Like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks in Big, the Portland Trail Blazers are growing up in a hurry. Forget about the Western Conference adolescents who were alternately teased and tortured by the Detroit Pistons in last year's NBA Finals—these older and wiser Blazers have been popping their buttons left and right during the first month of the season, and about the only thing anyone can do is duck. That includes the defending champion Pistons, whom the Blazers ran out of Portland's Memorial Coliseum 113-101 on Nov. 9.
"Portland is clearly the best team in the league right now," said Don Nelson, after his visiting Golden State Warriors got Blazed by a 143-119 score last Friday. "It's just a marvelous team put together the right way." Said the Warriors' Chris Mullin, who had 26 points in defeat: "Everyone on the Blazers' roster is playing at such a high level it's hard to even imagine them losing a game here."
Well, Chris, it still hadn't happened as of Sunday, when Portland defeated the San Antonio Spurs 117-103 at the Coliseum to raise its record to 11-0. Eight of those victories have come at home, where the Blazers have played before 589 consecutive sellouts. This year's start is the best in franchise history, as well as the best in the NBA since Seattle won 12 straight to open the 1982-83 season. (The '48-49 Washington Capitols hold the quick-start record of 15 in a row.)
Sure, the Trail Blazers' early schedule has been relatively easy, though it did include a 125-123 overtime road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 6 and that home victory over the Pistons and another over the Chicago Bulls (125-112 on Nov. 18). But this year's Blazers are still the talk of the league (the porous Denver Nuggets notwithstanding), as much for their obvious maturation as for their imposing record. What lessons did Portland learn from last spring's five-game championship set against wise and wily Detroit?
December 3, 1990
Most of the instruction touched on intangibles. Such as: Don't get in trouble with the officials, and don't let the opponent up when he's down, says power forward Buck Williams; there is always another level you can take your game to, even when it doesn't seem possible, says second-year frontcourtman Cliff Robinson; take better care of the ball on key possessions, says star guard Clyde Drexler; do not relax for one moment, says coach Rick Adelman.
But there also was a practical lesson for the Blazers in the Finals: Get a third guard (someone comparable to Detroit's Vinnie Johnson) who thrives on competition and playoff pressure. Portland learned that one, too. And so Danny Ainge—Mr. Outside to Piston Bill Laimbeer's Mr. Inside on America's All-Brat team—has come to the Blazers, who have given him new life, new direction and new converts to his full-bore, long-range shooting style.
"I've got to admit I was a little hesitant about it," says point guard Terry Porter of the Aug. 1 trade that brought Ainge to Portland from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for guard Byron Irvin, two draft picks and cash. "One thing you worry about is how a guy like Danny will blend in. But he has. And I learned he's not just a good shooter—he's a great shooter."
At week's end Ainge was hitting at an eye-popping career best of 59.8% (61 of 102), including 58.8% (20 of 34) from three-point range. Sometimes Adelman has used him in the same manner that Detroit's Chuck Daly uses Johnson—to spell one of the starting guards—but quite often Ainge is on the floor as a third guard, with Drexler moving to small forward. "Frankly, I didn't foresee these immediate dividends," said Adelman. "I was thinking of Danny mainly as someone to make a difference during the playoffs."
Ainge was at or near the top of a list of 18 coveted (and possibly available) players drawn up by Blazer management early last summer. All were shooting guards or small forwards who could come off the bench and score consistently, an ingredient that Portland lacked in the Finals, through which its primary subs, rookies Robinson and Drazen Petrovic, wandered dazed and confused.
Ainge, meanwhile, was getting antsy in Sacramento, where veteran players were becoming an endangered species, and in July he asked general manager Jerry Reynolds to trade him. Portland was his first choice. Ainge, who was a three-sport star at North Eugene High School, is still remembered as one of the most storied schoolboy athletes in Oregon history. "But for me it was more than coming home," says Ainge. "The Blazers were one of those teams that just played hard every night. That's why I liked them."
Adelman did have his moments of doubt: Would a strong-minded veteran who has tasted success—Ainge earned two championship rings in Boston—accept the role of reserve? But, as it turned out, that role was exactly what Ainge wanted. "The idea of playing 25 minutes a game at this stage of my career appealed to me," says the 31-year-old Ainge. "You get the opportunity to see what's going on, and you're going against nonstarters a lot of the time. Plus, I had played that role well when I did it in Boston early in my career. People were always telling me in Sacramento that I was one of the best players on the team, and I always told them, 'All that means is that we must not have a very good team.' "
The only snag for Ainge has been off the court, because he has moved his family (wife Michelle and four children between 10 and two) from an as-yet-unsold large house in Sacramento to a two-bedroom apartment with a loft in Lake Oswego, a Portland suburb. At least that has provided incentive for him to stay at the gym for extra work. "My wife has city-league tennis as an outlet," says Ainge, "and I have basketball."
The only member of the Blazer organization not overjoyed by Ainge's presence is Petrovic, who has descended to fifth-guard status, behind not only Ainge but also veteran Danny Young, whose solid defense is valued by Adelman. A couple of weeks ago Petrovic complained publicly that he was not being treated fairly and gave the Blazers until Nov. 30 to either upgrade his playing status or trade him. "If nothing is done, I'm going back to Yugoslavia," said Petrovic. Since the Blazers were 7-0 at the time, the complaint had a rather pathetic cast to it. The Blazers fined Petro $500 for "comments derogatory to the team," a sum that was rescinded when Petrovic backed off his ultimatum last week.
