Maybe next year? Maybe not.
Playoff momentum swings are usually measured in pendulums. Thanks to a shocking, surreptitious return to the court for Brandon Roy, you better upgrade that pendulum to a seismograph.
The Portland Trail Blazers closed out a magnitude 10 96-87 victory over the Phoenix Suns Saturday afternoon, regaining their confidence, repairing their reputation and evening their playoff series at 2-2 in the process.
When they were last seen in the Rose Garden Thursday night, the Blazers were out-gunned and out-of-sync, struggling to create looks on offense and standing around on defense. A lot needed to change. A lot did. But it wasn't always easy to keep track of.
Yesterday, with local and national media crammed inside a holding room at the Blazers Practice Facility, happily distracted by trays of delicious P.F. Chang's takeout, the Blazers went through an extended walkthrough behind closed doors. By the time the gym opened to the media, Roy was nowhere to be seen. Nate McMillan made no mention of an imminent Roy return and neither did any of his teammates. Out of sight, Roy was an afterthought, not expected back before Game 6 at the earliest, and the focus turned in full to LaMarcus Aldridge.
Unbeknownst to the media, Roy went through a full court 2 on 2 game with Patty Mills, Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph on Friday. "He went through some 2 on 2 full court yesterday during practice and felt no pain but his conditioning was really bad," Nate McMillan said after the game. "Basically I said, 'No. You're not ready.' [Roy] was ok with it. He left [the Practice Facility]."
The plan at that point was for Roy to return no sooner than Game 5 on Monday. "He was a little disappointed in my conditioning yesterday with the 2 on 2," Roy explained. "I said, 'Coach, even in my best shape I'm not a good full court 2 on 2 type of player. That's Dre's job to bring the ball up.'"
With the game scheduled for an unusual 1:30 PM tip off to accommodate the national television broadcast, the Blazers bypassed their usual 10AM shootaround, with media availability to follow, and instead held a closed bowl shootaround at the Rose Garden that didn't end until noon, just 90 minutes before tip. The closed bowl not only postponed the Suns from taking the court, it prevented the media from seeing Roy go through any early warm up routine. Shortly after noon, though, word started to leak out that Roy might play and, just 40 minutes before tip, the Blazers alerted the media via text message that Roy had been added to the active roster, in place of an ill Dante Cunningham.
Still, Roy had not received the official go-ahead, which wasn't delivered by General Manager Kevin Pritchard until after the team had broken from its pre-game meeting and was set to take the court. "The decision was made basically when the guys were leaving the locker room," McMillan said.
Even then, there was some question about whether Roy would see court time given that he was only 8 days removed from surgery to repain torn meniscus in his right knee. Snapping this photo of a smiling Roy stretching immediately before tip off felt more surreal than real. That strange combination of skepticism and anxiety and hope and dread continued to build through the game's opening minutes, with Roy sitting on the bench and Jerryd Bayless starting in his (and Rudy Fernandez's) place.
But at the 4 minute mark of the first quarter glee took over. No one present will forget the moment as Roy charged to the scorer's table, set to make the most exhilarating substitution of the entire season with the Rocky theme pumping through the arena's sound system. The phrase "standing ovation" doesn't do the Rose Garden's reaction justice, as loud became louder, which became flat-out freak out. "I just got chills when he got up and the crowd saw that he was going to the scorer's table," Nate McMillan admitted after the game. "I know our players fed off of that, the emotions and the energy in the building." Indeed. The Blazers, down early to the Suns once again, went on an 8-0 run with Roy at the scorer's table.
But Phoenix sustained the initial emotional punch remarkably well. The points weren't coming as easily as they had during the last two games but they were still coming. Down 4 at the half, Phoenix had put up 50 points and was shooting 51% from the field, leaving the game well within reach. And thanks to 11 third quarter points from Jason Richardson, Phoenix was down only 2 points headed into the fourth quarter.
