The Portland Trail Blazers clinched a spot in the 2015 NBA Playoffs tonight by virtue of their 109-86 defeat of the Phoenix Suns. That was the most important aspect of this contest, though not necessarily the most significant.
The Blazers and Suns played like teams going in opposite directions tonight. Portland appeared ready to take their swing at post-season glory as Phoenix prepped for an early and long vacation. Portland confirmed the impression with the help of an old friend: defense. After not being on speaking terms for the better part of a month, the Blazers and defense finally reconciled for the common good. The combination was too much for the Suns to withstand.
Not that the rapport came easily. Portland's defense out of the gate could have been described as Red Hot 'n Rolling...providing "red hot" described the Suns' shooting and rolling referred to the eyes of Coach Terry Stotts and the Moda Center faithful. It looked as if the Blazers were setting the table for another unnecessarily close game against a less-than-stellar opponent. Phoenix ended up shooting 51% in the first half. The margin at intermission was 6. The Blazers were ahead, but not comfortably so.
Then came a second-half start which merited re-writing Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" into "Quarter of 1000 Turnovers". Portland's defense clamped down hard. The Suns stepped directly into a bear trap...followed by spring-loaded bamboo sticks swinging out from a nearby tree...followed by a monkey sneaking up behind them and sticking a banana in their ear. Between the steals, blocked shots, and lack of open looks Phoenix didn't know where to turn. Portland's 6-point halftime edge got 30-ish real quick. The Suns' resistance took on the consistency of soggy corn flakes. Their passion held the believability of a low-rent cable soap opera.
Coach Stotts was able to call in the reserves early. After a single, "naughty boys" timeout they held the lead fairly level. Portland walked away with the laugher.
With the score 92-65 at the end of three a brilliant and handsome guy tweeted (@DaveDeckard, shameless plug) that the most exciting part of the scoreboard wasn't the 92, but the 65. The Blazers have been allowing too much to too many too often lately. Qualifying for the playoffs is worth a round of applause, but that benchmark was already assumed before the season started. Portland's performance in the playoffs will provide the litmus test this year. Good teams will not let you score 120. That's why they're good. You may go crazy for a quarter or two--a single game if you're lucky--but you won't win 4 of 7 by 120-116 margins. If Portland cannot rely on their defense they will not make it out of the first round. Tonight they appeared to rediscover the joy of bringing the opponent to their knees instead of shooting over their heads.
51% shooting at the half for Phoenix dipped below 44% by the end of the game. The Suns shot 19% from the three-point line. The Blazers gave them only 10 free throws and 8 offensive rebounds. This was tight. Whether Portland can keep it up against their 5 remaining decent opponents remains to be seen, but if the final 10 games of the season are an extended tune-up for the playoffs, they started in fine fashion tonight.
As you're no doubt aware, this was Blazer's Edge Night as well...another significant development. 1151 underprivileged kids and their chaperons filled the upper deck of the Moda Center tonight free of charge, courtesy of donations from Blazer's Edge readers. In a serendipitous turn, they were joined by several other youth organizations, making the entire upper rim alive with young voices. It was wonderful to witness. The crowd almost didn't need the usual chants tonight. Anyone who yelled found their sentiment echoes hundreds of times over. It was pure, fun, and cheerful...exactly what you'd imagine from young folks having a great time. We'll solicit and share stories from the evening, posting them in a couple days. For now, we'll just list some of the organizations that benefited from the evening and give all of you a huge "THANK YOU!" on their behalf and from all of us.
OK...fine...one story. On my way out, headed to the MAX, I saw a roving group of young folks headed by a teacher. As I passed, the visible lack of tension among the throng struck me. I've done plenty of things with youth and I can testify that you're never really off your guard until everybody has gone hope and you start your car to head out. This is true even under the best of circumstances, let alone outside a major arena in unfamiliar territory with people all around. Yet here was this teacher in front laughing as she urged her charges to catch up. 5 or 6 kids in front were giggling with each other, a couple of them still clutching homemade signs with pride. More pairs were clumped in the middle. At the end was a group of 4 with the broadest smiles on their faces, taking a group selfie. (Group selfie? Is that a groupie? No clue.) Not one sign of worry creased the faces of any of those children or their supervising adult...not a trace of suspicion, disappointment, or awareness of anything other than this was a wonderful moment.
I cannot think of a more wonderful gift to give to anyone, let alone to folks who may not come from the best of circumstances in the first place. This isn't just about a basketball game. It's about being able to be together, to bond, setting down burdens and going back to childhood with a "redo", having it all turn out like it's supposed to for just one night. Even if that can't last, we all need to know that exists. Brief, idyllic memories like that keep Trail Blazers fans cheering even though the corporate memory of their last victory parade is four decades old now. It doesn't have to happen all the time. Trusting that such moments can happen sometime is enough to keep you going, keep you hoping and believing.
30-point leads and 20-point playoff-clinching wins will do that for you, providing you have the chance to experience them, For some kids, somewhere tonight you did that, Blazer's Edge. Thank you. And enjoy the list of people you helped:
Klahre House Treatment Program of Next Door Inc
Boys and Girls club of Portland Parkrose school
YMCA "Blue " Boys Basketball
Northwest Family Services
ROSE Community Development
First Place School (Seattle)
Camp Fire Columbia (Lane Middle School Branch)
Northwest Family Services
Polk Adolescent Day Treatment Center
Clear Creek Church (Gresham)
Portland Public Schools Title VII Indian Education Program (Jefferson High School)
Covington Middle School 7th Grade Girls Basketball (Vancouver)
PCC Future Connect program
African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO)
The Camby Center
Conestoga Middle School (Behavioral Program)
Woodlawn School (Title 1)
Friends of the Children
Stephen’s Crossing (HUD Housing Development)
Village Baptist Church
Foster Parents Night Out
Westside: A Jesus Church
Logos Baptist Church
Siletz Valley Schools
AVID (Clear Creek Middle School)
Hinson Memorial Baptist Church
Vernon & Creston School
Gladstone Youth Coalition
Lynch View Elementary
Christian Community Placement Center
Village Baptist Church
For those interested, Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division and its guaranteed 4th-place-or-better playoff seed is now 2. Any combination of 2 Blazers wins or Oklahoma City Thunder losses gives Portland the division.
Want to look cool in front of all your friends and impress the chicks? Leave a question or comment on our Blazer's Edge Podcast voice mail line at 234-738-3394. If we use your submission on the air you'll have bragging rights at the water cooler and a great story to tell your grandchildren.