With the disappointment of playoff elimination safely behind us, let's take a look back at the ups and downs of the season just past.
The Blazers entered 2009-10 with high hopes. Coming off of their 4th-place finish in the West and triumphant return to the post-season wars the spring prior, with amazing bench depth and franchise center Greg Oden firmly in tow, Portland looked poised to challenge for the division crown and advance at least to the second round of the playoffs.
A small, dark cloud crept over Portland's silver lining almost immediately as small forward Nicolas Batum went down with a shoulder injury before the season even started. Into his place stepped one of the longest-tenured Blazers, Martell Webster. Webster had sat out the 2008-09 campaign with a foot injury. Together with the inexperienced Oden, Webster introduced a measure of uncertainty into Portland's starting lineup. It showed. The Blazers got off to a rocky start, unable to sustain offensive momentum against the quality teams the top of the season schedule threw in their path. Portland started 2-3. Oden's low post game, Brandon Roy's ball control, and LaMarcus Aldridge's need for touches didn't mesh. New acquisition Andre Miller's pedigree and performance became the center of burgeoning controversy as he languished in a bench role. Portland looked to be in disarray, perhaps a victim of its own depth and expectations. To make matters worse primary scoring sub Travis Outlaw joined Batum on the injured list with a season-killing foot injury duplicating Webster's of the year prior.
In the midst of all this something strange happened. Though the offense still tip-toed on pins and needles, particularly in the absence of Outlaw, Portland's defense broke down the door and shook down any opponent that got in the way. Though Greg Oden consistenly looked awkward in the post he became an enormous backstop and rebounding gravity well on the other end. All of a sudden the Blazers were holding opponents in the 70's and 80's...numbers which even their offense could best. Combined with a more modest roster of foes their defensive acumen spurred the Blazers to 6 straight wins and an 8-3 mark. Portland came back to earth in the following weeks but still managed to play .500 ball, carrying a 12-8 record into their December 5th date with Houston.
That's when the air came out of the ball.
No Blazer fan could forget the sight of Greg Oden being wheeled out of the Rose Garden on a stretcher after an attempted block of an Aaron Brooks shot in the first quarter of that game. This was also the first game of a long absence for reserve guard Rudy Fernandez who suffered from a back injury. Suddenly the deep and talented Blazers were scrambling to fill positions and minutes. And it would only get worse.
Before the worse happened, Portland managed to claw its way to some better. They continued their .500 ways through mid-December before running off 6 wins in 7 games straddling the new year. But sweet without bitter was not part of the Portland palate in this campaign. The first win in that streak, a December 22nd game versus the Mavericks, saw reserve center Joel Pryzbilla collapse in a fetal position eerily similar to the one Oden had assumed 15 days prior. Having ripped a knee tendon, Pryzbilla would be lost for the season. Now the Blazers were making do with the likes of plucky second-rounders Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham plus the ancient Juwan Howard, brought in originally as the proverbial locker-room influence but now pressed into two recent seasons' worth of playing time.
Somehow, some way, the wins just kept on coming. The Blazers dropped games to the Clippers and Grizzlies but picked up wins against the L*kers, Bucks, and Magic. They'd win 2 of 3 then lose 3 of 4 then win a couple more. In one of the unkindest cuts of all All-Star Brandon Roy also succumbed to injury, nursing a hamstring and missing 14 of 15 games between January 15th and February 10th. Forget short-handed, the Blazers were no-handed.
Through it all Portland continued to grind out games and often wins. Rudy Fernandez returned for spot duty and eventually full availability. Nicolas Batum followed a couple weeks later. Jerryd Bayless provided surprising scoring punch. Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge held down the fort. The team caught as caught could otherwise. When Roy departed the Blazers had a 24-16 record, 8 games above .500. When he returned a month later they were 30-24, still 6 games above .500.
Finally looking like they could trend upwards the Blazers made a decisive move to cement their prospects, trading just-healed Travis Outlaw and intermediate point guard Steve Blake (both carrying expiring contracts) to the Los Angeles Clippers for center Marcus Camby. Camby mended a near-complete rip in the interior defensive net, freeing LaMarcus Aldridge to play his own game instead of worrying about the center role in addition. Portland would go on to win 7 of their next 10, improbably looking like they could still challenge for that division lead and its guaranteed sweet playoff seed.