That's when the bottom fell out for the Suns, who turned over their offense almost completely to high screen and rolls. The results were not pretty. Aside from a late free throw by Grant Hill, only Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash scored in the period, combining for just 14 points. The Suns as a team made just 5 out of 16 field goals and committed 5 of their 11 turnovers in the period. Richardson, hero of Game 3, had just one attempt in the period, a last-minute missed 3 pointer with the game already decided.
The Suns looked stagnant at times in Game 1 but this was closer to shut down defense from the Blazers, who harassed Nash with the bigger, longer Nicolas Batum, played the pick-and-roll intelligently and cleared the boards aggressively. The Suns never really looked to isolate and attack Roy, who was a little gimpy and playing in a limited capacity, doing his best to hide out in the weakside corner.
On offense, though, a limited Roy is infinitely better than no Roy for the Blazers. Despite scoring just 10 points, grabbing 1 rebound and dishing 1 assist, his impact was momentous. Nobody benefited more than LaMarcus Aldridge. "It was huge," Aldridge said after the game, smiling ear to ear. "As soon as he checked into the game, I got my first open shot with nobody guarding me. I was like, 'Thank God, he's back.'"
You could say the same thing about Aldridge, the subject of so much recent controversy over lackluster play, who looked like the dominating player he can be for the first time this series. "LaMarcus did a great job of carrying us tonight," Roy said. Clearly more comfortable in the "best supporting actor" role, Aldridge finished with a playoff-high 31 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists, starting hot and never looking back. His turnaround jumper was on point, his energy level was up and his sense of place was restored. Moving quickly but not rushing. Moving authoritatively but not barreling. "He had a calmness about him tonight, McMillan said. "[He] just playing a poised game down in the post tonight."
That poised play was made easier by some Blazers adjustments. First, they relocated Marcus Camby at the high post early, allowing Aldridge to find him more quickly whenever a double team was sent. Second, Aldridge got slightly deeper position late in the game, allowing him to turn to the baseline and shoot before a double team could reach him from the top side. Third, the Suns respected Brandon Roy, and his mid-range shooting, in a way they haven't had to respect Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster or Jerryd Bayless. The cumulative result was more hesitant double teams -- which led to better looks for Aldridge -- and more basket-preventing, late fouls -- which put him on the line 12 times.
All future adjustments for both sides now revolve around Roy, of course, who says "it's a given" he'll suit up and play from here on out. How do the Blazers get the most out of his limited capacity, how many minutes is he allowed to play and when will he return to the starting lineup? How much attention and how aggressively do the Suns pay him on defense? How do the Blazers hide him on defense? How frequently and directly do the Suns attack him, and with whom?
And, perhaps most importantly: Will the knee hold up and will it be a distraction for Roy? Tonight, Roy said, those questions were non-issues. "I wasn't worried at all. It didn't cross my mind. It felt fine. It feels just like it did before the surgery. Everybody's like 'Woooow, it's just been a week [since the surgery], it's just been a week.' God blessed me to go out there tonight and it felt good. I wasn't going to question it."
Nate McMillan's Post Game Comments
Brandon's play and the decision to play him
A long, sleepless night. Brandon has been working, really, since the day after the surgery. It felt great coming out of the surgery. He was having a lot of movement the day of the surgery, started working out, feeling good, feeling absolutely no pain. Our thought was, he will probably be out for the series. And then it just kept moving up. We talked about getting it to a sixth game next Thursday, possible playing then. Then it moved up to possibly playing him Monday. And he went through a workout yesterday, because he really wanted to play tonight. He didn't want to wait until Monday. And we talked about it.
He went through some 2 on 2 full court yesterday during practice and felt no pain but his conditioning was really bad. Basically I said, "No. You're not ready." He was ok with it. He left. And then it was phone calls all night. I talked to him again, he wanted to play bad last night. I called him and talked to him, "You didn't look like you were ready to go." There was no pain in his knee so he texted me back about 8 o'clock and said, "Coach, I think I should play." I called Kevin about 11 o'clock when I got the text and I told Kevin. At that time, we had to get Mr. Allen. I felt like we needed to get our owner involved in this.
