It's easy to get a good read on our head coach when he spends most of the game five feet in front of where we broadcast the game along press row. Not only can we hear every word he says, he can hear most of what we are saying (which can be awkward at times, especially if Rice is going off on a rant).
Even though Terry Stotts is still very new to the scene, we've gotten to spend enough time around him to already know his tone, his patterns, and his expressions.
There was a point last night, in the first preseason game played at the Rose Garden, midway through the first quarter, when Stotts gave us a glance that summed up what he was feeling about what was happening on the floor. We made a comment about the Blazers' sudden defensive activity, as they started to force turnovers. Stotts turned, and perhaps feeling a moment of brief satisfaction, agreed with our sentiment and gave a smile and nod. Not to put words in his mouth, but it was one of those, "ahh, yes.. that's what I'm talking about."
I thought of the scene on Moneyball
, when Brad Pitt (playing Billy Beane) explains, "it's a process, it's a process, it's a process," to his players, trying to get them to fully grasp what he had been trying to impress upon them.
I'm not getting carried away here, and it was only the fourth game of the exhibition season, but last night was a nice, solid step forward. The second quarter, in particular, was by far the best 12 minutes the Blazers have played in the preseason.
No one seems too concerned about the offense. In Stotts' system, like it is in a lot of systems, you get the defense right and the offense quickly follows. You've heard it many times before- defense leads to offense. So, after watching the Blazers allow Phoenix and Sacramento both to shoot over 50 percent from the field in those two losses, holding Denver to 38-percent shooting was the key stat in the game. Add the 22 Denver turnovers to the mix (along with the 26 points scored off of those turnovers) and you've got a winning combination.
Now, it's about getting the team to understand why it worked, and repeating the lesson over and over again.
Forget that the opponent was previously-unbeaten Denver on the court at the Rose Garden last night. I know, Ty Lawson didn't play. This wasn't about the opposition. This was about the Blazers. You get your game plan in first, and then worry about who you're playing.
Of course, Portland didn't have its starting point guard, Damian Lillard, either. Nolan Smith got the start and did a nice job of running the team in his 31 minutes on the floor. Smith ended with nine points, eight assists, and turned it over only two times.
It was also good to see Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge rediscover their touch from the field. L.A. had shot just 33 percent in the first three games, and Wesley 39 percent. In this game, they each went 7 for 12. Matthews, who is very streaky, as you know, got on one of those hot streaks in the second quarter, scoring 11-straight points for the Trail Blazers as they outscored Denver 28-16 in the second 12 minutes.
There was also a feel-good vibe to this game, as Coby Karl, in front of his dad George, was very good for Portland. He's trying show he belongs in the NBA, and last night certainly helped his argument. Karl had 11 points, five assists, and make good decisions running Portland's offense. He was also helped create the highlight of the night right before the end of the first quarter. Karl collapsed the middle of Denver's defense, and floated a perfect lob to Meyers Leonard, who slammed the ball down with one hand.
The other star off Portland's bench was Victor Claver, who had, by far, his best outing of the preseason. Claver was active and aggressive, and scored 13 points, including a huge three from the corner that put the nail in the coffin late in the game.
Next up for Portland it's Golden State on Friday, again on the Rose-Garden floor. The Warriors are much improved, and will be another solid test for the Blazers. Stotts hopes it's another step, in a long line of necessary steps, for his team to show its ready for the regular season.