Prepare to Uprise, Rip City. The excitement is officially back in Portland, Oregon. The team website is emblazoned with slogans full of pride which emphasise the importance of unity in the recent resurgence of the state’s only Major League franchise. ‘Together We Made It Happen, Playoffs Are Back 2009’. It has been a long 6 years for the Trailblazers who have not sampled the delights of the Big Dance since 2003.
The rebuilding of the Blazers has taken time and much patience on the part of some of the most loyal fans in sports: Portland holds just about every record for attendance and sell-out streaks. The start of their current journey toward post season glory can be traced back to the 2006 draft when the Blazers took Brandon Roy 6th overall. Despite injury in his first season, Roy contributed straight away, trying to help a struggling franchise. He was rewarded with the Rookie of the Year award.
The ability of B-Roy was recognised by Portland’s front office and the franchise identified their young shooting guard as the future of the team. With that in mind, the Trailblazers sent Zach Randolph, captain, to the Knicks, clearing the way for Roy to take up a leading role and to stamp his authority on His team.
Portland’s confidence in their man has proven to be well-founded as he has done nothing but improve over his short time in the NBA, both as a player and as a leader of men. Back to back All Star nods pay testament to his talent, the first Blazer to make the mid-season showcase since Rasheed Wallace in 2001.
Having identified their leader for the foreseeable future, the Blazers set about acquiring players that could complement each other and grow together. An emphasis on youth has been apparent in Portland where veteran leadership has been replaced or usurped by youthful exuberance and confidence.
The core that has been assembled is one of the youngest in the League and based on potential, the Blazers have their destiny in their own hands. Last season they showed what direction they were headed finishing 41-41 on the back of a 13 game win streak. They did this without their number 1 draft pick Greg Oden who suffered a season ending knee injury before games had even begun. The fitness of their future All-Star center along with some wise picks in the draft bode well for the current season, demanding that other teams not sleep on Portland.
And it has come to pass. Despite Oden’s unfortunate injuries, Portland has begun to deliver on their youthful promise. With 4 games to go, the Trailblazers are tied for the 4th seed in the Western Conference, with home court advantage for the first round looking attainable. The Blazers are only half a game back on Houston for 3rd, making the climax to the regular season all important.
The playoffs are well and truly back in Rip City and such is the confidence and excitement which surrounds this young team that expectations are well above a respectable first round exit. The reason for this is simple: Portland are a team. They are not overly reliant on one player, beating others with teamwork and consistent production.
They are paced by Roy’s 22.9 points per game along with his 5.1 assists. But the Blazers can score in so many ways that teams have a hard time picking how to get beaten. In LaMarcus Aldridge they possess a developing inside presence who can not only bang in the paint but has also been pulling other big men out of their comfort zone by shooting mid range and even 3 point jump shots. Consistently. Aldridge averages 18.4 and 7.5 rebounds and is a great second option on the Blazer offense.
Consistent play by their starters is complimented by the League’s second most prolific bench, led by Travis Outlaw who is averaging 12.7, placing him among the candidates for 6th Man of the Year. Any player is capable of big nights off the bench in Oregon: Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, Nicolas Batum. All young, all supremely talented and all loaded with potential.
Their current record of 50-28 has Portland on course for a first round match up with either New Orleans or San Antonio, and with a home record of 31-7 they have every chance of progressing at least into the conference semis. Beyond that Portland will be in unchartered territory, possibly meeting the Lakers, a team who has been and done everything before.
But who knows. Strange things happen in playoff atmospheres. Only one thing is certain. Portland are back.