The buses wheeling around portland this winter carry billboards showing Trail Blazer guard Clyde Drexler lunging for a ball, captioned by a favorite phrase of his: NO DOUBT ABOUT IT! But after a 1990-91 season in which the Blazers failed to make the NBA Finals, which they had in the spring of '90, after a sputtering start this year that drove Blazermaniacs to the brink of Vista Bridge and after a disturbing phase in which Portland ran low on the emotional fuel that makes its glorious running game go, there have been plenty of doubts about it—that is, the Blazers' prospects of winning the NBA title. "No doubt about it," says Drexler. "We thought we should have won last year."
But now a cockeyed optimism is raging again in Twin Peaks country, centered on the theory that Portland's slow burn at the outset of this season may in fact keep the Blazers from being extinguished later on in the playoffs. Consider last season's results, say the theorists: Having fallen to Detroit in five games in the 1990 Finals, the Blazers got off to an astonishing 19-1 start last fall and went on to win a league-high 63 games—only to be spilled by the Lakers 4-2 in the Western Conference finals. Thus, say the optimists, this season's slow start bodes well.
Such thinking, according to Portland coach Rick Adelman, is "baloney." Adelman admits he has had to tinker with changes in personnel and strategy in an effort to expand the Trail Blazers' potential. Is it only coincidental that Portland has a new starting time for its home games, a new mix of players on its second unit, new sites for its training camp and practices, new uniforms and a new team captain? "We still have what it takes," Adelman insists. "It's just a matter of putting it together."
Lately Portland has done just that. After starting 1-3 and in the first six weeks losing as many games at Memorial Coliseum (five) as they did all last season there, the Blazers won 10 of 13 to reach 25-13 at the end of last week and creep to within a game of Golden State in the Pacific Division. The staples of their success in previous years—rebounding average (second in the league this season) and defense (second in field-goal-percentage D)—remain strong, and the hunger that made the Trail Blazers so formidable in the past has returned. "They seemed to have lost some fire earlier this year," says Seattle SuperSonics backcourtman Nate McMillan. "They didn't have their old strictly business look—a cold look like you don't exist."
Other factors hampered Portland in the early going. During the preseason point guard Terry Porter's father died; Porter struggled early with his shooting and is just now finding his range. In November power forward Buck Williams's mother died after a two-year illness; he didn't attain double figures in rebounds until the Blazers' 15th game but through Sunday had averaged 8.3 in the 23 games since then. Small forward Jerome Kersey, the living exclamation point of Blazer-mania! with his baseline-to-baseline hustle, battled through injuries to both ankles; he could not practice all out for seven weeks. Third guard Danny Ainge had to spearhead a new second unit that now includes second-year forward Alaa Abdelnaby and 6'2" rookie Robert Pack; Ainge's three-point shooting percentage had begun to resemble his Toronto Blue Jays' batting average, and only recently did he even eclipse .400 from the field.
The disappointment of last season's premature conclusion seeped into this season as well. "It's hard to pinpoint," Ainge says, "but maybe in the back of our minds we were thinking, We'll just cruise to the playoffs." Adds Portland assistant coach Jack Schalow, "We had gone so hard for so long—two straight years, every game. It's hard to keep that up."
It was Drexler who kept the cruising Blazers afloat, no doubt about it. He shouldered the scoring burden when no one else could, leading Portland in points in 24 of its first 30 games. The best rebounding guard in the league, he continued to crash the boards with fervor, and he has even more assists than Porter. After reaching a 26.6-point scoring average, the 6'7" Drexler has eased back on the throttle as his teammates have accelerated, though his numbers at week's end were still in MVP range: 25.1 points a game, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists. "The guy never gets tired, and he's probably one of the most consistent players I've ever played with," says Blazer backup center Wayne Cooper, a 13-year veteran. "At the start of this season, he was unconscious. When the team was struggling, he just took control."
He did so even before the season began. In the equivalent of a battlefield promotion, Drexler assumed the role of captain—he simply walked into a preseason practice and announced it—in place of co-captains Porter and Kersey, neither of whom objected. "There's no big deal about it," Drexler says. "I've always had the same role on this team whether I had the title or not. I just wanted to have the right to talk to the officials during the critical parts of the game."
