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Team play reason for Blazer boom

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Even as it has unfolded, I haven't quite been able to figure out the Trail Blazers' dominant play. I mean, how could this team get this good, this fast? How and why is it happening?

It was time to ask an expert.

The Trail Blazers have played the Utah Jazz four times in the last 25 days (I can't remember two NBA teams playing that frequently in that short of a span, ever). So it only seemed natural to ask Jerry Sloan, the veteran and very wise coach of the Jazz, what he thinks of the Blazers, who won three of the four games.

What has made the Blazers so successful, Jerry?

'They get the ball to the right guys about as good as anybody in the league,' Sloan says.

Usually that guy is Brandon Roy.

'He's one of the best players in the league. A great player,' Sloan says.

OK, what makes Roy such a great player in only his second year?

'He can get to just about any spot on the floor he wants to get to,' Sloan says. 'He's big and strong, can get to the basket, get to the free-throw line and get the ball to open teammates. I knew he was going to be a great player the first time I saw him.'

But, Jerry, the team is so young …

'Doesn't matter if you're young if you have great leadership. And I don't know him at all, but he looks to me like a great leader,' Sloan says. 'They play good defense, too. They play hard every night.'

But they don't get fastbreak points, and they don't rebound all that well. They sure seem to need to make a lot of 20-foot jump shots.

'Yeah, well, they make them,' Sloan says. 'You have to guard them because they shoot well. And I've always appreciated the way Nate McMillan coaches. He knows what he wants to do, and they do it. They are disciplined. It's a wonderful young team. A terrific team.'

Are they going to make the playoffs?

'Why not? They can play with anybody in this league,' Sloan says. 'As long as they're lucky and don't get anybody hurt, they certainly can (make the playoffs).'

Last week, there was a statistics-based study of the Blazers at the Wages of Wins Journal, an online blog by David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook, the authors of 'The Wages of Wins,' which attempts to be to basketball what Michael Lewis' 'Moneyball' is to baseball.

That journal says, 'This is truly a team. … The top three players in Wins Produced - Roy, Przybilla and Blake - have produced 54 percent of the team's wins (not the 80 percent we normally see from a team's top three players) …

'The Blazers are led in Wins Produced by Brandon Roy. But last year's Rookie of the Year is not the driving force behind the team's improvement. No, this team's progress is truly a team effort. A number of players have returned to what we saw in the past, and one player - James Jones - has improved substantially.'

Sloan's comments to me came before Saturday night's Blazer win over Utah, when Portland was forced to play without Roy most of the game.

But in a way, the Blazers proved Sloan's point as they rode the hot hands of Martell Webster in the third quarter and Travis Outlaw in the fourth. No question, they 'got the ball to the right guys.'

I was critical of McMillan earlier in the season, even took a bit of a cheap shot when I tossed the name of another available coach into the column.

I fretted that the team's inability to run and get easy baskets, would combine with its rebounding woes to make for a long season - in fact, I still think those are long-term problems.

And I worried that McMillan had too many young players to develop at once - that there was no way each could grow to his fullest without inhibiting another one's growth, particularly without more veteran on-court leadership. It seemed impossible. I'm not even sure McMillan thought he could pull it off.

But we've watched an entire roster blossom before our eyes. It's mind-boggling, what has happened here. All I can say is, Great job, Coach.

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