Portland dropped the opener of a seven-game road trip Sunday, but had the right idea. There was a not-so-subtle difference in the Trail Blazers' attitude in a double-overtime loss to the Raptors. Despite a 5-10 record away from the Rose Garden, a sense of playing not to lose was absent.
In fact, it looks like the Blazers have forgotten what it's like to be turned back. It also looks like they have no desire to be reminded.
|Brandon Roy opened the trip with a career-high 33 points. (AP)|
Travis Outlaw capped a rare four-point play to help force the first overtime. Bad teams don't make those plays. Brandon Roy, a game-time decision due to a sore right knee and sore tailbone, forced a second overtime with a desperation 3-pointer and finished with a career-high 33 points.
Ultimately, Portland went down but showed off a sense of stubborn entitlement developed during an NBA season-long 13-game winning streak that figures to serve it well on what will be its longest road trip of the season. The Blazers will play in seven different arenas in 11 days. Consider this their proving ground tour.
At the beginning of this odyssey, Portland shared the Northwest Division lead with Denver. When it ends in New Orleans on Jan. 23, its most realistic hope should be to still rank among the top eight in the Western Conference. As the week began, Utah was clinging within two games of them. Houston, despite the absence of Tracy McGrady, clawed to three back.
Both are hoping the Trail Blazers will come back down to earth, their spirit of defiance sapped by the unfriendly road. The first game of this trip was played at 9:30 a.m. PT, with a plane ride to New Jersey immediately following 58 minutes of basketball.
The Blazers lost their first nine road games this season, with eight of the losses coming by nine points or more. That was before the streak, before they believed. This is a completely different team now, one that goes out expecting to win regardless of the circumstances.
Of course, confidence is a fleeting thing in an 82-game marathon, which is why shaking off a double-overtime loss is so pivotal for a team so young, a challenge made even more difficult by the fact they now command attention.
No matter what happens against the Nets on Monday, Boston awaits Wednesday eager to get a look at a team that accomplished something it couldn't. Twice the Celtics have reached the precipice of a double-digit win streak only to be turned away. Roughly three weeks ago, the Blazers got No. 10 in a row and kept right on going. Before the loss to the Raptors, they had won 17 of 18 games. Boston loves a good challenge, especially since it is experiencing its first real turmoil of the season, losing twice in a three-game span for the first time.
Miami, with Shaquille O'Neal expected back, is set for Friday. Orlando gets them the next night, looking to wrap up a season sweep.
When the schedule came out, this trip was supposed to be about Greg Oden, exposing him to all the wonders of life on the road in the NBA. One night against O'Neal, the next against Dwight Howard. It hasn't worked out that way. Instead, though Oden will be on the trip as literally the biggest fan the Trail Blazers have these days, his teammates are the ones getting poked and prodded on center stage.
Will this trip break them or fortify them?
|Monday||Portland at New Jersey|
|Monday||Washington at Boston|
|Tuesday||Toronto at Detroit|
|Wednesday||Portland at Boston|
|Thursday||Cleveland at San Antonio|
|Thursday||Utah at Denver|
|Thursday||Phoenix at L.A. Lakers|
|Friday||Atlanta at Toronto|
|Saturday||Portland at Orlando|
|Saturday||San Antonio at Houston|
|Saturday||Detroit at Chicago|
|Sunday||New Jersey at Phoenix|
Team of the week
You should never celebrate too loudly when you need a last-second 3-pointer to avoid falling to the Clippers, but considering the alternative, Dallas has every right to feel fortunate entering the week with the NBA's longest current win streak. The clunker came on the heels of two of its most thorough performances of the season, routs of Detroit and Seattle, so you can chalk up Jerry Stackhouse's game-winner on Saturday night as a free pass from a letdown.
In the midst of a stretch where they are playing nine of 12 away from home, the Mavericks take a share of the Western Conference's best record into Sacramento on Monday and won't play again until Saturday night at home against the Supersonics. Dirk Nowitzki has led Dallas in scoring in each of its seven consecutive wins and is averaging 24.3 points per game in that span.
