PORTLAND, Ore. – They cleared out their lockers, said their goodbyes, and before the Portland Trail Blazers could scatter for another summer, Nate McMillan gave each of them a few words to chew on. No more excuses, the Blazers' head coach said. No more waiting for the future to arrive.
McMillan knew his Baby Blazers were ready to stand among the NBA's better teams. But if they wanted to take that next step, if they wanted to end the franchise's cursed playoff drought, they first needed to have faith in themselves.
Ask Brandon Roy about McMillan's message from a year ago and he smiles. The Blazers heard their coach, but Roy isn't sure they fully believed him. They do now.
"We're not waiting," Roy said, and his edge suggests the NBA elite better get used to the idea of Portland crashing their party.
Rip City roars once again. The Blazers have rushed into the playoffs for the first time in six years, awakening what had long been one of the league's most fervent fan bases. As Portland finished off its latest victory to secure home-court advantage for its opening-round series with the Houston Rockets, streamers fell from the Rose Garden rafters, touching off a celebration that seemed nearly a decade in the making.
Finally, Roy and his teammates appear to have run off all those Jail Blazer ghosts. Blazers owner Paul Allen, who had briefly put the franchise on the market just three years ago after the team's boorish behavior and uninspired play eroded much of its local support, strode down the hallway late Wednesday, accepting congratulations from well-wishers on each side of him. Allen soaked up the moment, no doubt thrilled by his team's success, but also the future that awaits it.
For in these playoffs of Kobe, LeBron and the Celtics, no team is more intriguing than the Trail Blazers. Will the Blazers succumb to their inexperience, allowing the postseason pressure to swallow them? Or are they simply too young and too talented to know better?
If their play from the past three weeks is any indication, you might want to hold off betting what's left of your 401(k) on the former happening.
The Blazers have won 10 of their previous 11 games, routing the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns along the way – in addition to gutting out a tough home win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Their season-ending demolition of Denver didn't mean much, considering the Nuggets had lost most of their incentive by tip-off, but the Blazers have still left quite the boot-heel impression on many of their opponents.
"They're a machine right now," said one Western Conference scout. "They have the size and length, and their guys are playing with so much confidence. I think they can make a run."
If the Blazers do so, it will be with a total of just 35 games of playoff experience – the fewest of any team in a dozen years. Nineteen of those games belong to end-of-the-bench veteran Michael Ruffin. Among Portland's regulars, point guard Steve Blake has appeared in nine postseason games, making him the team's battle-hardened playoff graybeard.
Said Blake, laughing: "I'm still trying to learn as well."
They all are, and that's what makes these Blazers unique. They start one rookie (forward Nicolas Batum) and count three others (Rudy Fernandez, Greg Oden and Sergio Rodriguez) as rotation regulars. For a team so young, they seem to lack the type of petty jealousies and insecurities which can create dissension.
"We just have a bunch of selfless dudes," Roy said. "There's no alpha dog in here."
Fortunately for the Blazers, Roy's bite is worse than his bark. He's become more vocal on the court – last month, he chirped at Lakers forward Trevor Ariza for his flagrant foul on Fernandez – but it's his play that has made him Portland's unquestioned leader. A two-time NBA All-Star in just his third season, Roy has thrived in pressure moments, a skill that could serve him well in the playoffs.
"That's where Brandon Roy is so far ahead of the curve for a young guy," said Nuggets coach George Karl. "Nate's given him an advanced course in understanding close games."
The rest of the Blazers fall in line behind their 24-year-old captain. Six-foot-11 forward LaMarcus Aldridge is a matchup nightmare for opponents because of his versatility and range. Even Oden, whose injuries and subsequent struggles caused him to withdraw from teammates earlier in the season, has come to embrace his role off the bench. No longer does he seem so aloof.
McMillan, who has alternately nurtured and prodded his young roster, acknowledges that he and Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard looked until the trade deadline for a veteran who could help guide his teammates. One Western Conference executive said the Phoenix Suns talked to Portland while exploring trade options for Shaquille O'Neal, but that McMillan and Pritchard personally wanted assurances from O'Neal that he would be willing to play a role for the young Blazers. O'Neal declined, the source said, and the talks never progressed from there.
McMillan won't comment on any of the Blazers' specific trade targets, but he did make clear that he wouldn't support bringing in any vet who would jeopardize the development of the team's young core.
"Our approach is, 'You're going to have to fit into our system and fit into our timeframe,' " McMillan said. "There's no pressure from management to say, 'win right now,' as opposed to, 'do it right.' "
The Blazers have done it better than most, and their rebuilding plan figures to serve as the blueprint for future franchises – especially considering the ground-zero state at which they started. The atmosphere had grown so toxic around the Blazers early this decade that each day seemed to bring a new comedic low.
After one practice, Rasheed Wallace fired a ball 100 feet at Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, leaving Wallace's unsuspecting teammate crumbled on the court. While a trainer attended to Boumtje Boumtje, Wallace laughed and quickly scurried away as if he were a 6-year-old risking a weekend grounding from his parents.
When Omar Cook joined Portland on a 10-day contract, the Blazers' equipment manager left personalized team luggage in Cook's locker as a welcome gift. Ruben Patterson swiped it as his own before Cook could notice.
Zach Randolph was given bereavement leave by the team to attend the funeral of his girlfriend's cousin, only to be spotted at a local strip club. The manager of the club later complained that Randolph left without paying his tab.
After a game in Sacramento, former Blazers guard Derek Anderson purchased a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to eat on the team's bus ride. When Anderson returned to his locker after taking a shower, the box was gone.
"What kind of teammate," Anderson shouted, "steals your doughnuts?"
McMillan told Allen there would be no quick fix for the Blazers when he took over in the summer of 2005. Patience was a necessity. A little lottery luck helped speed the process, but Pritchard further fortified the roster with heady draft picks and trades. Fernandez, Rodriguez and Batum were all taken late in the first round.
Even one rival GM who complains that Pritchard's job is made easier by Allen's riches also concedes: "Most of us are just jealous of his success."
How long the Blazers' success lasts into the postseason remains to be seen, but playing the first two games on their home court should help. The Blazers have a 34-7 record at the Rose Garden, second only to the Lakers in the West. Two of those wins came against the Lakers, making Portland the only West team to beat Kobe and company twice this season.
"I know a lot of teams don't want to come here and play in the Rose Garden," said Blazers center Joel Przybilla. "I guarantee you that."
Roy feels confident the Blazers can continue to give the Lakers problems should they meet in the second round – “We definitely feel like we can play and beat anybody,” he said – but he's also not ready to look that far ahead. Portland’s nearly blank playoff résumé also makes an attractive target for its more experienced opponents.
"I think everybody wants us," McMillan said.
“Experience is good, but we don't have a lot of it. So we'll go with what we got."
That was good enough for the Blazers to win 54 games in the regular season, including their last six. Still, even McMillan concedes he's not completely sure how his young players will react in the playoffs. Will the Blazers be too satisfied with simply making the postseason? Can they earn enough respect from the refs? Will they develop what McMillan calls a necessary "hatred" toward their opponent? Can they play both loose and smart?
The Blazers will learn soon enough. Win or lose, McMillan knows this much: The season is already a success, and the future looks even brighter.
No one, however, has told the Blazers they have to wait on it.