All things being equal, November 2013 wasn’t the best month for sports in the state of Oregon.
On Nov. 7, down in Palo Alto, Calif., the University of Oregon Ducks football team, as viable a candidate for the BCS Championship Game as there was in college football this season, was steamrolled by the muscular running game of the Stanford Cardinal, ending their bid for the natty.
Then, on the 23rd, the Beavers of Oregon State University, bowl-eligible but a far cry from great this collegiate football season, gave up a whopping 692 total yards of offense and 69 points at home against the Washington Huskies in what has been called the most embarrassing loss in the program’s history—a program, it should be noted, that went 28 seasons in a row without posting a winning record.
Also, on the 10th, the Portland Timbers fell 4-2 at the hands of Real Salt Lake down in Salt Lake City, Utah. Fourteen days later, on the 24th, the Timbers lost again, this time at home, this time by a goal to nil. This second loss ended the Timbers miracle season that included a run to the top of the Western Conference table and a playoff series victory over the Seattle Sounders.
While all this losing was happening, though, there was something else going on. The Portland Trail Blazers, arguably the city’s most important sports team, was winning. And they were winning a lot.
The month of November 2013 began for the Blazers with a victory in Denver, something the team hasn’t done in any of the seven seasons LaMarcus Aldridge has been on the roster. The Blazers then went on to win their home opener against the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs. Portland lost on the 5th to the Rockets, but then ripped off 11 straight victories, not losing again until their final tilt of the first full month of the 2013-14 NBA season.
By their final day of November, the Blazers’ were owners of the second best record in the Western Conference, the top spot in the hyper competitive Northwest Division, and the same record as the two-time defending world champion Miami Heat.
The kind of winning streak the just ended for the Blazers and the kind of opening month the team has had leads to two questions. 1) How did it happen? 2) What does it all mean?
The reasons why the Blazers blew up in their first full month are myriad. Their improved bench has been noted repeatedly. The blistering hot shooting of Wesley Matthews has also been mentioned. One thing that hasn’t gotten the level of play it deserves is the addition and outstanding start of Robin Lopez.
J.J. Hickson was last season’s odd man out, playing the wrong position, and kind of gumming up the works for the Blazers’ otherwise pretty incredible starting unit. This season, Lopez has done the type of things at the center position that Hickson could have only dreamt about.
Lopez is averaging career highs in both rebounds and minutes played. In November, the Blazers’ new center had a 16-rebound night against Chicago, a 15-rebound outing against one of his former teams, the Phoenix Suns, and four additional 10-rebound nights.
The play of Lopez hasn’t just been about Lopez, though. With a real center doing what real centers do, LaMarcus Aldridge has been free to have just about the most outstanding start of his career.
“It’s good it’s definitely what we needed,” Aldridge said of his new front-court mate. “Since day one, since they told me [Lopez] was here, I’ve been happy about it. Him being physical and trying to control the paint. That’s what every team needs.”
Robin Lopez isn’t the only why, but he’s part of the why. But what about the “what does it all mean"?
As can be expected with some Blazer fans, the second loss in Phoenix in just about a month led some to speculate that 11 wins in a row was not indicative of what this Blazer team is going to be in 2013-14.
Certainly, the national bandwagon should get a little lighter now that the Blazers have returned to earth—over the course of the streak they reached as high as number three in one of the more reputable national power rankings—but to insinuate that Portland’s run was a fluke seems a bit ludicrous. And history, both recent and distant, backs that up.
The last time this team made the playoffs, in 2010-11, the Blazers followed up a 3-0 October with a 5-9 November. The Blazers lost four straight games on the road during the first full month of that season. That Blazer team, you might recall, finished with 48 wins and managed to beat the future NBA champs two times in the first round of the playoffs.
You have to go back even further to find a November like the one the '13-14 Blazers just finished. In 1999-2000, the Blazers finished their first full month with a record of 13-3, a franchise-high for wins in November that the team just tied. In 1990-91, the Blazers won 11 straight to start the season, and finished November with 12 wins and only a single loss.
The 1999-2000 Blazers won 59 games and finished one game shy of the NBA Finals. The '90-91 Blazers set a franchise record with 63 wins, but ran into a Magic Johnson-led LA Laker squad in the Western Conference Finals (who themselves ran into a Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls who were about to start the first of two three-peats in the 1990s).
So two of the best seasons in Blazer franchise history started with the kind of Novembers that this Blazer team closed the door on in Phoenix last week. Does that mean that this Blazer team is headed for close to 60 wins and the Conference Finals? It’s way too early to tell, but what is clear is that this team just might be something special.
And if it turns out to be not so special, we’ll always have November.