The New Era Starts with a Bang
Following an emotionally-draining day, near the conclusion of a disappointing and eventful seven-game road trip, comes one the most dramatic wins for the Trail Blazers in recent memory. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. Reality truly is better than fiction.
You know to expect the unexpected, or at the very least to never rule out the totally unexpected, but I’m not sure I even let myself consider this as a possible ending to this night. I should have, but I didn’t.
After trading two-fifths of their starting lineup, and firing their head coach on Thursday, to then beat the team with the NBA’s best record, and do it on their home court, one game after they had humbled the Miami Heat? Please.
Jamal Crawford, who wasn’t even expected to be a Blazer heading into the final moments of the trade deadline, told me in the hotel lobby Friday morning, “I’m so thankful I’m still here. We’re making the playoffs. We’re not mailing in anything.” I wanted to believe him (on both counts), and did my best to imagine Portland drastically turning things around. But, I’ve been on courtside for these couple of losses. Understand?
Never underestimate the power of belief. Say what you want about Kaleb Canales, he believes. As everyone said after he was unexpectedly hired as the interim head coach of the Trail Blazers, the players love him, respect him, and believe in him. They were out to show everyone that at the United Center on Friday night.
It was clear the Blazers were playing with a different level of confidence and focus, even in the early stages of the game against the Bulls. But, that much was very predictable. There’s a very wide gap between coming out fired up, and then actually sustaining that, coupled with poised play, for a 48-minute NBA game against a dominant opponent.
Chicago expected to get Portland’s best. They were firing on all cylinders in the first half, shooting 55 percent at halftime, and led by three points. But, they could never shake the Blazers. Near the end of the third quarter, they took a 79-71 lead, and looked to be perhaps ready to pull away. But, Portland fought back again and trailed by just one point heading into the fourth.
Knowing the Blazers were 0-20 when trailing after the third quarter this season, and Chicago was 31-0 when leading, nobody inside the arena appeared too concerned. But, Portland’s run was just getting started. They continued to hit big shots, but more importantly absolutely locked down Chicago defensively in the final 12 minutes.
The Bulls, who had been so sharp with their offense most of the night, were suddenly stagnant, and fighting to find ways to attack a swarming Portland defense. Chicago ended up shooting just 3 for 23 in the fourth. The Trail Blazers ended the game on a 28-10 run, and won the game 100-89.
After the game concluded, Canales gathered his players together and told them he loves them, and believes in them. He had tears in his eyes when he approached me for the post-game interview, so, I tap danced for a moment to give him a second to take a breath. I don’t remember much about the interview, only that I was interviewing this kid that I have known for a decade, who is now in charge of an NBA team, and had just beaten the cream of the crop.
In the locker room I saw Crawford heading for the shower, and he said again, “we’re making the playoffs.” He also said, “I only had 8 points tonight, but it felt like I had 30. There’s a reason I’m still here.” LaMarcus Aldridge told me this was the most fun he’s had in a Blazer uniform. Nic Batum said he was so proud of his teammates. Nolan Smith didn’t seem that bothered that Duke had just been upset in the big dance. Even Joel Przybilla, who turned down Chicago and Miami to come back to Portland, had a smile on his face that was pure Joel- that look like he’s trying not to smile, and is embarrassed that he can’t stop.
I don’t know what’s going to come out of this. I don’t know if it was just one night, or if we’ve really stumbled on to something. But, right now I don’t really care. This was a good night for the Trail Blazers, and a very good night for all of their fans. You deserve it.
One more and we head home. Talk to you from OKC.