Game 21 Recap: Blazers Win Game, Lose Oden
This isn't going to be your standard recap. The Blazers won the game by a point behind some late-game heroics by Brandon Roy, some stellar rebounding by Joel Przybilla and LaMarcus Aldridge, and some great play from point guards Andre Miller and Jerryd Bayless. You can see the Boxscore here. I was watching the game on Tivo and to be honest I fast forwarded a bunch after the first quarter, because...
The news of the night, as reported here earlier, is that Greg Oden went down early in the game with a fractured left knee and is likely out for the season. The play itself looked innocuous. Oden half-brushed Aaron Brooks midair while swinging over to help cut off Brooks' penetration. Unfortunately the bulk of the brushing happened knee to knee. When Oden came down he immediately fell to the court and went fetal. Both sets of trainers and soon after doctors rushed to his aid. He went out on a stretcher. He'll require surgery.
So...the win was great, but let's deal with this. What does this mean to the Blazers?
Obviously this takes a huge bite out of the Blazers' depth, defense, and rebounding. With Oden and Travis Outlaw out you're going to see Joel Przybilla and LaMarcus Aldridge handling a ton of pressure defensively. One of the near-constants of the season has been the perimeter players relying on the big guys to mitigate their mistakes. Now they simply can't afford it. Joel is a fine defender but the price for the strategy is fouls. Spend a couple fouls on Przybilla now and you're stuck in a small lineup involuntarily for huge chunks of the game. That's a huge difference from the voluntary small lineup. Long story short, we're about to see how good or bad the Blazers guards really are defensively. They're going to have to man up.
Here's another blow: From the start of the season Oden provided an often-unnoticed intimidation factor in the lane. You can't go so far as to say that opponents were scared to go in there, but they were definitely looking over their shoulders after the first block or two in a game. Nobody likes to get capped. Nobody likes to be used as an example of why Greg Oden is a beast. You saw players putting up different shots when Oden was in the game. Right here, right now, every opposing coach and scout is circling the painted area on the chalkboard and saying, "Drive against this team." It was already raining a little. Now there's going to be a hurricane. The Blazers have managed to cover most drivers this season but even while doing so they've given up open jumpers. Unless something changes they're going to have to work harder just to stop the layups. That may spell disaster against any team that can shoot.
The rebounding aspect is just as scary. As much as we wanted Oden to get more touches on offense the team wasn't trending that way. They telegraphed it a little tonight even, setting up Aldridge clearly in the first quarter and keeping Greg away from the basket in order to leave space for LaMarcus to work. Offensive rebounding, however, has been a huge threat and has provided extra points to a team desperately in need of them. Nobody you put on the floor is going to be as dangerous of an offensive rebounder as Greg. That takes potential points away. It also lets the opponent relax a little more, maybe allowing them to think about running out instead of crashing the boards.
Straight up: this is a loss that extends well beyond anything that shows up in the boxscore under Oden's stat line. But you probably don't need me to tell you that.
Some will posit that the Blazers only need to go back to last year's outlook which featured Oden less, as he was either injured or playing limited minutes most nights. It's not that simple. Yes, part of the turmoil this season has been adjusting to Greg's presence and his effect on the game. But everybody from the coaches who designed the plays to the players who suffered the most disruption went into this year planning on Oden being there. When you're depending on something you don't just switch gears when it's unexpectedly taken away. Players got used to certain things with Greg on the court. They're going to continue expecting those things until the shock wears off. If the Blazers had a week to practice I'd say they could compensate pretty easily. But they're going to have to do it on the fly. There's going to be no set pattern or easy answers for doing so.
Here's the good news: this team has always played better when it's been the underdog facing adversity. Whenever you thought the Blazers were dead and buried in the last couple of years they bounced back and ran off a winning streak. I'm halfway expecting the same to occur here in the short run. I think you're going to see a ton of energy out of everybody still in uniform, especially from guys who heretofore haven't had the chance to utilize their talents to the fullest. We already saw it tonight out of Miller and Bayless. That's going to continue, at least on this road trip. I don't think you're going to see a radical plummet in the next week or two. Maybe you won't see any difference at all from what we expected. We could even see better results for a while. The real test is going to come in January, February, the dog days, the run for the playoffs. Over time these things tend to even out. Other teams adjust and exploit. They'll have no pity for the Blazers' situation. The guys who are new to them in the next couple of weeks will have been completely scouted and accounted for. And those guys won't be exerting that special energy anymore. At that point we're going to see what this team is really made of. It's not an impossible task to still have a really nice season, but it just got a lot harder.
A couple of notes to end with...
First, one of the clearest signs that came out of this incident was conveyed when teammates gathered around Greg as he was wheeled off the court. Not everybody came, as that wouldn't have been appropriate or possible at that point, but the main guys were there, including and especially Brandon Roy. The vibe there wasn't clinical. Nor was it, "Oh geez, what are we going to do without you?" It looked like a bunch of older brothers offering encouragement to a younger brother...a much beloved one. You know these guys have been struggling with adjustments. But you also know they realize what Greg means to them as a team. We saw tonight that beyond that, they want him as a teammate as well.
Second, I'm simply going to echo that from a fan's perspective. I wish Greg a speedy recovery and my heart reaches out to him as a human being, just as his teammates did tonight. Somewhere inside me that Rose Garden chant of "Oden! Oden!" that we heard tonight as he left the floor still reverberates. I think that will be reaching out to him from most of us in the coming months. If he never played another minute I'd be better off as a Blazer fan for having had the chance to participate in that chant. That's what my heart says.
And I know my heart is bleeding into my head as I say the following, but that doesn't mean my head is totally divorced from the equation. I am still overjoyed Greg Oden is a Portland Trail Blazer. In fact were I the owner or GM of this team visiting him the very first thing I'd say is, "I am glad we picked you and if we had to make the pick all over again I would choose the same way." I don't expect Oklahoma Thunder fans to look at it that way. Heck, I don't expect anyone in the whole rest of the league to look at it that way tonight. I get that. I know all of the reasons it makes sense. But that makes sense for you. For me, and I believe for the Blazers, Oden is still the right guy. I would not want anyone else. I've been watching this game for a long time. I've been through the 62 stages of early fandom and have managed to come through passion intact but also, I hope, with a pretty good sense of distinguishing truth from wishes, that which is solid from that which is just convenient and noisy. Greg has shown me something. Even as raw as he is, even as little as we've seen of him compared to what we'd wish, his presence on the court is unique among his teammates and has the potential to be unique in this league. More to the point, for the Blazers he has the potential to do something that a scoring small forward, speedy point guard, or burly power forward does not: decisively fill--nay, overflow--a hole that potentially stands between us and a championship. If Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge weren't already on this team I might not be saying that. If we didn't have a glut of scoring forwards and guards besides I might not be saying that. If I didn't have faith that management will eventually settle the point guard position I might not be saying that. But when push comes to shove the guy in the middle is still the hardest to find and a guy with the potential to bend the game like Oden does is all but impossible to find. Other players would make this team better right now. But I'm not as confident that other players would end up being the potential championship piece for this team in this situation that Greg Oden could be.
Take whoever you want. Make whatever comparisons you want. Give me #52. Then talk to me in a decade and let's see who came out ahead. Greg was quoted by the Blazers, saying, "I'm obviously disappointed having worked so hard to get to where I was. This is a setback, but I'll be back." And we'll be cheering for you: now, then, and after.