Notions of that were brought to a halt in a critical game against Denver on March 7th, a game wherein Jerryd Bayless showed Portland's promise by scoring 24 but the Nuggets showed Portland's current reality by scoring 118 and handing the Blazers a decisive loss. Undeterred, the Blazers would bounce back to win 9 of their next 10, losing only to the Phoenix Suns until they were again thumped by the Nuggets, this time by 17 in the Rose Garden on April 1st.
By this time it was clear that--miraculous resolve, steady recoveries, and timely moves aside--the Blazers were not going to get anywhere near the upper playoff seed they dreamed of no matter what the tight Western Conference standings said. They were embroiled in a close-quarters duel for the lower seeds, however...one that mirrored their 2008-09 battle for the 2nd through 5th spots. In order to get the most favorable position possible Portland had to win. And they did. The Blazers came out ahead in 4 of 5 contests, including a pivotal win over the rival Thunder, before resting their main players in a meaningless final loss to Golden State to end the season. The reward for persevering through the turmoil and tragedy was another 50-win season notched and a three-way tie with Oklahoma City and San Antonio which left the Blazers in the 6th seed facing Phoenix. But 2009-10 regular season was not about to leave without one last parting kiss. Brandon Roy tore his meniscus in the 80th game of the year. He would miss at least the opening of the playoffs and likely the whole thing.
Though the Blazers had gotten the upper hand over the Suns 2-1 in the regular season Roy's injury and Phoenix's immense offensive prowess cast a pall over the proceedings. Portland immediately ripped aside that shroud by taking Game 1 of the series in Phoenix, holding back the Suns' attack with transition hustle, physicality, and some opportune scoring from Andre Miller who by now had emerged as a legitimate pillar of the team. Then the Suns started defending Miller with players larger than Steve Nash, eliminating his size and strength advantage. With Miller in chains Phoenix was free to make life rough for LaMarcus Aldridge, who could never get his jumper going and scored only sporadically elsewhere. Suddenly the Blazers were forced to rely on role-players Fernandez, Batum, Webster, and Bayless for playoff-level, big-point, big-minute production. Offense sputtering, Portland collapsed entirely for two straight games, losing homecourt advantage back to the Suns as quickly as they had earned it.
Brandon Roy limped off of the Portland bench to provide an inspirational lift in Game 4 of the series, a game in which Aldridge also rediscovered his shooting touch. For a bright, shining moment the Blazers were again able to do what they wanted: contain Phoenix, limit transition points, force turnovers, hit shots. The key area missing from Portland's equation was rebounding, a category in which the Blazers failed to find a rhythm throughout the series. Aldridge's jumper again went on leave in Game 5. Brandon Roy's emotional lift evaporated under the reality of no explosive lift or lateral cutting ability. Without rebounding dominance to fall back on the Blazers once again wilted before the Suns' attack. Portland had a chance to send the series to the ultimate finish but came up short in Game 6 under Phoenix's spread offense and lack of production from its stars. Portland's bench players finally came through on their pre-season promise in this final game but it was far too little, far too late. For a second straight year the Blazers exited the first round in 6 games.
Portland did not achieve either of its clearest objectives in this campaign: winning the division and advancing in the playoffs. In that sense the season was disappointing. But only the most miserly churl could hold those expectations in the face of the torrent of mishaps that befell the team during the year. Experiencing more injuries than any team in the league not named Golden State the Blazers still won 50 and made the playoffs. Like the Whos down in Whoville they did it without boxes or ribbons or bows, they did without centers or posting down low. They won without All-Stars and Spaniards and Frenchmen. They won with old geezers and sub-par defense-men. They won playing rookies from deep off the benches. They won with their grit and their guts in the trenches. And some who observed them have been known to say that their hearts grew three sizes (at least!) on the way. One hopes with their poise and their passion now proven that once they are healthy their game will be groovin'. And thus though this season we all shed a tear we turn our bright faces to welcome next year. In two-oh-eleven with pride we might burst. It has to get better...it couldn't get worse.
And that, as they say, is that. Next up: Recapping the individual players.