This new Blazer season was supposed to be all about change. And so far, it has been. There’s a whole new group coming off the bench. There’s a selection of new food items available on the concourses of the newly named arena.
But change has been most evident in 2013-14 in the "W" column. The change in wins has been most impressive on the road, something probably even the most hardcore Blazer fans probably didn’t see coming.
The Blazers are known throughout the professional basketball world for having the best and loudest fans and one of the league’s best home court advantages. Take that for what you will: Certainly every team thinks their hometown fans are better than every other teams hometown fans (that, and everybody in Portland knows the Blazers are no longer the only game in town and just might be suffering from some level of diminished interest at the start of the season), but there’s a second side to this story.
The Blazers win in Portland basically because they absolutely have to. This is not a road team—or, at least, they weren’t until very recently.
Before taking a look at what this Blazer team has done on the road, it’s imperative to know what other Blazer teams didn’t do on the road. And what they didn’t do was win.
Last season, the Blazers won a grand total of 11 road games. The season prior, one shortened by a lockout, the Blazers lost 25 of their 33 road engagements. Go all the way back to 2008-09, and it doesn’t get any better.
The Blazers’ 34 home wins in that season were good enough for second-best in the Western Conference, second only to eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, and put them in the ranks of the Cleveland Cavaliers (who won a league-high 66 games, and were one off the all-time record with 39 wins at home) and the defending NBA Champion Boston Celtics.
Fifty-four wins in 08-09 was the Blazer’s highest win total in nearly a decade, and five more games than the team won when they won it all in 1977. It’s safe to say that since the Blazers made back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals in 1998-99 and 1999-2000, that Brandon Roy-led 2008-09 team was the best the Blazers have had to offer. That season, the Rose Garden was a fortress. The road was the issue.
Sure, the Blazers’ 20 road victories put them only one game below .500 away from Portland, but for a team that was at or near the top of the Western Conference ladder all season, it was a far cry from where they wanted to be.
That’s why Game 1 of the Blazers’ first round playoff series with Houston was so memorable, and for Brandon Roy-era hoops-heads it’s the equivalent, or at least a close second on the pain scale, of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
The Blazers opened their first playoff series of the Nate McMillan era at the Rose Garden, and ran into (arguably) the best game of professional basketball played by Yao Ming. The 27-point loss in game one was enough to sink the series. Nobody expected the Blazers to get a win in Houston to make up for the game they dropped at home.
Two losses in Texas by a combined four points notwithstanding, the Blazers-Rockets series to open the 2008-09 playoffs was essentially a one-game series. The best Blazer team in the post Rasheed Wallace era was sunk in 48 minutes because they couldn’t win on the road.
So here we are, six years removed from Brandon Roy’s miracle season, and the Blazers have one of the best records in the NBA and have lost a grand total of one game on the road.
It’s early still, the season not yet 20 games old, but there is something to be said about how different this Blazer team is. Maybe it’s because the new additions are primarily veterans of multiple teams who might not require the home cooking of the Moda Center that some of the younger, less seasoned Blazers tend to need to win games.
Or maybe, this team is just better. Maybe not Brandon Roy '08-09 better, but significantly better than the Lockout Blazers who, before falling off the cliff and dragging Nate McMillan with them, at one point had the best record in the Western Conference.
“The way we’re playing at the moment is incredible,” Joel Freeland said following the Blazers’ gut wrenching, come from behind win over the Chicago Bulls that pushed their unexpected season-opening winning streak to nine. “My personal opinion is we’ve got to take it game by game. We can’t shoot to high, and we can’t think that we’re better than we are at the moment. We’re making a lot of mistakes, but we’re managing to find ways to win games.”
Freeland, the only bench player from last season who wasn’t demoted with the additions made to the Blazers’ 2013-14 rotation, has been a key cog in Portland’s new found depth. His contributions, like the winning streak to start the season, have been unexpected. And even if he, and his head coach, are sticking to the line that this team hasn’t proved anything yet, Freeland is ready to say that this just might be for real.
“I think we can honestly say we’ve got a legit team,” Freeland said. “You can see with the people we’ve got coming off the bench, we’ve got a team that can complement the starters and that’s what we’ve needed.”
Of course there are going to be doubters, especially those that remember the weekend the Blazers were good after the lockout ended. And of course a fair number of the Blazers’ wins have come against weak (see: Eastern Conference) opponents. But Saturday in Oakland, the Blazers pushed their winning streak into double digits, and did it by winning in an arena where they’ve never (ever) been good.
And now, four weeks into the season, the Blazers are only four games shy of their road win total from a season ago. Say what you will about it being early in the season. Say what you will about inevitable regression. Good teams win a lot of games. Really good teams win away from their home floor.
So far, these Blazers meet the criteria.