It's been two years since I have seen the Portland Trail Blazers in person as a "fan." It's also the third straight year I've seen the Trail Blazers on the road, starting in Phoenix, then in Chicago last year (though I went as media) and finally in Indiana this season.
Every time you see a game on the road you get a different perspective on the Blazers, NBA fandom and the league in general. Saturday night was no different.
In an attempt to simultaneously create an arena report and general impressions experience (considering I didn't get back from the game until well past midnight), here's the broken down version of Saturday's road trip-ending, ten point victory for the Trail Blazers:
While you can read the entire bird's eye view of the game from Dave's perspective here, I'm always surprised at how differently we analyze a game when we attend in person versus watching it on television. When the Blazers are on the road, those ebbs and flows of the crowd energy are inverted, which magnifies the differences even more.
As I'm sure it was visible on TV, the overall attendance was sparse. Indiana was heading into the game on a seven-game losing streak, playing without two starters -- Paul George and George Hill -- and still getting inconsistent production from its two best healthy players Roy Hibbert and David West.
In a nutshell, the game seemed over before it started.
It was obvious Indiana was going to be outmatched all night long. Even though the Pacers managed to keep things close in the first quarter, a barrage of solid defense, Wesley Matthews threes and Damian Lillard drives allowed Portland to streak out to a 20-point lead at halftime. At this point, it didn't necessarily seem shocking to the crowd. Maybe the speed at which the Blazers jumped out to that lead was a little jarring (Portland outscored Indiana 36-15 in the second quarter), but the mumbling and groaning by Pacer fans seemed to be quite rehearsed over the last two weeks.
But as we know, while no deficit is too small for the Blazers to overcome, no lead is too large to give up either.
In the words of Mike Barrett, if the Blazers were "red hot" in the second quarter, they went "ice cold" in the second half. As the Blue and Gold (as they call them around here) began to claw back, the Blazer fans in the arena started to get restless. They've seen this movie before. What was ironic, though, was that as unsurprising as it was for the nice array of Blazer fans in the arena to see this happen, it seemed equal in magnitude the surprise to the rest of the arena that Indiana found a way to get back in the game. By the fourth quarter, when the Pacers managed to cut the lead to single digits, the fans' reaction seemed to be something along the lines of: "Wait, this is only an eight-point game? HOLY COW, THIS IS AN EIGHT POINT GAME!!!!"
But as we know, things didn't last for the Pacers, as a Robin Lopez tip-in coupled with Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge jumpers managed to Marcus Mariota Heisman-pose Indiana into their eighth loss in a row.
It was the honest to goodness truth that my plan heading into the night was to chat with some of the Pacers fans around me about what they thought of Indiana, the Trail Blazers, the NBA, etc. However, my seat was surrounded in all directions by, well, empty seats. All except right in front of me, where there was a small group of Blazer fans from Indiana. Needless to say, even if I wanted to chat about how the Pacers season was going, it likely would have added insult to injury. So instead, I gathered the main reaction to the game from the Pacers' radio postgame show on the drive home (dubbed "The World's Greatest Postgame Show," from which Brian Wheeler would surely disagree).
Before I describe any reaction, I should preface this with what is often the cliché about basketball in Indiana, but it's absolutely true: Indiana basketball fans are some of the most intelligent in the United States. It's a very prideful group. Fans living in the state have seen Larry Bird put French Lick, Ind. on the map, Bob Knight throw chairs and win national championships and Indiana University, and seen a no-class system in high school basketball turn into one of the greatest sports movies of all time, "Hoosiers."
Two moments put this intelligence into perspective. The first is the Robin Lopez tip-in that somehow was magnetized to fall through the net near the end of the game. It was a backbreaker, and the arena knew it -- that moment was probably the most silent the arena was all night. The other was when the Pacers managed a late-game, over-and-back turnover. I could read the lips of the closest Pacer fan to me saying to his friend, "What the heck was that?" But it was less about what the violation actually was (which would have been a legitimate question by non-basketball enthusiasts in, say, Los Angeles) but more "What was he thinking?" The two chuckled at the head-scratcher of a turnover, put their coats on and left.
