We have seen the season play itself out from start to finish. And while solutions to our team's, "problems," have been popping up out of the earth like unwanted gopher holes in our grandfather's front yard, I would like to add a little perspective to a season that saw us take a step back rather continue the expected upward ascension.
What reasonable conclusions have you come to? Do you think we need a new GM? A new owner? A new coach? Better X's and O's? Better players? A new training staff? To get healthy and stay healthy? Better luck? All of the above? None of the above?
In this post, I don't want to talk about any of the supposed, "areas of need," that I just listed--I want to talk about something that must be present no matter what other, "quick fixes," our brain trust comes up with. I want to talk about a fact that we all may know about to a certain extent--a problem that the team cannot overcome with quick fixes (and no amount of finger pointing is going to help this one). Somebody at the top has got to take another look at the big picture!
The concept that is crying out for more consideration is the outright necessity of toughness and intensity when it comes to winning games in the playoffs. No matter who is coaching, playing, or healthy, and no matter what the X or the O does, come playoff time, teams have to play angry and tough, ... as if other men are trying to steal their wives from them.
In the regular season the best teams are still able to win most of their games without giving their best effort. The season is long, the rotations include up to 10 or 11 players, and coaches have more of a tendency to let things slide a little in order to develop their young players. This list of potential excuses for sandbagging could go on, but the important point here is that even the rookies quickly learn the etiquette of taking it easy. For those just adjusting to the riggers of NBA life, the season is really, really, long, and there is always the, "rookie wall," that everyone talks about. As a member of the, "club," or "culture," one realizes that the regular season doesn't really matter. Playoff positioning will work itself out toward the end of the season anyway--when it is finally time to pick it up a little bit in anticipation of the, "second season."
For players and coaches alike, there is a valid question concerning how, "tough," and, "intense," a team or individual should be considering that there are so many games to play, and that individual games don't actually count for much. (Besides, playing too hard could make you look stupid and actually cause the other team to play hard against you on their night, "off.") It would be foolish to risk unnecessary injury when the gain is small. One could even say that it is smart for your star to move out of the way instead of taking a charge in the 44th game of the season. Who cares if your team never breaks much of a sweat, as long as things go according to plan and you get the W? Right?
What is that old saying? "Habits are tough to break." It just may be that the Blazers are tougher genetically speaking than they look, but have developed some very bad habits during the, "off-season," oh, excuse me, I mean the, "regular season." What if they are a little too smart for their own good, smiling and enjoying themselves like the do. Just maybe being soft has become a conveiniant habit and is the result of having a little too much respect for the status quo.
Could it be, with their relative youth, that some of our Blazers have been deceived about what it actually takes to get ready for the playoffs. It is as if they have not yet realized that their regular season reputations and habits will follow them into the playoffs like a nightmare that stays in the mind as long as a person continues to dream and continues to believe that the dream is reality.
The playoffs are not the time to put on toughness and intensity the way a magician is miraculously able to change his assistant's clothing! Playing hard has its roots in the weight room and and at training table, and has to be part of the DNA long before the moment a stare, a push, or an elbow is delivered. There is a certain level of antisocial personality involved and that personality is developed/hardened, with purpose, over time.
Great players are not willing to go along with the crowd and take nights off--they may get injured or have nights when they don't have it--but they won't ever allow themselves to be embarrassed. They don't say, "Its OK if so and so kicks my ass tonight, I'll get him back next time." So it is with great players, so it is with great teams. They always look to make a run. They always fight back--even in the regular season. Why? Because they know that come playoff time, after all of the other, "solutions," have been thrown at the chalkboard, they are going to have to count on their teammates to bring enough of IT.
What is IT? I believe IT is toughness and intensity. Hopefully we can concede the fact that we are already talking about the best and most skilled players in the world. They have been training for years, ... practicing, learning, climbing the ladder. Almost all of them have done their homework and them some, and they feel that they have already made it--the dollars have already come rolling in. They can talk of more--such things as MVPs, All Star games, and championships--but the real truth is that they have to think about protecting their bodies and surviving the long grind. Only a few players and a few teams can really afford to bring IT night after night. It is bad form to play too hard--that is unless you really do think you can win a championship!
Can you name the teams and players who were willing to consistantly rise above the frey? Lamar Odem? No. Larry Bird? Yes! The Detroit Pistons? Yes! The San Antonio Spurs? Yes! LA Clippers? NO! Memphis Grizzlies? No. It is not enough to merely play out the schedule.
I am talking about sweat dripping and loose balls being dived for. Chest bumps and charges taken. Hard fouls. Mean mugging. And angry coaches. I am talking about getting tough and staying tough--no matter whether the guy is bigger than you or not--and meaning it. I am talking about getting intense and staying intense before the game, during the game, and even after the game. With bruises, pain, and exertion all being relegated to a secondary status. Just win baby!
As I have watched the playoffs this year (and even last year for that matter), I have seen very little, "manhood," from our Portland TrailBlazers. I saw lots of it in the Denver/Utah series. I saw some good doses in the LA/OKC series. Last year Houston had IT and took LA down to the wire. It simply is not reasonable to think we can win without it.
No matter what else happens. No matter what new players we get. At playoff time next year, the Blazers, (if they want us to get behind them and reasonably believe that they can win), are going to have to bring IT with them in every playoff game--because toughness and intensity are prerequisites to winning in the playoffs!