PORTLAND – After one of the quietest offseasons in recent memory, the Portland Trail Blazers return to the Moda Center Wednesday night to host the Oklahoma City Thunder in their 2014 season and home opener. Tipoff is schedule for 7:30 pm on KGW, ESPN and 620 AM.
It’s been over five months since the Trail Blazers were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the second-round of the Western Conference playoffs a month since the start of Training Camp, so the desire to start the process of building on a 54-win season and their first playoff series victory in 14 years was almost palpable prior to their practice on Tuesday.
“I think we’re all excited about what we’re capable of doing this year,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We get to start showing it tomorrow night.”
The Trail Blazers return 13 of 15 players and their entire starting five from last year’s team, which has given the preseason a business-like feel. That familiarity has given the players a sense of preparedness that one looks for as the exhibition season gives way to the regular season.
“I feel like this is definitely one of the team that I feel more confident about going into the season with,” said Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who has spent all eight of his NBA years in Portland. “I feel like every guys got better from last year. I feel like we have our identity, whereas last year we were trying to figure out who we were. This year, we know who we are and we’ve added two good pieces, so this definitely feels different this year.”
Those pieces are point guard Steve Blake, an 11-year veteran with two previous stints with Trail Blazers under his belt, and Chris Kaman, another 11-year vet who is capable of playing both power forward and center. Those additions, along with the growth of the returning players, have the Trail Blazers feeling confident about their chances of returning to the postseason.
“Last year, we thought we were going to be a playoff team,” said Stotts. “There weren’t a lot of people who thought we would be but I think everyone in the locker room thought that we would be a playoff team and we had go out and prove it. I think this year, we know we’re a playoff team and we’ve still got to go out and prove it.”
The Trail Blazers will host a Thunder team that has been plagued as of late by injuries. Losing Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, to a broken foot for at least the first month of the season is obviously the biggest blow, but more recent injuries to Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Anthony Morrow leave the Thunder with just nine available players for Wednesday night’s game.
Then again, any team with Russell Westbrook running the point and Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint is going to have a chance to win regardless of who they’re sharing the floor with.
“They’ve got a good team,” said Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. “They probably aren’t the team they are when they have (Durant) but you can get beat by any team in this league. If we go into this game thinking there’s no KD then we’re probably not locked in the way we need to be. That’s a game that we could let slip away on our own floor. If anything, we need to be even more locked in so we don’t let this opportunity slip away while (Durant) is not out there.”
Andre Roberson, Perry Jones and Steve Adams are expected to join Westbrook and Ibaka as Oklahoma City’s starting five.
As for the Trail Blazers, they start the season with just one player, reserve power forward/center Meyers Leonard, on the injured list. Leonard is out for Wednesday night’s game with an upper respiratory illness, though he is expected to return to full duty soon.
So with an almost completely healthy roster, the Trail Blazers look to begin their 2014-15 campaign the same way they’ve started their last home openers: with a win, which would tie Portland with the Boston Celtics for the most consecutive home-opening victories. Given that, along with the amount of time that has passed since their postseason ended in San Antonio, it’s no wonder that the Trail Blazers are ready to take the first step of a season-long journey.
“There’s definitely an anticipation,” said Stotts. “I think there’s just a readiness to play a game that matters. We’ve had a good preseason, we’ve made good progress but it’s time to go.”
By Casey Holdahl | forwardcenter.net | October 29, 2014