Give the Blazers Their Due
Great fight all year has Portland in the mix.
by Colin Powers
The plague-like, season long decimation of the Trail Blazers roster has been well chronicled, almost reaching the point where you have to stop fighting it, succumb to the tragic comedy of it all, and just laugh. Joel Pryzbilla reinjuring his foot while slipping in the shower this past week serves as the perfect microcosm for a team that the gods may have picked just to prove Murphy’s Law is still very real and alive (‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’). But through it all, everyone’s favorite pre-season sleeper has continued to plug away under the brilliant direction of Coach Nate McMillan, a man who absolutely must be on the shortlist for Coach of the Year. Today, they sit at 41-28, dutifully protecting their playoff position in the irrepressibly fierce competition of the Western Conference. In the words of Teddy KGB, they ‘keep hangingggg around.’
Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw (since traded), Jeff Pendergraph, Patty Mills, and even Coach McMillan have all missed significant time for the Blazers this season. Shit, they traded for Marcus Camby in hopes of filling the gaping hole in their interior defense (despite the valiant work of consummate pro Juwan Howard) and he immediately went down with a twisted ankle…Camby’s healthy for now, but even if he cannot escape the fate of the preceding Portland bigs, for me his acquisition will still be worth it if only to see another team embrace the Camby-patented back-handed high-five, a favorite of mine since his days at UMass. On a serious note, though, the resilience of this squad deserves to be commended and explored.
How have they stayed afloat through it all? Can this team that everyone was so afraid of last year resurface as a nightmare playoff match-up come April? The possibility exists. Kevin Pritchard has put together a very deep team, a compilation of versatile parts with specific skill-sets that make gameplanning for a healthy Blazers squad a nightmare. Look at their wings: Batum, Fernandez, Dante Cunningham and Martell Webster all bring something different to the table. Though there was some preseason anxiety about how Coach McMillan could juggle minutes to make sure he got court-time for all these valuable assets and even some whispers that this great depth might actually hurt team chemistry, the injuries of the season have made all such points irrelevant. Without their roster flexibility, the Blazers playoff dreams would have been buried long ago. A lot of credit needs to be given to Portland management for finding gems like Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph as well as for believing that the last Fab Five member standing had something left in the tank. Further, don’t discount the contributions of Jerryd Bayless. While he hasn’t had the success (or the opportunity) of some of his draft-mates, Bayless’ tantalizing individual ability has been called on at times this season and he has delivered. He still has a lot to learn about the League and the nuances of the PG spot in particular, but having this underexposed dynamo lurking on the bench has been a major blessing.
Perhaps the fundamental key to this season so far, however, despite the generally youthful nature of the franchise, has been a member of the League’s old guard. Once the ominous beginning to his Blazers career passed, Andre Miller has again served as the steadying rock for an organization in desperate need, and his composure and performance in the wake of all these injuries has been central to Portland’s survival. He certainly had his issues when he first came to town, and at one point the partnership with Brandon Roy looked poisoned to the core; while neither is by any means a selfish player, both like to have the ball in their hands to direct the flow of the offense and are not truly comfortable operating off the ball. They struggled to find one another’s rhythm to the point that they rarely even shared the court together, Miller relegated to a backup and the less talented but more symbiotic and complementary Steve Blake starting alongside Roy. The exigency of Roy’s hamstring problems forced Miller more into his traditional role as lead guard, though, and after unraveling some miscommunication issues with Coach McMillan, Andre returned to his reliably stellar form.
Still one of the least talked about really good Point Gods of this generation, he just keeps on keepin’ on in his old school ways. He posts and bangs smaller guards, exploits angles and body positioning to navigate into the lane, and constantly keeps defenders off-balance with his masterful understanding of the change of pace and ball fakes. Miller’s consistent mid-range game and great court vision that were so evident back in the day with Utah remain undiminished.
Comfortable again, with Miller at the helm the undermanned Blazers did not give away games through unnecessary mistakes while the roster was awash in injuries and would always have opportunities to win even against superior teams because of his command of tempo and the subsequent ability to shorten the game. LaMarcus Aldridge also probably doesn’t get talked about enough in the face of the incessant waves of injury news. He does frustrate at times because we see the tools he has and know he could be truly dominant on both ends of the court if he was genuinely determined to be. But nevertheless, we need to give credit when credit is due, and LaMarcus has been really, really good this season. He’s steadfastly put up numbers each time he laces ‘em up, and his offensive production is invaluable to a team that at times struggles to score the rock (especially when Roy’s in David Stern mandated dress clothes).
Now that we’re nearing Spring and the Blazers have kept their head above water up until this point, the reason they can be scary in the coming months is because of the recent fusion of all the disjointed parts into one unit. Inevitably, with players as smart and team-oriented as Roy and Miller, they would find a way to make it work together, and they have. While Roy has at times struggled in his recovery as he attempts to stretch out that troublesome hamstring, you can see he has a newfound trust for his backcourt mate, and they have evolved together in a way that is mutually beneficial. The result is perhaps the best decision-making pair of guards in the League and a frightening proposition for any potential first round foe. If Roy truly is regaining strength in that hammy (as his last three games seem to indicate), the complexion of the Western Conference will turn once again. Not enough can be said about the advantage of having two battle-tested players capable of creating and running the offense.
Also, Rudy Fernandez is finally healthy and providing his trademark spark and flair once again off the bench. I actually think he is capable of far more than the pigeonhole of 3-point specialist he has slipped into since arriving in the NBA. He has the skills to be a very tough match-up for opposing teams because of his athleticism, aptitude as ball-handler, and cunning as a passer, playmaker, and finisher. If he ever unleashes his full arsenal, he could elevate the Blazers another level. For now, though, that may be a bit much to hope for.
When healthy, Brandon is one of the very best in the business, an incredibly gifted playmaker and shotmaker and one of the elite fourth quarter performers in the NBA. His ability to create space and get into the lane via hesitations and crosses should be studied by every young player. Playoff basketball is far more half-court oriented, the pressure of the second season inspiring a renewed commitment to defense and a leave-everything-on-the-floor mentality for all those lucky enough to still be playing. Execution, patience, resolve, and swag are in high demand. There are no easy buckets, and entire seasons frequently come down to how effective teams are at playing out the final two or three minutes of the game. Look at last year’s Nuggets-Lakers series. You could certainly argue Denver was the better team for the majority of the total minutes played that series. When it counted, though, the Lakers made the plays they had to, and the Nuggets did not answer the bell.
For the Blazers, a healthy Brandon Roy fulfills all the necessary playoff criteria and could mean a salvaged season (a welcome surprise after the kick to the balls that was Greg Oden going down). Further, they are a team that plays at a relatively slow pace to begin with, so they should be well-practiced in the ways of playoff hoop. And though it is still a young roster top to bottom, I like the mix of their active and athletic contributors with the savvy of Camby, Miller, and Howard, and of course, the sage-like, halcyon alpha male that is Brandon Roy (and he’s still only 25). The Blazers could be poised to make a surprise run if they can avoid any more injuries. They go as Brandon goes, so hopefully his body holds up the rest of the way.
Ah, I can’t wait for the Playoffs.