"Nooooooooooo!" screams my boy Acks Minakyan after another victory for his beloved Portland Trail Blazers. "Which part of 'Ping Pong Ball!' don't KP and Nate understand? Ping Pong Ball, I tell you! Ping Pong Ball!"
A co-author of the NBA PIcksix and, more importantly, some sort of combo Blazer-Knick diehard fan, Minakyan has long since adopted "Ping Pong Ball!" as his slogan for the 2007-08 campaign in Portland. The man nearly had to be hospitalized when Greg Oden's rookie season was cut short after a sum total of zero games played, and he has spent every minute since attempting to console himself with the belief that the Blazers will be adding to their stable of young talent with another top-level lottery pick next summer to welcome Oden back in 2008-09.
Only one minor snag has popped up so far: The good sirs in the stable of young talent already in Portland uniforms? They never got the message.
With their eleven-point victory over the Nuggets last night, the upstart Blazers attained their seventh straight win, bringing them back to the .500 mark after a 5-12 start. The last three have come without budding second-year stud LaMarcus Aldridge. The last four have come against three of the Western Conference's top eight teams in Utah (twice), Golden State and Denver. Three have come on the road, where they hadn't garnered a win all season until the beginning of this streak. This Blazers team is legitimately hot right now.
They are doing it as a team as well. Over the past seven games, three players have led the team in scoring, three have led the team in rebounding and three have at least tied for the lead assists. Aldridge went for 23, 14 and 24 points in each of the first three wins of this streak and then got hurt. No problem. Travis Outlaw has averaged 18.6 points per in eight December games, going for 20-plus five times in that stretch. Brandon Roy has played out of his mind, scoring 25-plus points in five of his last seven games and averaging 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game for December.
No Oden in the middle? No problem there either. Joel Przybilla is averaging 6.9 boards and 1.48 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game. Just take a second to think about that -- and what those per 40 minutes figures must look like.
Everyone is doing his part. Jarrett Jack is doing what he can to eat minutes at the point guard spot. So is Steve Blake. James Jones has been torrid since returning from injury, shooting 63.1 percent from behind the three-point line in December en route to averaging 12.6 points per game over that time. Though inconsistent, Martell Webster is chipping in with the occasional bust-out game, such as his 25-point effort on 9-for-13 shooting in Utah last week.
The reason many around the league believe that this team will be a power for years to come is largely centered on the man who shall be in the middle next season, but it isn't anywhere close to completely reliant on him. This is a growing young team. These youngsters have a hard-nosed coach in Nate McMillan who demands that they come to play and play hard every night, which is exactly what they are doing. They are good kids with athleticism who can score and board and have the physical tools to play excellent defense one day down the road.
Right now, this team is playing at a level that could be its peak for the season, a level not particularly indicative of the total package here. But the 5-12 start wasn't completely indicative of that package either. The kids can play, and as they refine their skills in the months and years to come, they will only get better and better. For now, the Blazers are likely a mediocre unit. But they are a mediocre unit that plays tough basketball every night and won't be humiliated with the tanking label. Frankly, these boys in Portland are as refreshing a story as there is across the league.
As for that "Ping Pong Ball!" mantra? They're having none of it. And rightfully so.