A couple more reflections from the playoffs...
1. Free-throw shooting is important! The best teams, the ones that are hardest to beat and/or put away, have players who can draw and make free throws and offenses designed to take advantage of it when their backs are against the wall. Not only do charity tosses boost your overall point production, they make it oh-so-hard for teams to come back on you. Portland drew fewer foul shots this year than they had in any season since 2003-04. Part of that was youth and lack of history with the refs, but a huge part was also our jump-shooting offense. This is one of the reasons we'll not find playoff success without a more aggressive attack. It's a definite area to work on.
2. These are good teams...really good teams, but you can clearly see the difference between "really good" and "championship material". The line is fine. The distance is actually not that great...a few points here, a play or two there. But that line is bright nonetheless. In the NBA championship teams almost never surprise you by making a fortunate run through the playoffs. The long, seven-game series all but prevent an accidental title winner. Champions walk and play like champions coming into a series and dare you to knock them off. Really good teams jump into the fray with them and hope to get some bounces.
There's a dual point here. First, you can't wait until your playoff run to start playing and acting like champions. I'm not saying every game is equal. You can have down stretches and nights off just like every team. But basically you better have a consistent, reliable, championship-level game and focus from the get-go and then prove it for six months straight. You better be tested and hardened before you make it deep into the post season. Otherwise you're going to get broken. Second, that kind of attitude doesn't take just one season. You have to build a team to be a champion and not just pretty good. It takes practice to be a champion and not just pretty good. Those habits and that attitude have to be burned into your synapses until they become second nature. You can't just conjure them up when you need them or they will fail you. This is an important lesson for a young club like Portland. It's also an explanation of some of the things Kevin Pritchard and Nate McMillan do even at these early developmental stages. Sometimes we fans will say, "Why not take a flyer on this trade?" or "Why not play this guy? It's not like it matters!" Two years ago that may have been true. Last year less so. Now it's just not applicable. If you're looking at Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, and some of these other guys as our future you have to realize that the shape of that future is already being decided. We are far too young to be considered championship material right now. But when we do develop to the point where we should be contending do you want these guys to have to learn a whole new mindset or do you want those championship habits to have been ingrained in them as if they've never known anything else? These games and practices do matter. The attitudes and lessons do matter. If you start making incautious trades to get better quickly or if you start compromising philosophies in your rotation or style of play you're planting a seed in these guys' minds. It may not flower immediately. In fact it may look like you've made a short-term gain with your appeasement. But someday these guys are going to have to walk on the court like they own it...to look at that NBA title as their right and their destiny which nobody is going to take from them. The teams that win are the ones who don't doubt that. They don't hope, they expect. The opposition will attempt to compromise those expectations. Our job is not to give them any cracks to crawl through, making it easy to break us. A solid wall requires a solid foundation, which is exactly what management is trying to lay right now. That's why you don't see the easy, compromise road taken.
I watched the L.A.-Utah game tonight. I saw the comeback. I saw the near-misses. Jazz fans will play the "what-if" game all summer. If only Korver had shot it instead of Okur five feet further back. If only Williams' heave had rimmed in instead of out. That's no different than Blazer fans back in '91 with Porter's shot or Uncle Cliffy's drop. You know what else I saw out there? I saw one team that knew it was walking away with this series. Whether that was in six games or seven didn't matter. They knew it. I saw another really good team making desperate heaves trying to deny them, hoping that it would work. It was only three points, but the wall between 108 and 105 might as well have been a mile high.
Someday that's going to be Portland against the L*kers or Hornets or Jazz or some other team. We better decide now which side of that wall we're going to be on. Then we'd better practice, play, and make decisions accordingly.