be willing to do so as well.
On to the Nets. Man, they have one heck of an amazing lineup out there when it comes to fundamentals: Jason Kidd passing to Vince Carter, with Richard Jefferson standing by to pump in 20 or so when he's left open. You would think that that could be made into a winning formula. But so far, it hasn't been, and Kidd and Carter aren't getting any younger. Losing twice in quick succession to Portland has got to be a major bummer for them. I'd hate to be Phoenix, who's got to play them next. The Nets are going to be out there trying to prove something, especially to themselves.
O.k. if you're still with me after all that, there's more -- a lot more, actually. And so next let's get on with the obligatory blurry photos that I always take at the game. Since this was a rare occasion in which all the Portland Bogdanskis were on hand, here are some shots of us enjoying the Blazer scene:
These photos bring us to the personal, and perhaps best, part of tonight's story. When the Nets come to town, part of my past always seems to come with them. Last season when they were here, I reunited with long lost high school chum Fred Kerber, who covers the team for a New York newspaper.
This year, the Nets game struck even closer to home, as my nephew, a recent college grad (and a serious poker player in his spare time), has landed the position of the team's equipment manager. He travels with the Nets whenever they are on the road for more than a single game, and in the pro hoops world, that's basically all fall, winter, and spring. Procuring seats for loved ones in relatively out-of-the-way places like Portland, Oregon is second nature to folks in positions like his, and it was through his generosity that the four Portland Bogdanskis were in the stands.
And so tonight we added a new feature to our Blazer game routine: We hung around at the players' exit after the game so that we could bid farewell to my nephew. There were 100 or so hearty fans hanging out trying to score autographs from exiting players, and while we waited for my nephew to emerge, we got a feel for the post-game autograph scene.
Here's Ime Udoka (I think) signing some 'graphs:
Another player who was generous with his time, but never took his iPod earbuds out, was unknown to me. Is this Stephen Graham of the Blazers?
The nicest guy of them all was Sergio Rodriguez of the Blazers. We were standing around by the gate as he was driving through. He noticed our two girls, stopped the car, and rolled down the window to say hello to them. "Beautiful, beautiful," he said, smiling all the time. For a second, when he first stopped in the darkened garage, we thought it might be my nephew -- the two guys have the same basic figure, and the driver was that attentive to us and our daughters. "We love you," the Mrs. blurted out.
Later we laughed about it. Sergio had no idea that our expression of love was a case of mistaken identity. But given the spirit with which he played, and given how delighted he was just to look at our little family, we decided to let that comment stand. We love you, Sergio.
I know how right it has felt to loathe the Blazers these last several years. As regular readers of this blog know, I was among those who felt that the team no longer deserved respect, much less affection. I have no use for Paul Allen and his weirdness. But you look at kids like LaMarcus, Ime, Martell, Jarrett, Sergio, and a leader like Nate, and hey, these are good people. The fact that they're winning some games against good opponents, and playing well almost all the time, is just icing on the cake.