Progress in Finale
In a preseason that has been mostly underwhelming, the Trail Blazers took a big step foward in their final exhbition game on Thursday night at the Rose Garden. They got off to a slow start, but were able to fight off the Denver Nuggets in the second half, and won the game 90-83. The win doesn't totally erase the many question marks that are floating over the team, but this probably did repair some of the team's confidence issues going into the regular season that begins on Tuesday night at the Rose Garden.
As all of us have probably asked at times during the exhibition season, is it possible to simply turn it on right before the start of the regular season? Nate McMillan clearly wanted it to come before the final preseason game, but afterwards sounded relieved when he said, "I think we flipped the switch."
One guy who certainly looked like he was trying to flip the switch was Brandon Roy. He's had the look of a player who has simply been trying to get through the exhibition season, and get through it healthy. But, on Thursday night, led all scorers with 23 points, even though he didn't shoot the ball particularly well (6-20). Roy did get to the foul line, and ended up 9 for 10, and that was probably the best sign- his aggressiveness appeared to return.
This was also a game where Brandon clearly wanted a challenge at the other end of the floor as well, and wanted a chance to defend Carmelo Anthony. Rather than have Nicolas Batum on Anthony, Roy was matched up on his most of the night while Batum guarded Chauncey Billups. Roy was strong against Melo, and held him to just 6 for 23 shooting. The Nuggets, as a team, shot just 36%.
It was also nice to get the chance to see what will be the Blazers' starting lineup on opening night in this game. We didn't think Marcus Camby in this game, as he's been nursing a bruised hip. But, Camby decided before the game that he wanted to give it a go. Obviously, this is a different team when Camby is out there and others are able to play their natural positions. Camby played 34 minutes in the contest and had 17 rebounds, to go along with his eight points. The Blazers have, understandably, not rebounded well with Camby out, and that's a huge factor for this team.
We also got a look at Portland's rotation- the rotation that we're likely to see on a nightly basis, at least at the start of the regular season. It's basically going to be a nine-man rotation, with the meaningful minutes off the bench going to Wesley Matthews, Dante Cunningham, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless. At least at the beginning, I don't think we'll see the Blazers go deeper than that. If you had to pick a guy that could also be called upon to play regular-season minutes, I would guess it'll be Armon Johnson, who had a solid exhibition season and has really pushed Bayless.
Matthews, who said before the game he could have played if it were a regular-season game, sat out with a sore Achilles. That sounds like an injury that could potentially be nagging, but he certainly doesn't seem to be too worried about it. He said he's all systems go for Tuesday.
To listen to Nate McMillan's post-game comments, click here
As we've talked about, this team will have a lot to prove early in the regular season, and won't have much time to wade into the shallow end of the schedule. It's brutal, right off the bat. We'll open against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday- always a difficult matchup- and then will take on the Clippers in their home opener the next night, on Wednesday.
Following the first back to back, we'll fly from Los Angeles to New York and get ready to take on the Knicks (in their home opener) on Saturday. I don't remember a start like this in recent years. After the game against the Knicks, the Blazers will take on Chicago and Milwaukee, in another back to back, before returning home. This is a huge test in the season's first week.
So, given what you've seen, what are your biggest concerns following the exhibition season? Was this final preseason game enough to put at least a few of those concerns to rest? And, what's a realistic goal for the first week of the regular season?