PORTLAND - Continuing last season's tradition, I'll offer five observations on the two teams from each time I travel down I-5 to watch the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden, starting with tonight's opener against the Houston Rockets. Normally, these will appear in our Unfiltered blog.
1. Welcome to the Rose City, Andre Miller
During the second quarter, Andre Miller demonstrated why the Blazers signed him last summer. At the start of the period, with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge on the bench, Miller orchestrated a 23-7 run that gave Portland control of the game. The style was what I envisioned when suggesting Miller might fit better as a reserve. He pushed the tempo, turning Houston turnovers into layups and dunks at the other end. Miller was in the game most of the stretch run, even briefly teaming with Steve Blake in a small backcourt. Here, the results were more mixed. Miller's steadying presence was useful and he nailed a huge set-shot three-pointer (after first stopping for several beats to think about it, with no Rocket defender finding him). However, Miller also took a leading role at the expense of Brandon Roy at times, one of the concerns about a Roy-Miller backcourt.
2. Who Scores for Houston?
Last week, I phrased the Rockets' season as part of the debate between usage and efficiency. Tonight, usage won. After a solid first quarter, Houston had a terrible time getting good shot attempts on a regular basis. If not for whistle-happy referees who sent them to free throw line 29 times (and called a combined 53 fouls, nearly even on both teams), the Rockets might have struggled to crack 80 points. Luis Scola had a forgettable evening, scoring three points, and no one stepped up to replace his production. Things got especially bad when Aaron Brooks, who is emerging as Houston's go-to guy on offense, was out of the game. Nobody else on the team scored more than 12 points. In part, I think the Rockets are hoping that Rick Adelman's offense may create opportunities. That may be the case later in the season when the team is sharper, but it was not tonight.
3. Don't Count Out the Rockets
That last paragraph aside, Houston was still within six points in the final two minutes. Why? As we saw during last year's playoff series against the L.A. Lakers, the Rockets refuse to admit when everyone else has conceded their defeat. A lineup of Brooks, Kyle Lowry, rookie Chase Budinger, Carl Landry and David Andersen did in fact put 31 points on the board in the fourth quarter, making a game of it. In his debut, Andersen demonstrated the advertised soft touch from the perimeter, though the physicality of NBA play in the paint will be a challenge for him. We also saw this unit run more, something Adelman hopes to do this season. Mostly, though, Houston just outworked a Portland team that put things on cruise control a few minutes too early. That, more than anything else, has become this team's trademark.
4. Greg Oden?
The Portland big man certainly stayed busy all night long. There's a palpably different air of confidence around Oden this season that even extended to his pregame address from center court. However, Chuck Hayes tested Oden's developing post-up game. Even giving up six inches at 6'6", Hayes battled Oden in the post and earned a complete victory. Oden did not score until a follow dunk in the game's final minute. That's not to say Oden had a bad night, even with seven turnovers. He anchored the Portland defense with five blocks and something that will not show up on the stat sheet, his improved ability to step out and defend the pick-and-roll. Add in 12 rebounds in 26 minutes, and it was an effective outing--even if it caused us to check Basketball-Reference.com to see if any player in NBA history has ever gotten a rebound-block-turnover triple-double (it's never been done, for the record).
5. The Forgotten Men
A week ago, there was speculation that Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster might find themselves on the fringes of the Portland rotation if not out of it entirely. Nate McMillan was going to have a hard time getting minutes for everyone on his deep roster before Nicolas Batum's shoulder injury cleared the way for Webster to start and Outlaw to see some time at small forward. While one Blazer insider took me aside before the game to suggest I had short-changed Batum in calling his loss "fairly minimal" in terms of its impact on the team's record, tonight showed why I made that argument despite being an enormous Batum fan. Outlaw took advantage of increased playing time--also provided by LaMarcus Aldridge foul trouble--to score a team-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Webster, who was playing just his second regular-season game since April 2008, looked rusty early but eventually settled in and scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting. Together, Outlaw and Webster knocked down five of Portland's 10 three-pointers.
6. Bonus Opening Night Sixth Thought
I hope that I never get too jaded to enjoy opening night. Because I didn't make it down to Portland for any preseason games, it has been six months since I've seen NBA action in person. I had a smile on my face all the way from Kelso. I love the semi-silly traditions, like players running down the aisles to the court, slapping hands along the way. I love players addressing the crowd. I love Red Panda at halftime. The NBA season is a marathon, and there are months ahead of us. For now, however, all things are possible and every game feels fresh. I hope you have as much fun the rest of the way as I know I will.
For more in-game observations, follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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