Tonight was a turning point in our Blazer fandom. Until tonight, we fretted over the team's starting roster, substitution patterns, and chemistry. But after watching the Blazers take apart the injury-depleted New Jersey Nets tonight, we're convinced that none of what we've been worrying about is going to matter much as the season, still young at this point, wears on. The Blazers are so loaded with talent, and they've gotten off to such a good start this year, that the performance of individual players and the luck of the bouncing ball are going to play as big a role as anything else.
We were blessed with courtside seats -- third row, literally at midcourt, opposite the benches. My friend, who scored the tickets, was sitting on the other side of the halfcourt line from me, in the next seat. From this vantage point, the spectator is quite close to the game. The players' heads are above the fans. If you shout something to the players, they hear you. If they shout something to each other, you hear them. You're so low down in the stands that you can't see the giant screen up above -- but if you're paying attention at all, you won't need to.
The Blazers are so thick with hoop skills that fully two thirds of the league won't be able to keep up with them. Greg Oden, the team's leading scorer with 18 points, is a serious force on both ends of the floor. He still commits too many fouls, but when he's on the court, he eliminates the inside game for the smaller players on the opposing team. Tonight he played 25 minutes, and even when he racked up his fifth foul, Coach Nate left him in the game. All to the good.
The other amazing guy out there in the Rip City uniform is Andre Miller. Man, what a high basketball IQ this man has, and he's not shy about sharing it with his teammates. There's no doubt that he's the quarterback when he's out there. On every offensive possession, he's calling out plays and directing traffic. On defense, he's yelling out picks and waving wayward Blazers into position. He's making amazing passes, and he's got the rest of the team thinking along the same lines. LaMarcus Aldridge had 4 assists to go with his 12 points and 8 rebounds. We attribute that to the influence of Miller.
Brandon Roy is Brandon Roy. If everything else breaks down, you can just hand it to him and get out of the way. Given how all the Blazers' parts are clicking right now, however, there's less need for that than ever, and one just hopes he doesn't get rusty not having to carry the team on his back every night. There will be games in which Roy is Portland's only hope down the stretch. We need him in a position to shine when those moments arrive.
Martell Webster has grown up. He's starting, he's getting minutes, and he's contributing. We hate to wish injury on any player, but the absence of the wounded Travis Outlaw and Nicolas Batum have simplified matters considerably at Webster's position, and that's also for the good. Martell is the small forward, and when the other guys get healthy, it will be his job to lose. That's a relief.
Rudy Fernandez finally looks like he belongs here. Sure, he'd rather be starting, but he's in with a phenomenal bunch, and he's contributing on a couple of different levels. He's joined in the passing festival, and tonight he nailed a few three-pointers that got the crowd revved up. He hit one in the second half with the clock running down that he seemed to pull out of his derriere. He turned to the crowd with a smile, as if to say, "That's what I do."
It wasn't much of a game. The Blazers never trailed, but the Nets did tie the score in the low 50's with about 6 minutes to go in the third quarter. New Jersey's only bright spot was Brook Lopez, who had 32 points. When Oden was out and Joel Pryzbilla was in at center for the Blazers, the Nets went to the hole with impunity.
Steve Blake hit a couple of threes and muddled through his usual game, but at this point, there's no need for him to do much more than keep Roy happy and turn in a workmanlike performance. Even at 25 minutes a game, off the bench, it is Miller who will take the Blazers to the next level.
Newcomer Dante Cunningham played 17 minutes, and he looked solid. We roll our eyes when Coach plays too many guys -- Jerryd Bayless is still on the floor, for no good reason -- but Cunningham looked like a true baller tonight. So a 10-man rotation it is.
This is going to be a remarkable season for Portland. When we get through the incredibly easy stretch of the schedule that November has presented -- and especially when we get into March and April -- this city is going to be going nuts.
On the personal side, we had a fun time at the Rose Garden. We spent a few minutes with our blogging colleague Dwight Jaynes, and even a few minutes with Fred Kerber, who covers the Nets for the New York Post. Freddy and I go back 43 years, and it's always a tonic to shake his hand and catch his take on the world.
As ever, we've got some amateur photos from our vantage point. Here are the Blazers during the national anthem. Roy is in the line, and so John Canzano, go soak your big fat irrelevant head:
Here's Andre on the attack in the second half:
Mr. Oden goes to the office:
We'll get another look at the Blazers Friday night against Memphis, who despite their terrible record have the potential to make trouble for Portland. In the meantime, we'll be eating our turkey content in the knowledge that the Blazers are in great shape for the season -- maybe even a historic season. It's quite possible.