Homecoming heroes

    For one night, all of the dismal expectations and countless doubters that the Portland Trail Blazers had coming into the season were put to rest. Forgotten was the Blazers’ NBA worst 21-61 record last season and many predictions that they may be even worse this season. On this particular night, all the negativity that normally swirls around the team was put on hold, as Portland looked prim and polished in their 88-86 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night.

    As Saturday night began, the home opener against the T-wolves provided the Blazers’ faithful their first real glimpse of this year’s squad. And based on the way fans filled up the Rose Garden, selling the game out with 20,113 bodies, and the playoff-caliber enthusiasm they exerted throughout game, it seemed Blazers’ aficionados were more than pleased with their team.    

    The tighter the score became down the stretch, the louder the fans got, filling the Garden’s airwaves with chants of “D-Fence" and “Let’s go Blazers." By the waning moments, all of the excitement that had gradually built up through the first 41 minutes transformed into deafening cheers that blew the top off the Garden, as Juan Dixon knocked down the go-ahead three pointer and Kevin Garnett misfired to seal a surprising Blazers victory. Once the clocked showed all zeros, confetti rained down on the heads of the sellout crowd and the fans left the arena with full-blown smiles on their faces. 

    Considering Portland’s average attendance dropped an astonishing 9.3 percent last season, the Blazers’ ability to win the hearts of their fans with their gutsy performance on opening night was almost as important as the victory that they squeaked out on the court.

    ”That’s what we play for, the fans," said Blazers head coach Nate McMillan. “What we wanted to do was establish how we were going to play at home and create an identity for ourselves. We wanted to give these fans something to come back for."

    Just as scores of billboards around the city suggest, on opening night the Blazers’ pain will really be Portland’s gain. All of the hard work and preparation that McMillan put his squad through during the off-season shined through in these early games.

    Being one of the youngest teams in the NBA, it is expected that the Blazers would falter in a game’s most pressure-packed moments. However, that wasn’t the reality against Minnesota as Portland’s young talent illustrated that youth doesn’t necessarily mean inexperience. In the final five minutes of a close game, easily the most crucial period, McMillan felt comfortable enough with a couple players barely old enough to drink, in Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster and rookie sensation Brandon Roy, to leave them in the game. The trio responded by fueling the surge that captured the lead in the final minutes, making veteran-like decisions but still using the unmatched athleticism permitted by their youth.

    ”Those young guys showed me that they have potential to do some good things," said McMillan. “They played aggressive. They played with confidence, and they played together. Young guys usually go up and down, and that is what we have seen so far. Tonight was just a good night against a good team for those guys."    

    Avenging his porous performance against Golden State just one night prior to Saturday’s home opener, Outlaw made a big difference against KG and company. The fourth-year player impressively filled the box score with 18 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two steals.

    Year after year, Blazers’ fans have been patiently waiting for Outlaw to live up to the billing he immediately inherited after being selected with the 23rd pick in the 2003 draft. If the young stud continues to couple his godlike athletic ability with good decision making on the floor like he did on Saturday night, he should quickly fulfill expectations and even become a leader on this Portland squad.

    With the Dixon’s last-second jumper from behind the three-point stripe, Portland’s record now stands at 2-1 coming into a couple of games versus the two Los Angeles teams. The Blazers head to southern California for a date with the Clippers and then return home to host Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on Wednesday night.        

    The home opener had a feel to it that was nonexistent with all the losing in the past couple of seasons. As Portland made a final push to claim the lead in the fourth quarter, the fans’ cheers and screams proved that they were genuinely behind their team for the first time in a good while. So, the Blazers may have won just another game, but for one night they also won back their fans.