When Terry Stotts took the podium following his Blazers’ 92-86 win over the Boston Celtics (the team’s first win in their last eight games), he kicked off his remarks by complementing his team’s play. He then said, with the kind of candor that has become one of his better trademarks, that he was shocked to find out that Portland was home to some many Boston Celtics fans.
He’s not the first one to make that claim. Two seasons ago, Dante Cunningham threw out a pretty notorious tweet complaining about the preponderance of green in the Rose Garden the night the Celtics came to town. It’s not a new thing.
Sunday night felt like a home game for both teams. Boston isn’t the only team from out of town that draws big crowds, but they’re up there with the Lakers and the Heat for biggest national fan bases around the league. So why is that important? Mostly because local fans of the team that plays 42 of its games in Portland pride themselves on being louder and more supportive than every other fan base in the NBA.
It was Wesley Matthews who made the big threes (five of them in total) and Damian Lillard who came up with the clutch and one. It was Victor Claver grabbing a season-high 10 rebounds in his first extended run of meaningful minutes. It was LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum doing what they do best. All of which put the Blazers over the top Sunday. But it was the back and forth between Celtics fans and Blazer fans that turned Sunday night into one of the best home games of the season.
The Blazers don’t have a lot of meaningful games left. There are going to be nights in March and a few in April where there are going to be better things for Portlanders to do (the Timbers season is starting for real pretty soon and the weather is getting nicer by the day). Nights like Sunday have to be remembered, if simply so we can all remind ourselves that a pretty unsuccessful season had it’s high points and that those high points weren’t so bad in and of themselves.
Possibly, though, the most important thing to take away from Sunday’s game is that this roster and these rotations are what we are going to be seeing not only for the rest of this season, but likely for next season too. Eric Maynor made his debut Sunday night and played almost 15 effective (if a little rusty) minutes. Victor Claver logged 19 and a half minutes, all of them at the stretch four. Meyers Leonard spent a nice 16 and a half minutes on the floor, blocking a shot, grabbing six rebounds, scoring three points, and only picking up two personal fouls. These are three guys that are going to help the Blazers win games in 2013-14 and beyond. That we got to see them have good nights Sunday is simply the beginning.
I know it’s a bit strange to talk about three guys (Claver, Maynor, and Leonard) who combined for nine points when talking about Sunday’s game, a game in which all five of Portland’s starters scored at least 11 points. But my larger point is this: we all know what the Blazers’ core group is capable of. We know that Wesley Matthews can catch fire and that Damian Lillard was a rookie for like the first two seconds of his career and that LaMarcus Aldridge has probably the best mid range jumper of anybody over 6’10” in the NBA and that Nicolas Batum is a poor man’s Kevin Durant which makes him better than most of the guys in the league who play his position.
What this team needs is depth, guys who can pick up the slack when Portland’s starters go to the bench. We didn’t see a take-over kind of game from anybody on the Blazers’ second unit, but we did see some consistency from the bench that this team hasn’t had before.
Does this mean that Portland is about to rattle off a dozen wins and get back into the Playoff picture? Probably not. But it does mean that there is a chance this Blazer team will have something of real value to build on in the off-season. It does mean that regardless of how the wins and losses shake out, 2012-13 wasn’t a total loss. And it does mean that we’ve very likely seen the end of Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, the last two major draft day misses by the Blazers. Those are all good things.
Portland wasn’t flawless on Sunday. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the defensive end, especially when it comes to giving up shooting fouls late in the shot clock, and the Blazers have yet to come up with a go-to set or play when teams start doubling hard on Damian Lillard. But just as developing solid rotations will be part of Portland’s long-term building process, adjusting to opponents locking down on Dame and playing solid team defense are two changes the Blazers will have to make if they want to win big games in the future, of which there will hopefully be many.
Portland has a bit of a break before hosting the Nuggets on Wednesday. The Blazers’ next home game will be the second of a four-game home stand. It would behoove Portland to do no worse than a split of these next four games. A sweep would be preferable considering that two of the next three games are against the Charlotte Bobcats (the worst team in the NBA) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (the worst team in the Blazers’ conference).