A few weeks back, Blazer radio analyst Antonio Harvey made an interesting statement in his post-game wrap-up. Tone, the best kind of homer since he openly roots for the team he covers and the team he covers used to employ him as a player, declared the argument was finally over.
What argument, you ask? The argument that LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t deserve to be in the All-Star Game.
What’s absurd about this definitive declaration is that Harvey was arguing for something that almost nobody is arguing against. Possibly, Tone got caught up in the moment, and instead of declaring that Aldridge is a legitimate MVP candidate—the case de jour being made by Blazer fans both in the Moda Center and over various Internet outlets—he mistakenly said that L.A. needed to prove he belonged in a showcase of the NBA’s best that he’s been invited to twice already.
More likely, though, Harvey is a victim of a line of thinking that seems to afflict a significant percentage of Blazer fans: that the Blazers, in their current state, are still an underdog, that they’re still a team of scrappy overachievers struggling valiantly to earn the respect of the NBA's elites.
It’s an understandable disposition, considering where this team was a season ago and how a number of seasons ended, dating back to the beginning of this century. But in 2013-14, that attitude is flat out wrong.
Maybe the Blazers aren’t the best team in the league. Maybe they’re not the favorite to win the NBA Title or even the Western Conference, but the time to behave like this team isn’t great or that this great team’s great record is some sort of fluke has come and gone.
Which, of course, brings up the rather odd phenomenon that is currently playing out around the topic of the Blazers.
On the one hand, you have a combination of the city’s more fair-weather fan base and the national basketball industrial complex as a whole. This group, most notably the portion of it that consists of talking heads, writers, and every other type of paid professional that orbits around the NBA for a living, has long-ago accepted that the Blazers of 2013-14 are a legit contender.
On the other hand, you have the die-hard Blazer fans. This group is most vocal on Twitter, but they exist in real life, too, and not only are they not convinced by the Blazers’ record or by the way the team has actually played, they seem to be actively anticipating some sort of epic collapse.
The epic collapse angle is a hard one to understand. It most likely derives from past seasons, in which the Blazers’ roster was ripped to shreds by injury, or maybe even by the losing streak of 13 games that closed out the 2012-13 season.
Or maybe, it’s that the die-hards claim to know more than the television and web personalities who tune into the NBA in the Pacific Northwest only a couple times a month and mostly to watch whatever team is facing off against the Blazers.
Regardless of the reasoning for the divide, the differences are pretty stark. Take, for example, the case of the Blazers’ recent win against the Mavericks in Dallas. Those who watched that game saw Portland’s regular rotation roll up a 38-point lead on the hapless Mavericks (one of the few teams to have beaten the Blazers in Portland), only to see the mop-up crew of non-playing benchwarmers surrender enough of that lead in the game’s final quarter that head coach Terry Stotts felt the need to revive his starters, who’d been cut loose earlier than usual, and get them back on the court as to avoid total disaster.
That fourth quarter wasn’t the most fun to watch. It was clear that Meyers Leonard, Will Barton and company weren’t going to be able to turn the ball over a bunch of times, miss dunks and absolutely fail to play defense and still get out of Big D with a W.
It took only a few possessions for LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard to put the Mavericks on ice, and though the Blazers didn’t win by 40, they won, on the second night of a back-to-back on the first leg of a four-games-in-five-nights double back-to-back in Texas and Oklahoma. Not a bad win at all.
But that fourth quarter elicited some virtual groans from Blazer fans on Twitter, and the next day an article on Blazersedge alluded to depth “being an issue,” for the Blazers. That’s the die-hard faction weighing in.
On the other side, things were a little different. Following the Blazers’ win in Dallas, SportsCenter ran a highlights package that showed just how easy it was for Portland to knock down three-pointers against the Mavericks lackluster defense. There wasn’t a single mention of the games’ fourth quarter.
That the Blazers and Mavericks featured at all on ESPN should tell you that things are different this season. That the World Wide Leader spent nearly a minute talking about how easy it was for Portland to win makes a pretty strong case for where the national media stands on the topic of the Blazers’ legitimacy.
When the brilliant Danny Nowell asked recently if the Blazers’ bubble has burst, he mostly meant has the “Blazer Bubble” burst, meaning national interest in the Blazers has reached its peak and begun its inevitable descent.
It’s the contention of this writer that the opposite is true. Yes the Blazers’ defense, at times, leaves something to be desired (as Nowell deftly points out), and yes things are far from settled in the Western Conference, but national interest in the Blazers has appeared to pass because unlike some scrappy underdogs, the Blazers have reached the mature point of their season and continue to climb.
The cream of the national sporting press would get laughed out of the ESPYs if they doubted the supremacy of the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers. It’s time for Blazer fans—especially those who took to Twitter to declare the season a bust as Portland struggled their way to double digit wins against bad Eastern Conference opponents—to get on that level.
The Blazers might not be in the same class as the Heat or have as much forward momentum as the Pacers. They may not have the gravitas of the Spurs or the killer instinct of
Kevin Durant the Thunder. But they've been solidly in the conversation for two months now.
It’s hard for Blazer fans raised on failure and underachievement to root for a favorite, but you have to do the best with the hand you’re dealt.