The first time I visited my wife—then my girlfriend—in Portland, the silo on the Willamette to the north of the Steel Bridge was papered with a massive Blazers ad. In my memory, it is a holdover from the “Rise Up” campaign, but I can’t be sure. This would have been early last season, perhaps ten days in, before things here turned. It was my first visit to Portland, the only NBA town to that point I had a real connection with, now that my girlfried lived there. I’d always watched, and blogged about some teams for a few years, but seeing that ad out the right side window of the Max was exciting in a way that maybe ought to be embarrassing considering that I was 22 and it was a billboard.
The next time I came back to Portland, a different ad was on the silo. This one I’m sure of. It had that image of LaMarcus cradling the ball to the left side of his head and it said “Portland’s All-Star.” By this point the character of the season had revealed itself, but even still I was struck by the ad. I mean, it was huge, and the one before it was, too. Those ads, because they were one of the first truly distinctive things I saw on my trips into town from the airport, were a sort of touchstone for Portland and the reality of an NBA team woven into its DNA.
Right now, the silo has an enormous ad for a country music festival that happened months ago.
I took the festival billboard in for the first time on the way to a pre-season game. I’m sure I’d seen it, but I don’t think I’d really noticed the lack of a Blazers ad since I’d established myself in town and the silo became a more commonplace sight for me. But walking into that pre-season game, I realized that it was fitting. There was no single image or tag-line, no hook, to define this team. Sure, the faithful took solace in a top-20 player and a few highly prized rookies, but with all the organizational flux that the offseason saw, the team still didn’t have a focused identity to project to casual fans and commuters.
Since that preseason game, the Blazers launched their campaign for this season: “New Team. New Dream.” It’s a little more ethereal than “Rise Up,” but it gets across the point that the team is starting over, and that the failure of “Rise Up” is behind Portland. I was puzzling this afternoon over what “New Dream” could mean—after all, the NBA has a relatively fixed goal for most of its teams. And then I noticed that the country billboard is still up. And then Damian Lillard scored 23 points to pair with 11 assists in his first NBA game, which was a drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers that wasn’t as close as the 116-106 score.
For a night, the promise of this roster outshone the pratfalls, and it had a distinctive look. It looked fast and fluid where “Rise Up” was dominated by rigorous orthodoxy. The Blazers jumped out to a quick start dominated by precise shooting from Lillard and Aldridge and some reckless optimism in the paint from Nic Batum. Though at half time those three accounted for 45 of 62 points, there was a sense that some of what was happening was sustainable.
In the second half, the Lakers helped prove it so. Lillard added some aggression to his effective shooting, feasting on the carcass of Steve Blake that was pressed into action by what is being called a leg contusion to Steve Nash. Aldridge, too, ventured rimward a bit more often, and Batum put on one of the more extended displays of the promise he has come to semi-permanently embody. Of course, none of this could have happened without the Lakers, and they did look abysmal.
From tip-off, the Lakers appeared every bit as sluggish and out of sync as they did in their game against Dallas last night, missing each other on cutters, blowing defensive rotations, and seeming generally muck-mired. Saying they’re a work in progress is an understatement, as their issues seem to run the gamut from physical ailments to firmly entrenched ideological disputes. Perhaps some opponent could have taken advantage of the weaknesses the Blazers showed tonight, but the Lakers proved that they were in no condition to be that opponent.
And there were weaknesses. The Blazers spent long minutes with Nolan Smith and Sasha Pavlovic on the floor, and while Pavlovic had a flukish streak in the third quarter that extended the Blazers’ lead, that backcourt will be a tarmac for many opposing offenses. And despite J.J. Hickson’s stealth double-double, production was almost wholly limited to Lillard, Aldridge, Wes Matthews, and Batum. The precipitous dropoff in talent between the first and second units has not been a secret with this team, and though it didn’t matter tonight, the rotations Terry Stotts played suggested that this will cause some long nights down the road.
Still, tonight’s win provided what I wasn’t sure it would. It provided a glimpse of what might make it onto the silo. It breathed some form into the “New Dream.” Tonight suggested that the slogan might not simply be a concession to the Blazers’ long road back to regular victories, a way to gloss the distance between this team and a championship contender. Maybe it suggests that Portland isn’t faced with the joyless, grinding calculus of system, but the small and fluid triumphs that we savor even as the alarm is sounding to wake us.