As for now, Petrovic will have to be content with the adoration—inexplicable even by Portland's Blazermaniacal standards—bestowed upon him every time he enters a game at Memorial Coliseum. The roof almost came off the place when he hit his first shot against Golden State last Friday night. Actually, Petrovic's protest underscores Portland's roster strength. Though he is not worth anywhere near the $1.2 million the Blazers paid to lure him away from European stardom, he is most definitely better than the average scrubeenie.
If the Blazers aren't making their Yugo happy, they've done an excellent job of keeping their Cadillacs content, having given generous contract extensions to Drexler, Williams and versatile forward Jerome Kersey. Drexler, who was severely underpaid at $1.2 million a year—yes, these are strange times—signed a deal over the summer that added a year to his existing five-year contract. During that extra season, 1995-96, Drexler will be paid more than $8 million, which would now be the highest one-season sum in team sports history (but might not be by then). "It means a lot when a team makes a commitment to you, and, believe me, (hat was a commitment," says Drexler.
On Oct. 18 the Blazers added a year to Williams' three-year contract, guaranteeing him $4 million in 1993-94. And two weeks ago Kersey signed a four-year extension worth about $11 million—it was tacked on to his present contract, which expires after next season.
Some $23 million in contract extensions is a high price to pay for stability, especially since Porter, who's in the second year of a six-year, $13.2 million deal, and center Kevin Duckworth, who's in the third year of an eight-year, $14 million pact, are not exactly destitute, either. But who's to say that all those outlays aren't worth it? "When players get involved in contract squabbles, it can consume them," says former Blazer star Geoff Petrie, now Portland's senior vice-president of operations and the point man in contract negotiations.
At any rate, the Blazers are playing like a team that knows it will be on top for a while. They have more versatility than a Swiss army knife, what with Kersey, Williams and, especially, Robinson able to swing among different frontcourt positions, the 6'7" Drexler capable of moving to small forward, and Ainge adept at bouncing between the two guard positions. Even the laid-back Adelman finds Portland's devastating offensive play-through Sunday the Blazers were averaging 125.9 points per game, second only to Denver's 130.1—"a little eerie." Drexler, for example, shot 1 of 16 from the floor in the second game of the season, against Sacramento, yet has been 91 of 158 since then. Porter continues to be the ideal point guard for this team. He's heady and capable of counterbalancing Drexler's occasional lapses into acrobatic chaos, but he is also a slasher who can make the spectacular play.
The 275-pound Duckworth didn't exactly adhere to his off-season pledge to "get into the weight room and stay out of the kitchen," and the Portland party line that his weight is "redistributed" might be stretching the truth a bit. But heavy or not, Duck averaged a solid 16.9 points per game and shot 51.1% during the season's first 11 games. Kersey is the Blazers' do-everything guy, a player who fills up a box score (fifth on the team in scoring, second in rebounding, first in blocks, fourth in assists, fourth in steals) almost as well as Drexler. And Williams is still the ultimate team player; his scoring average was at a career low of 12.6 and may dip even further as Ainge's and Robinson's minutes increase, but his rebounding, interior defense and work ethic will remain a constant. "Buck is the most positive personality I've ever been around in sports," says Adelman.
Funny, but that's what most of the Blazers say about Adelman, a former Portland player—doesn't anyone ever leave that place?—and an ex-roomie of Petrie's. Two seasons ago the Blazers were ripped apart by bad chemistry—the feuding between coach Mike Schuler and Drexler was the primary reason—and Adelman had a lot of work to do when he took over after Schuler was fired midway through the 1988-89 season. He did it. Players praise Adelman's congenial yet firm manner and his feel for the game, the gift of a scrappy guard who was never a superstar.
Ainge knew he had found a home when, in the game against Detroit, he pulled up at the three-point line and lofted an air ball. It was the correct shot for the situation, but he glanced over at Adelman with trepidation. "There he was clapping his hands and saying, 'Good shot, good shot,' " said Ainge. "Rick understood. He's not a front-running coach. He doesn't say it's a good shot if you make it, then turn around and tell you it's a lousy shot if you don't. Players respect that."
Adelman's only weakness remains his squeaky voice—he'll need a vocal-cord transplant if the referees are ever going to hear him in a loud arena. As a Blazer, Adelman's favorite pastime was gin rummy. Many was the night, says Petrie, when Adelman, tossing and turning as he replayed a game in his head, would suddenly switch on the lights at 3 a.m. and say, "Deal 'em." These days, Adelman sleeps soundly. "Tell you the truth, being a head coach was easier than I thought it would be," he says. Certainly the Blazers have adopted his low-stress approach to the winning streak. They joke about it and even openly discuss the superstitions that have evolved out of it. Adelman hasn't gotten his regular haircut since the streak began, for example. And backup center Wayne Cooper has worn an ugly pair of what he calls "regular walking-around sneakers" to game-day shoot-arounds. "You're supposed to get fined for that," says Coop, "but Rick waived it when I told him the reason."
Yes, these Blazers are unlikely to fold when the streak comes to an end, or when a little adversity sets in, as it inevitably will. They are now, after all, far too grown-up for that.