As the Blazers languished in mid-December, Captain Clyde led the veterans into Adelman's office to bemoan their atypically white-collar play. "The hustle, the diving on the floor, the tough rebounds, the tough defense—we weren't doing that," Drexler says. "We were trying to execute and make everything look so pretty. Basketball can be a very beautiful game, but sometimes you have to get your hands dirty, get down to the nuts and bolts."
Such grimy imagery somehow doesn't suit Clyde the Glide. Drexler seems so dignified: polite and personable, with well-chosen words spilling from a gentle smile. It's easy to picture him with a ball in one hand and just the right Chablis in the other. And this season his performance is of a vintage rivaled only by Michael Jordan's.
Drexler & Co. are particularly pleased that Portland is back to its fast-break style. When the Blazers are harmonically converging in the open court, there is no more scintillating spectacle in the NBA. But when they aren't, they are prone to deliver the same sensation as an old Rick James single: five minutes of funk. In order to avoid such ruts, Adelman tried to hone Portland's half-court attack early in the season. "It's a fine line for me, because I don't like to slow things down since we're better off trying to get quick-hitting situations before the defense can key on us," Adelman says. "But we have a tendency in the regular season to overpower people. In the playoffs you just don't do that. So we have to realize every possession is important."
Now that the Blazers are healthy and focused again, they are back to their overpowering ways, as they were last week in New York, using a 25-6 fourth-quarter blitz to forge a 96-91 win. But in all probability, how they execute in the half-court will determine their title chances. Which brings us to 7 feet and 280 pounds (or so) of very critical mass: center Kevin Duckworth. Over the past two seasons his Duck hook has been Portland's most reliable post-up option, and his ability to hit the 15-foot jumper has made his pick-and-roll with Porter especially effective. "When Kevin's going good, we're a good team, a very good team," Drexler says. "When Kevin struggles, we struggle."
Since shooting 36.8% from the field in the series against the Lakers last May, Duckworth has struggled. The fans have singled him out as the scapegoat; one letter in The Oregonian last fall compared the starting five to "four greyhounds and a basset hound." A sensitive man with a penchant for fishing—Duckworth has whimsical fantasies about some day harvesting bait worms—he spent his off-season fishing near his hometown, Chicago, as he tried to regroup. He reported to camp overweight—the Blazers won't say by how many pounds—but after a sluggish start he has begun to work his body and his shooting into shape, raising his accuracy to 44.6%. But through Sunday he was only getting 10.2 shots per game, and the pick-and-roll had been all but forgotten. Adelman plans to use it more as the season goes on, but the still wounded Duckworth remains confused about his role.
"I'm tired of hearing about what Kevin can do and what Kevin can't," he says. "Why not give me the chance? I get nine, 10 shots—what is that? Was I an All-Star last year? I forget. I think everybody else has forgotten too. Has my game dropped so tremendously? They don't give me the opportunity to get a good roll going. People think I'm trying to slack off and stuff—stupid fans—but I'm just trying to do what it takes to be on this team."
Duckworth's ineffectiveness has forced Adelman to look to other big men. In the 6'10" Abdelnaby he has found an active low-post threat. And Adelman has given increased minutes in the pivot to 6'10" sixth man Cliff Robinson, a penetrating offensive player and an active defender who in the past was used mostly as a power forward. Robinson helped the Trail Blazers snap an 11-game Cavalier winning streak, with a 121-114 victory last week in Cleveland, by swarming Cav center Brad Daugherty; the following night he guarded New York Knick pivotman Patrick Ewing the entire fourth quarter. "I'm not an overly physical player, so why try to bang someone if it's not my game?" Robinson says. "I try to bother people. If I see someone who can't handle it, then I get excited."
"We've had to make some adjustments," says Adelman, "but ultimately I think we'll be that much stronger." He is fond of reminding folks that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. Who knows? Maybe this season the Blazers will be more comfortable coming from off the pace.