The general consensus amongst people that cover the team is that, while smart, Indiana sports fans in general are quite spoiled. Just in Indianapolis, fans saw over a decade of Peyton Manning shredding and slicing through the record books en route to a Super Bowl. Now, they get to watch Andrew Luck put the Colts back on the map after just one abysmal year a few seasons ago. The same goes for the Pacers: Just six months ago, Indiana was going toe to toe with the Miami Heat with a shot at a conference title for the second season in a row. The success was reminiscent of the Reggie Miller days or even the ABA Championships the Pacers won in the early 70's. And this athletic success of the state doesn't even mention the likes of Indiana Hoosier basketball or Notre Dame football.
From a Blazers perspective, this was a solid win over an inferior team on the road. It gives Portland some momentum before they head back home to face a San Antonio Spurs team that just lost to the Lakers. But from a Pacers perspective, this is a team that's used to winning -- "eight-game losing streak" just simply isn't in their vocabulary. You start to get the feeling, though, that the emotions of unreasonably high expectations from Pacer fans may start to boil over. In the meantime, they grumbled through another loss at home.
There was some talk on the postgame show about the Trail Blazers. Every guest on the show was extremely complimentary of Portland this season. The "They're 18-6 -- they're really good" line was one used generously to explain why Indiana lost. Lillard was used in the "another one of these elite point guards the Pacers have played of late" refrain. In probably the biggest compliment of all, Aldridge was described as "the type of player you pay to see come to the arena." So the Blazers are certainly getting some love from a fan base that knows what it's talking about.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Banker's Life Fieldhouse in this entire recap. Because I arrived fairly early (and looked around some when the team was up 25...), I got to check out some features of the arena. Like I said earlier, this is my third straight season of visiting a new arena. This one in downtown Indianapolis was by far the nicest I've been to thus far.
There's certain some history as you walk inside. The team has three ABA championship banners, plus a multitude of division and conference championship banners as well. However, it isn't the history that stole my attention -- after all, the last time I saw the Blazers in person was last spring against Chicago, and I've never seen more banners between the Bulls and Blackhawks in my life.
What really stole the show for me was Banker's Life's design. What I love about stadiums and arenas all across the country is when they capture the personality of the city. While the Moda Center is continuing to improve its amenities in that way, from its scoreboard lined with iconic Portland landmarks to the new local food and beverage options around the arena, Banker's Life Fieldhouse takes it to a new level.
The whole arena is lined with brick, which is a direct reference to the bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (this is a theme you see all over Indianapolis, including Lucas Oil Stadium where the Colts play). The entryway also seems to be reminiscent of an old-school ticketing office, almost an ode to the design of the racetrack or even the ticket booths at Churchill Downs, located in neighboring Louisville, Kentucky just an hour south. My favorite part was probably the different shrines located throughout the arena, paying homage to the history of high school basketball in Indiana and the various Hall of Famers that have put on a Pacers uniform.
The other non-basketball parts of the night were... an experience. The starting lineups for Indiana included fireworks and fire. The halftime show had two rescue dogs flying through the air catching Frisbees (arguably the most exciting part of the night). And the drumline featured in the arena provided a steady dose of entertainment during timeouts. All in all, it seemed like overcompensation for a team that doesn't have near the same amount of pizazz, but I guess you have to make the in-arena experience worth coming out for instead of watching on the couch, right?
Getting out of town is a unique experience. There's no Rudy Fernandez shirseys or "Let's -- Go -- Blazers!" chants ringing throughout the arena. But what you do see, though, are how fans and analysts react to the Blazers. Plus, you get to see an arena experience that 99% of fans will watch exclusively during their time as an NBA fan. This was easily one of my best experiences on the road thus far.
A Trail Blazer victory may have had a little to do with that.