Team of the weak
Philadelphia enters the week on a six-game losing streak, which is a roll you don't want to be on at any point, but especially when you have to make your way through Texas. The Sixers open the week in San Antonio on Monday, visit Houston on Tuesday and head back to the East Coast for a visit to Boston and a home game against Toronto this weekend. They are one of three teams (Seattle, Miami) who have yet to record a victory in 2008. Given the schedule, they might be the last to do so.
Player to watch
Even though the NBA has temporarily taken away one of Atlanta's victories due to a scoring error, the Hawks are still at .500 this deep into the season for the first time since the strike-shortened '98-'99 campaign. One underrated reason has been the play of Marvin Williams, the No. 2 pick of the 2005 draft. Williams is averaging a career-best 16.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals. He's no longer trying to force himself into becoming a 3-point shooter and has gotten better at letting the game come to him, capitalizing on opportunities the attention paid to Joe Johnson creates for him.
• With a little help from Reggie Evans, Sixers center Samuel Dalembert will get the assignment of going at Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh this week. Fortunately, the calendar says January and he's in the midst of one of his annual, "look what I can do when properly motivated" sprees, coming off a 22-point, 20-rebound game against the Bulls last Friday.
Dalembert has four double-doubles in six outings since the new year began, which is par for the course for him in what has seemingly always been his most effective month. In 2005-06, he logged six double-doubles and averaged 8.2 points and 9.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks for January. Last season's teasing began a little later in the month, though he finished it averaging 13.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, which carried over into an excellent February. Maybe performing well against the game's best big men can help increase his confidence and make him gain more consistency.
• Stephen Jackson will be booed in his return to Indiana on Wednesday, probably getting as negative a reaction as Mike Dunleavy got when he played in front of Golden State's fans on Sunday, drawing jeers whenever he touched the ball. Jackson doesn't mind playing the villain role and flourished in his first game back in Indianapolis last season, hanging what would wind up being a season-high 36 points on the Pacers in February.
Reunion week continues Saturday when Ron Artest's Kings come to town, but Artest won't play as he continues to rehab from elbow surgery. Artest has still only played one game at Conseco Fieldhouse since being dealt by Indiana in January 2006, missing last year's game due to personal reasons.
• Thursday night would be a good time to convert your neighbor into an NBA fan. Cleveland will be back in San Antonio for the first time since getting walloped there last June in the opening two games of the 2007 NBA Finals. Utah, with Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur healthy and back in the fold, marches into Denver looking to make up ground in the Northwest Division.
In the night's final game, Pacific Division leaders Phoenix and the L.A. Lakers square off, though Andrew Bynum being out will be a detriment. Having done a number on Amare Stoudemire on Christmas Day, it would have been fun to see if he had encore in him. Instead, Kwame Brown is expected to start.
• Rivalries that aren't what they used to be are the theme Saturday. Sacramento and Indiana won't be as fun with Artest out. New York and Miami are far removed from being relevant, making you long for the days when Alonzo Mourning and Allan Houston still had their careers ahead of them.
Detroit visiting Chicago always matters regardless of the records, though it would be better if the Bulls weren't so bad this season. At least the sight of his former mates figures to have Ben Wallace inspired. Even Houston/San Antonio has taken a hit due to the Rockets' struggles, though McGrady is expected to make his return in this game after being out the past few weeks with an ailing left knee.
"There's still some pain in my knee," McGrady said over the weekend. "Mentally, I'm scared to make different cuts on the court when I am working out. And also, I am out of shape. We'll see what (Rockets) Dr. (Tom) Clanton says. At the end of the day, I have to make the decision. I am a lot better."
• There's only one game on Sunday as the NFL's championship games take center stage and the NBA prepares for its Martin Luther King Jr. blowout Monday. Fortunately it's a jewel, New Jersey at Phoenix, featuring the rare duel of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash at the point.
The last time they got together, they combined to produce one of the most memorable games played this decade, a 161-157 Suns victory in East Rutherford. Nash scored a career-high 42 points and dished out 13 assists, while Kidd tied Wilt Chamberlain with his 78th career triple-double, finishing with 38 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.
Kidd is already up to 97 triple-doubles entering the week, third all-time behind Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138). Barring a trade, Kidd and Nash are scheduled to cross paths only twice more this season, once at February's All-Star Game and again in New Jersey on March 20.