Youngest team in the NBA? Blazers sure don't look it
The Blazers may actually be young, but you can't tell by how they play the game, writes J.A. Adande.
The most misleading statistic in the NBA can be found on the fifth page of Portland's nightly game notes.
"With an average age of 24 years and 26 days on opening night," it reads, "Portland's roster is the youngest team in the NBA, the youngest team in Trail Blazers history and the third-youngest team to ever suit up in the NBA."
Yeah, right. Young? They expect us to believe that?
Have you seen Greg Oden, the guy they try to pass off as a 20-year-old rookie? If Oden moved to Hollywood he could get Morgan Freeman's roles.
Have you watched the Trail Blazers play? If they're so young, where are all the alley-oops? Where's the barrage of turnovers? How come they rarely run fast breaks? Why have they won nine times when they trailed at the start of the fourth quarter? Do those sound like the traits of a young squad?
"They win like a veteran team," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy marveled.
It makes you wonder if they leave the PSPs at home and get together for games of pinochle on their chartered flights. Or maybe they watch "Golden Girls" DVDs.
If you want to place blame for this elderly style, Brandon Roy will take it, "Cause I kind of play old. I don't play like a young guy."
Roy's more than capable of quick bursts, he just doesn't use them very often. He plays most of the game at the pace of an airport security line.
Roy's father told him to play faster. So did his coach at Washington. He just can't do it. He actually gets slower the closer he gets to the hoop, as he waits for double-teams to arrive, waits for teammates to get open, or sometimes seems to wait to see if the defenders just lose interest from boredom. He doesn't panic when the shot clock runs down. The key: He always makes the right decision. And then, after another bucket (be it his or a teammate's), he just turns around and makes his way downcourt, looking like Jim Brown trudging back to the huddle.
The Blazers don't make fun of his old-man game.
"How can you tease someone when he's playing like that?" point guard Steve Blake asked. "With the success he's had, you can't do that."
Roy leads the team in points, assists and composure.
"He's the definition of poise," Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said.
His veteran savvy extends to the locker room. After Travis Outlaw hit the game-winning shot in overtime to beat Atlanta, just as reporters flocked to Outlaw's locker Roy announced, "Guys, I'm ready." Hey, at least the media couldn't claim Roy hadn't made himself available. (He was just kidding; he stayed to answer questions and was the last player to leave.)
Roy's influence starts even before the game. Watch the Blazers when they come to your town. When they're introduced before the game they don't break out a Soul Train line. There are no flying chest bumps. And that's Roy's call. "I tell them, 'On the road it's all business,'" Roy said. "When we're on the road there's no jumping around. It's just dap-dap-dap, let's go."
They're there to win. It's something they've come to expect every game, and since Dec. 3 it's practically become a reality. They started a 13-game winning streak that night, and have dropped only five games in the past eight weeks. And now they're fighting for first place in the Northwest Division, a place no one expected them to be when they lost Greg Oden for the season due to microfracture knee surgery.
It doesn't matter if they can't hit shots and fall behind by 11 points, as was the case in Atlanta Monday. They still found a way to come back and win in overtime, even after Roy missed 14 of his 22 shots.
"I think that says that we have improved, that we can maybe not bring our A-game but still give ourselves a chance to win," Roy said. "That's the biggest surprise that I have, is that we don't have to come out and play our best basketball to win games anymore.
"Earlier, it was like, 'If we just stay close maybe we can give ourselves a chance against certain teams.' A night like [Atlanta], the way we played, I would have been like, 'We're not going to win this game.' But now we feel like we can win every game we play in."
In the marathon NBA season it's impossible to be up and ready for all 82. The road caught up with the Blazers in Orlando, when they were in their fifth city in seven days, on the second leg of a back-to-back, and the Magic dropped them into a 21-point hole. Even on that night the Blazers kept fighting. The starters stayed in, even pulling within six in the final minute before running out of time.
"We play the clock out," coach Nate McMillan said.
McMillan has done an outstanding job, but the players make it so much easier. They're eager to learn and want to be coached, he says. In turn, players such as Channing Frye believe, "The coaching staff puts us in the best position possible."
It helps McMillan implement the game plan when both of his backcourt starters, Roy and Blake, spent four years in college. That's the type of hidden experience this team has, the wisdom that belies the short time spent in the league. And it's why trying to put a label on this team is so difficult.
"You can't really sum it up in one word," Martell Webster said. "We're just a young, smart, hardworking team."
Fair enough. But I'm still not buying that young part.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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