After two heartbreakingly close losses in Houston, the columnists and pundits are calling for off-season trades and questioning your plays. Even with how close those two road games were, they're questioning the Blazers' hearts and giving up early. It must sound like a lot of white noise when you're focused so entirely on the task at hand. Here's something to turn the volume up another notch.
I'm not a basketball expert, a statistician or even a good basketball player (though I did beat Channing Frye in NBA 2K9, and the leading scorer on my team was...wait for it...Channing Frye—but I digress...). I have
watched the Blazers very closely for the past five years, and a bit less closely for years before that (I'm a native Oregonian, so I had the Dairy Queen cups growing up). So I know a little bit about the team's history, which has been on my mind as of late.
In 2000, when the Blazers played the Lakers in the Western conference finals, a lot of fans wanted Jermaine O'Neal to see some more playing time. O'Neal, 21 at the time and in his fourth season with the Blazers, had at one point thought he was the future of this team. Fans knew from watching some of his better games that he could break out at any time. But the minutes still hadn't come his way, as he was in the rotation with bigs like fan-favorite Arvydas Sabonis and dread-headed Brian Grant. The youth movement took a back seat to experience.
I watched that series as a fairweather fan who had never been good at sports or really shown much interest in anything competitive. The only times I remember sports coming on in the Jarman households were when the Twins were in the World Series (my mom's from Minnesota) and my dad zoned out to some World Cup soccer while sipping a pint of Guinness (he's from England). But to this day I hear grumbling from longtime fans who watched that legendary Blazers implosion in game 7: "They should have played Jermaine O'Neal."
There's probably no direct correlation between that series and this one, save for that Portland is excited about both teams. But hearing people talk about that old game, I'm reminded of how I feel watching Jerryd Bayless stapled to the Blazer bench. Like O'Neal, Bayless wasn't perfect when given opportunities during the regular season. He's a rookie and he's got a lot to learn. But here's a guy with more fire in his belly than anyone else on the Blazers: Every second he gets on the basketball court is a second he's trying to make something happen. More importantly, here's a guy who has more strength at drawing contact in the lane than anyone on the team, aside from Brandon Roy. Here's a guy who thought he was the future of this Blazers team when he was drafted: You'll remember that a lot of commentators thought he'd be starting before Steve Blake, not after Sergio Rodriguez.
And yeah, I know, he's also a guy who needs work before he becomes any definition of a defensive stopper. But how often have Von Wafer and Aaron Brooks slid past Blake and Rodriguez for easy scores? I think defense becomes sort of a moot point when we've seen those Houston guards tear our hearts out for three games out of four, doesn't it? Besides, maybe Bayless has been stewing long enough that he'll stick with those guys just to show you that he can.
I'm nerding out now, Nate, and I'm sorry. Because you know these guys much better than I do. What I've wanted to say here is just that when nothing has worked to get the Rockets big men into foul trouble or stop Houston's guards, a lot of us think Jerryd Bayless deserves a chance. After watching his team struggle at home and on the road, he's got to be hungry. I mean, this kid thinks he's Kobe Bryant. That's not questioning his character, either, that's admiring his confidence at such a young age. Bayless is a fiery, pissed-off juggernaut who wants nothing more than to smash into Yao Ming on every drive and see what happens. No one else on your team is willing to do that. In my time watching the Blazers closely, they have always had a player that's been willing to sacrifice his body, from Ruben Patterson to Jarrett Jack. Even Brandon Roy—as great as he has been in this series—has been reluctant to go to the hole until it's absolutely vital, and the bigs just can't do it because they need to stay out of foul trouble themselves (and I agree with you, the officiating has been shit).
Now that I have firmly established that I am a nobody and shouldn't attempt to advise you on how to run your team, let me have my Canzano moment (John Canzano, in all fairness, also knows the sport far better than I do). In every man's darkest hour, he does one of two things: He either lashes out and throws a fit, or he has an "aw fuck it" moment. Last night Jerry Sloan had a fit and got thrown out of the game in the fourth quarter. This season Don Nelson had about thirty-five "aw fuck it" moments, throwing shit and seeing what stuck on the basketball court (nothing did). In your years as head coach, I've seen you throw a couple fits, but all in all you're about the most composed person in professional basketball. Watching the Blazers play the Celtics is an amazing study in contrast, because you and Doc are polar opposites. He's pleading and crying in his case (I always wondered how he stayed on the court, then I saw him mic'd up on ESPN and it turns out he's always calling the refs "sir," not "motherfucker," as Jerry Sloan attempted last night), while you're stoic and patient.
My point is this: If things start to go South tonight, even for a few minutes, I hope you'll consider having an "aw fuck it" moment and let the kid play. We've all seen what he can do when there's a fire lit beneath him, and I think sitting on the bench for the past three games (after some garbage time in game one) has probably given him something to prove. And even if he fucks up, he'll learn an awful lot from playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs. As great as you are as a coach, I wonder if you've forgotten about the transformative power of the big stage. This is, after all, the NBA playoffs: Where Bonzi Wells becomes a superstar with a chip on his shoulder; where Boobie Gibson starts raining threes like he's Reggie Miller; where—you remember this one from Seattle—Jerome James puts the old JJ in a garbage bag and becomes a playoff game-changer.
We Portlanders know how lucky we are to have you for a coach. You've got this team playing smart, calm and together this year and you're coach of the year in Portland's book. But when we talk about your coaching style around the ol' watercooler, it comes up that you're a stay-the-course kind of guy. But I've seen you surprise yourself when you've switched up strategies or, from choice or necessity, you've put your trust in a player who needed that trust to flourish. I know from post-game conferences and chats that there's nothing you like more than being pleasantly surprised by one of your guys. So maybe you don't think Jerryd Bayless is ready to take the reigns of an NBA team in meaningful minutes, but "aw shit," Nate, maybe he'll surprise you. If plan A doesn't work out tonight, I hope you've consider making Jerryd Bayless plan B.
Good luck tonight, and thanks for this fantastic season,
p.s. to everyone except Nate McMillan: I'll be blogging the game tonight. Tune in if you want. Also, Ben at Blazersedge has been on the Bayless train since day one. Just thought I'd mention that.