Candace Buckner: Happy team is a winning team

Commentary: Candace Buckner

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Practice is over on this getaway day and the Trail Blazers have a flight to catch.

Guys still have to shower and the intern still needs to gun it to the hotel for Dallas Lauderdale and Demonte Harper to pack a bag. Just two hours to, as the phrase indicates, get away.

But nobody is rushing out the door.

Wesley Matthews will say it's been like this on most days since the start of training camp. That after a long practice when the huddle breaks, the unity doesn't.

Matthews turns and surveys the floor, still buzzing with activity long after head coach Terry Stotts released his players and staff for that afternoon freeway traffic. Matthews wants you to see what he sees everyday.

"We've got guys rebounding and passing for each other right now. The coaches could do that."

Basketballs bounce amid the clang clang of the brass bell that signifies another Blazer hitting his 20th 3-pointer. Laughter from large men booms in the background, and now you can hear what Matthews hears everyday.

"I'm going to mess with Nic right now for no reason," Matthews says, then pushes the exposed left shoulder of his teammate who is facing a swarm of cameras and digital recorders. Nicolas Batum acknowledges the nudge, then goes back to crafting his sound bite.

Now you can feel what Matthews feels every day. It didn't take long, and no one knows exactly how it all started. But it's there. The chemistry that eludes the Bobcats of the world, but defines winners.

Take it from the man who led the Blazers to their last run to the Finals.

"When we had our best years, we always hung out with each other socially," Clyde Drexler recalls. "You're with each other for eight, nine months out of the year, daily, so you've got to love them.

"If Wesley Matthews said they're getting along, that's a great sign because you need cohesiveness. You need good chemistry."

As important as the development of starting rookie point guard Damian Lillard and as critical as one of Stotts' new LaMarcus-centric plays will be this simple truth: These guys like each other.

"This team has a lot better chemistry," LaMarcus Aldridge says. "More a camaraderie. I think guys are closer. Guys hang with each other. Guys call each other. So I think this team chemistry is a whole lot better."

Go ahead, roll your eyes. You can think it's silly to weigh so much on the season with how many times J.J. Hickson and Lillard tweet public "LOLs" and private jokes back and forth to each other. But consider the lesson from my hometown St. Louis Cardinals.

Last summer, the Redbirds picked up aging shortstop Rafael Furcal. He often swung at bad pitches and played like his glove was made of swish cheese (five errors through a six-game stretch in September), but Furcal was the life of the locker room. He started the catchphrase "happy flight," which inspired the Cardinals to win the last game of every road trip and ensure a fun plane ride home.

And when my Cards won the World Series, giddy players chanted "Happy flight! Happy flight!" under a champagne shower.

Last April, there weren't a lot of happy flights back to PDX. Morticians had better company than the Blazers did.

"Not very fun," Matthews says of the end of last season. "It was pretty separated."

All that has changed. After two practices last Saturday, when the players could have enjoyed their night off alone, they gathered for a team dinner. This unity off the court showed Wednesday when the Blazers won their first exhibition game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The real games haven't started, yet in one way the Blazers already have improved from last year's team. Here's wishing for many happy flights.

Candace Buckner covers the Blazers for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email at candace.buckner@columbian.com. Her Twitter handle is @blazerbanter.