It has been eight months since the Portland Trail Blazers were upset by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, but the frustration remains for an athletically gifted team again favored to advance to the NBA Finals this season.
"It hurt, and it still does," said All-Star guard Clyde Drexler, who leads the Blazers against the struggling Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre tonight. "We thought we should have won it all last year."
And so did a number of NBA opponents who say the Blazers failed to take advantage of the league's best talent. As superstar Michael Jordan of the defending champion Chicago Bulls said recently, "We know they're talented, but it takes more than talent to win in this league."
Jordan's message was plain: The Blazers, who won 63 games during the regular season last year, lacked the smarts to win when the Lakers managed to control their blistering fast break and forced them to play a half-court game.
Portland coach Rick Adelman and his players bristle when their basketball IQ is questioned.
"People have a tendency to expect more of us because of our athletes," said power forward Buck Williams, a former Maryland star who leads the Blazers in rebounding.
"We understand that you have to translate athletic ability into wins. But we've won consistently not only because we're athletic, but because we know how the game should be played. Mental toughness is the key, and we understand how to get the job done."
This thought was echoed by point guard Terry Porter.
"We know we failed last year, and why we failed," he said. "But we have what it takes to win -- the hearts, guts and players. All we need this time is a little luck."
Still, Adelman has made subtle changes this season.
He has tried to improve his team's half-court execution and upgraded the defense. He has also made better use of his deep bench, specifically forward Cliff Robinson, center Alaa Abdelnaby and rookie guard Robert Pack, who has the ability to create his own shot.
"They have exactly what it takes to get to the top," said Indiana Pacers forward Chuck Person. "If other teams could run the break as well as they do, they wouldn't worry about a half-court game. Basketball is a game of spurts, and Portland [averaging 111.5 points] usually gets such a big lead on you, you expend all your energy just trying to catch up."
The Blazers offense revolves around the explosive ability of Drexler and small forward Jerome Kersey and the floor direction of Porter.
Drexler, once considered only interested in personal statistics, has assumed a leadership role. He's first on the team in scoring average (25.2) and assists per game (6.6).
Said Drexler, a nine-year veteran who appointed himself team captain this season: "I'm taking more of an active role now as a leader. The game has become easier for me because I'm on a better team. When I first came to Portland, I had to fight and claw for 40 minutes just to give us a chance to win. Now we play together, and win together."
Reserve guard Danny Ainge, who played on two championship teams in Boston, said every bona fide title contender needs a go-to guy. "We have other leaders on this team," Ainge said, "but there are times in a game when you need one, not leadership by committee. That is the way it worked with Magic Johnson and the Lakers, with Larry Bird and the Celtics and Jordan with the Bulls. There is a point when leadership must come from a superstar, and Clyde is definitely the man for us."