So, I’m going through a typical holiday travel day with airports full of families and an airplane made up of 57 percent kids, 23 percent parents who look ready to sell their children to passersby for five minutes of silence, 15 percent grumpy college kids hungover from finals celebration with the final five percent made up of innocent bystanders to the ensuing airborne madness.
And yet nothing on that five and a half hour class in abstinence drew more stares from my fellow travelers than the “Holy $%&#” I let out the moment we landed and I flicked off airplane mode. It was easily the best travel-day surprise I’ve ever received.
I could dip into the well of hyperbole here about what this win meant to the season and the franchise’s history, but there is enough of that out there and plenty of it long before this post will be published. Beating the Spurs and Mavericks in back-to-back road wins says a lot about this team, but they are great wins not because of the quality of play but because of the expectations that proceeded them.
They are also great wins because the Blazers, with their energy, made a true connection with viewers. This was no hollow, distanced team winning on talent and shooting percentages alone.
The Blazers are still going to lose their fair share of games relying on mid-range jumpers so much, but I’m not going to be a sour puss and harp on that tonight. Even if it’s not going to work at every bar every night, a pair of wingmen are still going to find success executing a finely honed game and the Blazers created workable holes in San Antonio’s fundamental defense with the three P’s of picks, penetration and positioning. Having Jerryd Bayless there to bail them out when the offense didn’t work just kept things moving at a nice, efficient rhythm
Bayless is deserving of every ounce of praise he’s getting and then some. The Blazers were without Brandon Roy, but they still got plenty of Roy in Bayless, who played the best and most consistent floor game I’ve ever seen out of him — and I don’t think it’s close. His pullup jumper is a joy to watch and there’s no question his three with two minutes remaining saved the game from a Spurs comeback, but seeing Bayless sprint back after a bucket to try and take a charge or doing two loops around the paint before finally discovering a passing seam is what makes you sit back and nod your head in agreement with the ethereal forces that seem to be whispering “Here’s one of the good ones”.
Career highs in points (31) and assists (7) for Jwoww, but he probably could have had more of each based on how consistently he was finding open shooters and getting to the rim. Tim Duncan defended some of his burst drives well, but you could tell some of Jerryd’s misses would’ve dropped or he would’ve been sent to the line on other nights. But probably the biggest way in which Bayless filled Roy’s shoes was in getting to the line 10 times. Without Brandon, Andre Miller and Bayless are Portland’s only threats to earn freebies, and they combined for 15 attempts tonight.
Note from @travismargoni: bayless becomes just the 4th player in the last 15 years to score 30+ in his first career start.
Almost everyone else on the team did something that can be labeled huge. Steve Blake’s offensive rebound tip that sealed the game. Martell Webster’s back-to-back triples. LaMarcus Aldridge returning from foul trouble — Dwight Jaynes is right, Aldridge isn’t going to foul out so don’t sit him — for a 22 and 8 while looking more like a leader on court than we’re used to. Andre Miller sealing his second consecutive game with free throws. All massive. But my mind keeps returning to Juwan Howard.
You want to know how important Howard was? His raw +/- was +22. Jeff Pendergraph’s, Howard’s backup tonight, +/- was -18. Howard just makes the post-injury transitions so much easier for guys like Bayless because he is always moving to an open spot and never playing outside of himself, except perhaps when trying to run a fast break. But on the rebounds, my gosh, did anyone think they were watching a high-mileage 36-year old out there? Granted, he was facing the rest of the Buena Vista Social Club in Duncan and Antonio McDyess, but he also rendered DeJuan Blair (6 points, 2 boards in 16 minutes) largely useless. It’s tough to expect Howard to play 37 minutes a game for the rest of the season or for him to make 152 percent of his mid-range jumpers — calculated by assuming he’s simultaneously going back in time and changing all his misses of the last three years to twine-ticklers — but as of now Juwan is the greatest difference separating this team from the last few years of Portland teams. Maybe James Jones would’ve had a similar gluey effect, but I can’t imagine past teams playing through injuries like this without guys like Howard and Dre Miller.
I bet for many of you, this is the most alive you’ve felt as a Blazer fan since Greg Oden went down. For Portland to recover, even if it’s fleeting success, so soon, to just re-establish that emotional connection so soon, that’s a feat in itself.