After holding off a spirited late-game rally by the 76ers, the Trail Blazers locker room was all smiles Monday night. Things got especially playful.
Grinning mischievously, LaMarcus Aldridge tossed a bag of ice on to the lap of Jamal Crawford, who was in the midst of giving post-game interviews. His rhythm broken, Crawford tossed the bag back at Aldridge and the two shared a laugh.
Former teammates in Charlotte, Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton playfully butted heads, jostling over the placement of their lockers, which are side by side.
Playing for the media, Felton told Wallace there was no way the two could spend the season in such close proximity. “You’re gonna have to move,” Felton deadpanned.
“No,” Wallace volleyed back with his deep southern drawl. “I ain’t going nowhere. You’re gonna have to move.” He pointed across the room and the two continued on, nipping back and forth like old friends.
Together the team watched SportsCenter, hoping to catch a glimpse of their soon-to-be opponents and wincing at the highlights of their own game, where Andre Iguodala and and Lou Williams put together a string of high-difficulty late-game threes.
The Sixers’ run, which the Blazers held off by making their free throws, was more a product of good shots than defensive breakdowns, the Blazers said from coach McMillan on down. And in the end Portland got the ‘W,’ they said, which, under the circumstances, cures all ills.
Indeed, the Blazers’ locker room was particularly effervescent. It was the joys of an opening-night win, the holiday spirit and the release that comes with finally playing a meaningful game after a lockout threatened (and shortened) the season.
But there seemed to be something else at play: the mix of personalities in Portland’s locker room seems to be as well-balanced than it has in some time. Which is not to say that Blazers have been ill-matched, or had bad personal chemistry in years passed—far from it. It’s just that this team appears to be even more closely knit.
Blame, in part, the departure of a generally stoic Rudy Fernandez, and his segmented click with Patty Mills. And perhaps more importantly, blame the absence of Brandon Roy. Again, it was not that Roy was disliked, but his struggles with injury last season left the roster in a state of constant flux. Could he contribute? Was he trying in vain? Who was the team’s leader?
Now, everyone knows their role. Aldridge is The Man. Crawford is not bothered by coming off the bench. No one seems itching to be traded. The veterans—more than Portland has had in some time—are treated with respect and deference. The rookies know their place. That said, the Portland’s rotation is far from settled.
Coach McMillan said that with the shortened training camp he is still somewhat unsure of how things will shake out. He did say, however, that he’s aiming for a settled rotation rather than plugging in guys and going with whomever’s hot on a given night.
And while they didn’t shoot particularly well (41% from the field to Philadelphia’s 48%), Portland took care of the ball (just 12 turnovers) and won the rebound battle. Still, the Blazers say, they have yet to get their wind back, and it will take more time to settle into the playing habits of their new teammates.
Surely it’s too early to make any grand predictions, but Monday’s 107-103 win could offer a fairly representative picture of the 2011-12 Blazers.
Felton is a scrappy and capable floor-general and led the team with eight assists while adding nine points. Gerald Wallace lives up to his nickname, “Crash,” flying all over the court, diving for loose balls, running out on the break and wreaking general havoc. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing big minutes and scoring accordingly. The offense is going to be on his back. Crawford, however, will be relied upon to spark the second unit’s offense while handling point guard duties when Felton gets his rest. Undeterred by age, Marcus Camby continues pulling down loads of rebounds (he grabbed a game-high 13 in just 28 minutes). And when they’re hitting shots from distance, as the Blazers did Monday, netting nine of 19 attempts from behind the arc (47.4%, led by Wesley Matthews 3-6), Portland will be a difficult team to beat.
They also showed Monday that their late-game, isolation-heavy offense may keep games closer than they should be. In true McMillan fashion there will likely be a lot more grind-it-out nail-biters than runaway victories.
However it all shakes out, the post-game atmosphere made one thing clear: this year’s Blazers are ready to enjoy the ride.