(Note: My apologies for the terrible music in the video above, but the highlights provide ample evidence for what Gerald Wallace brings to this team.)
I couldn’t resist the temptation. They’re young, they’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re healthy, and they don’t have to worry about whether Brandon Roy or Greg Oden will play this season. The roster is set, and so far, things are looking good as they start the season 2-0.
So what have we learned after the first two games?
1. The Blazers opened the season with back-to-back home games for the first time since the ’91 season; i.e. get ready for the compressed 66-game schedule. This season, the team will play 17 sets of back-to-back games, but the good news is that the 2011 Blazers are the healthiest squad in years. I dare say the schedule might actually be beneficial in terms of developing on-court chemistry, provided that it doesn’t result in injuries. They have a new point guard in Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace still has that ‘new car smell’ after joining midway through last season, Marcus Camby has returned after missing more than 20 games last season with injuries, and the recently acquired Jamal Crawford and Nolan Smith will need to figure out their roles in the rotation. Baptism-by-fire might be the best way to get all these disparate elements to coalesce.
2. Lamarcus Aldridge is the Blazers’ best player, but Gerald Wallace is its heart and soul. Aldridge scored 25 and 24 in the first two games, but check out Wallace’s ridiculous stat lines against the Kings last night: 25pts, 8rebs, 5assts, 2blks, 2 stls. The fans love his hustle plays – taking charges, diving for loose balls, fighting for rebounds, getting out in transition – and his energy sets the tone for the rest of the team. Nevertheless, Wallace makes for an unassuming hype man since he tends to shy away from the attention. Fan favorites generally have more bombastic personalities. Either that, or they come in the form of goofy-looking white guys like Mark Madsen (or “Psycho T” Tyler Hansborough, i.e. the modern day Mark Madsen). But I digress. In any case, for the man recently-dubbed “The Predator,” the only question now is whether he will embrace his new nickname or stick with good old fashioned “Crash” (I prefer the latter).
3. There’s going to be some growing pains. It’s early in the season, and most of the guys are still trying to find their sea legs, so there’s been plenty of sloppy play to go around: errant passes, unforced turnovers, offensive fouls, missed layups, etc. But the bright side is that we weren’t nearly as horrendous as the Sacramento Kings, who had just come off a huge win over the Lakers. The Kings committed 23 fouls and 20 turnovers and shot just 16 percent from the free line in the first half (that’s right, 16 percent from the free throw line). In the 3rd quarter, the Blazers went on a 13-0 run to hold the Kings scoreless for six straight minutes, and after shooting 50% from the field in the first half, the Kings went 4-19 in the second half with only two assists as a team. Yeah, it was that bad. The Blazers could be a lot worse. (Speaking of goofy-looking fan favorites, how long will it take us to admit that Jimmer Fredette doesn’t belong in the NBA?)
4. The 2011 Blazers are an up-tempo team now. Nate McMillan is trying to stay seated on the sidelines more this season instead of pacing back and forth nervously as he’s done in the past, but throughout the first two games he could be heard screaming at Raymond Felton to push the ball up the court on every possession. (Did I mention that this is the healthiest Blazers team in years?) Let’s be honest, nobody liked losing Andre Miller. He provided stability and leadership, but the Blazers’ offense has been a slog these past few years. A little jolt of energy might be just what the doctor ordered. And we all saw what happened when Andre came out of the game and we had to depend on someone like Rudy Fernandez to handle the ball. Now we have two excellent ball handlers in Ray Felton and Jamal Crawford. In addition, Felton, Wallace, and Camby are going to force a lot of turnovers on the defensive end that should result in transition points.
5. The Blazers are going to win a lot of games. I’ll be more than happy to eat these words at the end of the season, but right now, sleep on this team at your own peril, especially if you’re in the Western Conference. The 76ers looked pretty good the other night, and I think they’re probably a playoff team in the East, but the Sacramento Kings were just awful. The Blazers won’t really be tested until they hit the road against the Clippers and the Thunder and then head back home to face the Lakers, so we’ll have a better perspective by the end of next week.