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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?
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."