They’re coming together sooner than anyone expected. Darius, Zach, Joel, Sebastian, Ruben, Jarrett – they’re not just playing for themselves; they’re playing as a team and for the victory. And they proved it in their 94-93 nail-biter-of-a-win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night at the Rose Garden.
The Blazers did everything they had to do to win the game and they did it at the right time. Take Sebastian Telfair’s drive to the hoop as the clock was winding down and the score was still tied. The Blazers, as a team, threw selfishness and “me” out the window.
Darius and Zach cleared out the lane, while Telfair cross-dribbled at the top of the key, waiting for the seconds to fall away. And then, when Telfair did finally make his move, and when his lay-up didn’t fall, it was Randolph who chest-barreled his way upwards, in search of a rebound and a last-second shot.
Rather than going with what would have been predictable (a turn and fade from Randolph or a post move from Miles), the Blazers made the eventual game-winning decision (thanks to a little help from the refs) as a team.
“We wanted to clear a path so that Telfair could get a good look,” said coach Nate McMillan. “We figured that he could get a quick step off the dribble and make it to the hoop.”
In beating the Hawks, the Trail Blazers turned their liabilities into assets. And this is exactly what they will have to do for the entire 82-game season if they hope to compete with a league full of teams who may have already written them off as being in a “rebuilding stage.”
This is what the win against the Hawks proved: Darius and Zach can lead the team without scoring every point. Randolph, in particular, had his best effort of the season thus far and he did it by playing a solid, all-around game with 21 points, 13 rebounds.
The Blazers’ youth and relative inexperience, although drawbacks on paper, during game time provide them with bursts of energy that most NBA teams can’t match. Sergei Monia, perhaps the game’s most valuable player, made a fall-away 19-footer in the fourth that gave the Blazers their largest lead of the night and a huge burst of momentum.
The point guard duo of Telfair and Jarrett Jack is quick and savvy enough to beat most teams off of the first step. Telfair had a season-high 18 points, with three assists and five boards. Jack contributed 10 points and four assists on 4-6 shooting, in just over 18 minutes of play.
“It’s working out well with them,” said McMillan. “They’re both getting more confident and they’re learning that they don’t have to compete with each other for us to win. I may even let them both play, in the future, at the same time, as twos.”
The key for the Blazers throughout the ’05-’06 will be whether or not they can remain committed to McMillan’s “win as a team, lose as a team” philosophy as the year progresses from November to April. If they can stick to it, they’ve got a shot to compete. If not, it’s going to be a long, hard haul.
“People sometimes see my face and think I’m a tough, mean guy,” McMillan said, smiling. “I’m not. I just want these guys to understand that we’re all in it together. And that we’re all here for the same reason: to win.”