We talked about that, we talked about it this morning and right before the game, after talking to our doctors and our trainer and Brandon, we agreed to let him go. I mean, he wouldn't have been really bothered if he didn't have the opportunity to play in this game. And he was not going to play in this game.
So this wasn't gamesmanship?
Oh, it was back and forth, back and forth all night long, and all during the morning. I just felt like we as an organization needed to make this decision. Not based on me. Brandon was feeling good. Our doctors were ok to let him go, as far as what his response to treatment and what he was feeling. I just asked him how he felt, he said he felt great. It really worked out for us. I thought it lifted our team tonight, we wanted to keep him around 20-25 minutes, it was close to that.
When did the team find out?
We actually went through the meeting, the team broke and then I came back after talking with Kevin and Mr. Allen and decided we were going to let him go. They didn't know until we were walking out. But he did go through walkthroughs yesterday. I had him out there with the 5. So we kind of thought he may play. It was back and forth. The decision was made basically when the guys were leaving the locker room.
What did Roy's return do for your team's approach?
Knowing that he's going to be out there, I thought our guys, I mean, you could see them upbeat. Like "Let's go." We've got our main guy back and knowing that he was out there, just being out there, I thought our guys were calm. I thought we played the game that we needed to play to win.
Did you take the momentum back?
Yeah, well we finally got to playing basketball, scrapping. I thought we matched their intensity, which we've been talking about the last two games. Challenged them. I felt like we were the aggressors. That's a really good team. Nash is just unbelievable. As far as just taking advantage of situations on the offensive end of the floor. They made plays but I felt like we played with a lot of confidence tonight. We didn't look tight. The execution was good, the defense was good and it was a 48 minute we played tonight.
I thought LaMarcus responded like we needed him to respond tonight. Big game. He showed up. And got into the paint. I thought the physical play they've been playing the last two games, he had a calmness about him tonight. Didn't rattle him. He stayed with getting post position. Fighting for post position. The double teams didn't rattle him tonight. I thought he did a good job of stretching the double teams and finding our guys on the weakside. And just playing a poised game down in the post tonight.
Did this remind you of when you played injured against the Chicago Bulls in the Finals?
Yeah, all of these things went through my head. You're thinking about the risk of him re-injuring himself. Coming back, some would say, too soon. Our doctors who did the surgery know what kind of surgery he did, didn't feel like Brandon could hurt himself. Brandon didn't feel any pain in all of his workouts. The only thing he felt was just badly out of shape. But I thought about myself when I played in the Finals. Guys played with serious injuries. I think about Kobe with a broken finger. No one was concerned about me when I had back spasms and couldn't walk.
There are guys who... at this time... you know Nicolas was probably in a worse situation than Brandon. With his shoulder possibly being able to be dislocated. It was a bigger risk for Nicolas to be out there than Brandon. Guys are playing with it. We have to listen to Brandon. I was listening to the doctors. I felt like everybody needed to get involved on this decision.
Did Brandon exceed your expectations?
He was good. Rusty. A little rusty. He had some big shots down the stretch. Just having him out on the floor, you have to defend a little different with Brandon being on the floor, with LA, Nicolas and Miller.
Does that comeback seem like a legendary playoff performance?
It was good for us tonight. We needed that lift because we, the last two games, have just been flat. We needed that lift. I just got chills when he got up and the crowd saw that he was going to the scorer's table. I know our players fed off of that, the emotions and the energy in the building. Having him back. You take any player like Brandon away from a team, and bring him back... take Nash from Phoenix... it will have an impact on you. And it did tonight when he came back.
Will Brandon start game 5?
We'll have to look at that. I'll talk to Jay and the doctors and see where he's at. I spoke to him jut a second ago, he felt fine, no pain. Possibly we can increase his minutes, certainly we're going to look at putting him in the lineup.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter