(Sports Network) - Counted out before the new NBA season even began, the
Portland Trail Blazers apparently never received that memo.
Did the Blazers deserve to be labeled irrelevant? Absolutely. All they have is
LaMarcus Aldridge, right?
Hold your horses, partner.
The Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time in four years with a 28-38
record in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, and were "blessed" with two
picks in the first 11 of this past summer's NBA Draft. If anyone's been
monitoring Portland's situation, especially the backcourt, selecting a point
guard was priority No. 1.
Enter Damian Lillard.
Lillard was a standout for Weber State, a lesser-known school in northern
Utah, and knew coming into his current situation he would have some big shoes
to fill. Brandon Roy was the face of the Blazers' franchise and reluctantly
let go following too many knee issues. Roy could score at will at full
strength and since received a second chance with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Now backcourt duties rest upon the young shoulders of Lillard, a floor general
with speed and ball-handling skills worthy of future All-Star status. What
more can first-year head coach Terry Stotts ask for? Not much after what
Lillard and the Blazers did in a 116-106 season-opening triumph at the expense
of the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, a team loaded with future Hall of Famers in
Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
"A huge win for us," Wesley Matthews, who scored 22 points, told the Portland
Tribune. "We have a lot of doubters against us, a lot of people writing us
"This isn't going to silence them, but it should certify our belief in
Lillard convinced some cynics, too, as he filled the stat sheet with 23
points, 11 assists, three rebounds and one steal. He did have six turnovers,
but give the kid some credit. He just helped dispatch the Lakers, the
favorites to represent the Western Conference in the finals and possibly win
another NBA title.
Portland has something going here early on. A Lillard-to-Aldridge connection
could become an ordinary phrase in the Pacific Northwest. There's also
Matthews and Nicolas Batum for Portland, which might have reached the playoffs
a season ago had Lillard been drafted before the lockout was official. On the
flip side, Lillard may not have been there for the picking in June had the
Blazers finished better than 10 games under .500.
It's just one game for the Blazers, whose five starters scored in double
figures and helped shoot 50.6 percent on the evening. Lillard was the key. He
got everyone involved and even Aldridge said the rookie "played great."
Lillard joined Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas as the only players in NBA
history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in their NBA debut. The 11
assists were the most by a player in his debut since Jason Kidd had 11 back in
1994, when Lillard was still learning how to talk.
The 22-year-old Lillard became the first player with at least 23 points and
nine assists in his initial pro appearance since LeBron James in 2003, and is
only the third player in franchise history to net 23 points or more in his
coming out party (Maurice Lucas, Mychal Thompson). Lillard said it's easier
for him to distribute the ball when Aldridge, Matthews and Batum are making
their shots. He also wanted to make Nash work on both ends of the floor and
the two-time NBA MVP was forced to leave the game with a leg ailment. Perhaps
the spry Lillard was too much for Nash, whose career is soon coming to an end.
According to Aldridge, the team's lone All-Star, Lillard ran the offense like
a seasoned veteran and made shots "when he had to." Batum was impressed with
his new teammate as well, saying "the balance of his game is really good."
Lillard is reminding Portland fans of a former point guard with his polished
skills, and could be the best floor general since Terry Porter kept the likes
of Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth in check.
Yes, it was only the first game and there are 81 to go, yet it wouldn't be a
surprise now if Portland sneaks into the playoffs with a seventh or eighth
seed. That's miles away, of course, and things could happen down the road.
Fatigue, injuries, egos are just a few aspects that could be a distraction.
In a season loaded with questions regarding chemistry, the development of
youth and avoiding another lottery pick, the Blazers are off to a promising
start. As if facing the Lakers on opening night was a burden, Portland has
three straight road tests against Oklahoma City, Houston and Dallas on the
horizon. Lillard won't catch a break either against upcoming guards Russell
Westbrook of Oklahoma City and both James Harden and Jeremy Lin of Houston.
Lillard was asked if the intensity level will be different at the Thunder.
"I know it will, especially going to their gym," Lillard said. "It looked like
a crazy atmosphere. I watched their team a lot. They have a really competitive
team and two of the best players in the league."
That trek could deflate the high hopes Portland has right now. The upcoming
path won't get any smoother after the grueling road swing, with the Clippers,
Spurs and Hawks slated to invade Rip City from Nov. 8-12.
Lillard said after his dazzling debut that the Blazers haven't set specific
goals this season other than to "get better everyday" and "compete."
To reference the Beatles, the NBA season is a long and winding road, and
Lillard will experience his ups and downs. For now, at least, he has the Rose
City optimistic the roller coaster season will come to a halt in the playoffs.
The Sports Network