May 04

First And Last

By caseyholdahl Posted in: Blazers, NateMcMillan
Watching the final game of the Portland/Houston series at the Toyota Center, I was struck by how similar that game was to Game 1. Not Game 1 of the series, but the first game of the season in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Maybe it was because I saw both games in person and had the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach walking back to the locker room in Houston as I had wading through the Staples Center crowd back on the first day of the season. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we finished the same way we had started, despite the passing of six months, at least a hundred practices and 88 games. And considering the way both of those games turned out, it wasn’t a pleasant realization to come to.

There were similarities on the surface. For example, in both games the Trail Blazers scored 76 points and had relatively late change to the starting lineup. Both games were highly anticipated and nationally televised (though the Chicago/Boston triple overtime game made that only half true). But the feel of Game 6, the sense that something was askew from the tipoff, is what really reminded me of that first game against the Lakers.

But I’ve been known to misread situations. Just because the losses felt the same doesn’t necessarily mean they were products of the same problems. After all, this team had come a long way since that first Laker game, but as it turns out, I wasn’t the only person who saw the same signs.

“I saw some similarities,” said Nate McMillan of the first and final games of the season. “It wasn’t so much a lot of differences. I saw a team that could still get rattled, but had been able to respond after that. We’ve been able to do that all season long, but some of what I saw in (the first game of the season) I saw in our last game. Time just ran out for us to prove ourselves again.”

Which is a real shame. All season, the Trail Blazers had shown a resiliency that belied their inexperience, such as when they snapped the 12-game losing streak to the Spurs in the second game of the season after that first lost, and you wish they could have had an opportunity to prove themselves again.

“It’s still a team that’s trying to establish themselves,” said McMillan of the similarities. “There were all these expectations and all this talk about the team and what we’re going to do and what we’re capable of doing and the matchups.”

For McMillan, it wasn’t so much a team that had played the same way, but a team that was once again thrown into a difficult situation for the first time.

“Experience is huge and until you go through it,” said McMillan. “You don’t know how you’re going to handle it. So even though the first game was a different moment and a different challenge for them than it was the last game, it still was something they had never faced before. To face the Lakers, the Western Conference champions, your opening night on the road on national television and then to be in Houston, playing an elimination game, it’s a different challenge but it’s still very similar pressure where you have to step up and perform.”

Unfortunately, the Blazers were unable to “step up and perform” in either game to a level adequate enough to get a win, or even stay close, for that matter.

If you saw the same things, you might ask what was accomplished throughout the course of the ’08-’09 campaign? If Game 1 turns out the same as Game 88, can you really say you improved and grew as a team? The answer to that question, according to McMillan, is an unqualified “yes.”

“We did see growth,” said McMillan, “and we still see growth. The growth will continue throughout the summer when you think back on those moments and you think about how you felt Game 1 and you how you felt at the end of the season and what you need to do to change those feelings next season.

“The growth doesn’t stop just because we’re not playing. If we continue to see them grow, we’ll see them working on those things; making sure they have their game right, they’re taking care of their body, they’re working on their game, they’re back early ready to go. That’s the growth and maturity that you want to see.”


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