Blazers in first place

This is exactly what wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not this early, not this fast.

The Blazers are defying their critics. They’re competing. They’re winning games. They’re playing “McMillan ball.”

And now, having pushed their record to 3-3 with a 96-93 victory over the Chicago Bulls at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers have sole-possession of first place in their division.

Yes, you read it right. The Blazers are in first place.

“I think good work should be recognized,” point guard Jarrett Jack said. “Some people picked us to finish second-to-last in the entire league, so this feels good. And if we can finish out this home stand and beat Golden State, we’ll be 4-3. Then, if we can squeeze out some wins on the road, we’ll be right where we want to be.”

So, how are the Blazers doing it? How is a team that was supposed to be full of nothing but holes holding its own on the court, night in and night out? Two words: Nate McMillan.

Though he is only in his first-year with the team and he’s still learning players’ strengths and weaknesses, McMillan has already shown a command over and knowledge of the Blazers that has to make him the early-season front-runner for NBA Coach of the Year. Simply put, McMillan is making the right decisions at the right time.

For instance, take a look at the Blazers’ game-winning shot against the Bulls on Wednesday night. McMillan specifically designed the play as a Sebastian Telfair drive that would eventually kick back out to Zach Randolph at the top of the key as time ran out. However, with Randolph covered and the clock ticking, Telfair had to make a long sprint towards the basket and hoist up a fall away two in the lane.

Covered during the drive by the Bulls’ Michael Sweetney, Telfair was hit hard though and his shot couldn’t find its way into the hole. Yet, with Sweetney, a big forward, on Telfair, Blazers’ center Theo Ratliff was left unguarded, and Ratliff slammed the loose ball through the net, propelling the Blazers to the lead and the win.

It sounds complicated, and it is. It’s professional basketball. But, broken down, the key points to the series all stem from choices that McMillan made in calling the play. He knew that the Bulls would be focusing on Randolph. The burly forward was leading the Blazers with 22 points and his hot hand had kept his team in the game in the second half.

So, McMillan allowed Telfair to create motion. He allowed Telfair to dictate the flow of the play, to see how the Bulls’ defense would respond to the motion and then make a decision based off of that. And when the Bulls stayed on Randolph as Telfair drove, it was McMillan’s idea to leave Ratliff in the game that put Portland over the top.

“Basically, we were trying to come up with a combination that would allow us to finish the game,” said Head Coach Nate McMillan. “It was supposed to be a pick-and-roll high; Zach was knocking down his shot. So, we wanted to see if Sebastian could get to the basket or draw a kick out to Dixon in the corner. We had talked about putting in another guard, in place of Theo. But we decided to go big, in case there was a miss. And Theo was right there.”

This isn’t the first instance that McMillan has made the right move, at the right time,

while coaching the Blazers. In fact, right now, at this point in the season, he’s only making the right moves.

He has a team that many predicted would be 0-6 at this point playing .500 ball. He has a team that is filled with fresh, new, young faces playing like it’s known each other for years. And he has a team that both believes in what he says and how he says it – and it shows. Telfair and Jack have responded remarkably well to their splitting of the point-guard role. As have Ratliff and Joel Pryzbilla as a center-tandem and Randolph and Darius Miles as the team’s main go-to-guys.

“We’ve got to trust each other, even if shots aren’t falling,” McMillan said. “When guys are open, we’ve got to get those guys the ball. I thought that our taking care of the ball, getting opportunities at the basket and taking the ball to the basket made a difference tonight.”

Trust. It’s something that the last few Blazers’ teams have lacked. In spades. And it’s the one thing that’s going to carry this team through the entire 82 game season. That’s going to allow them to play as one, as a team, when the injuries begin to mount and the persistent questions don’t fall away. Trust, “McMillan ball”: they mean the same thing.