PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 28: (L to R) Gerald Wallace #3, head coach Nate McMillan and Wes Matthews #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers gather during a time out in the fourth quarter of Game Six of the Western Conference Quartefinals in the 2011 NBA Playsoffs on April 28, 2011 at the Rose garden in Portland, Oregon. The Mavericks won the game 103-96 to win the series and advance. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Now that it's over I feel comfortable saying something I've been holding back for months: This season never felt right.
This was the first season I started to expect things would go wrong, when the individual injuries no longer came as surprises, when a ceiling emerged to limit hope. 2008 was brand-new fun. 2009 was a hint at future glory. 2010 was easily rationalized as a sidestep, albeit an ugly and often heartbreaking one. 2011 was the narrative getting blown up.
I will -- and I encourage everyone to -- take away at least three great positives from this season. One: The Blazers hired GM Rich Cho. Two: LaMarcus Aldridge emerged to my heart's delight. Three: Gerald Wallace is in the fold, set to entertain endlessly, for the foreseeable future.
The standout wins were obvious. The last-second, picture perfect lob play to Nicolas Batum to beat the San Antonio Spurs. The Game 4 miracle from Brandon Roy. Both entered lore immediately. Those are the best kind of wins.
But the defining moment for the season came last summer at Big Al's in Vancouver, when a smiling Greg Oden who was eight months removed from knee surgery sat in a way-too-small chair in the pizza party room and couldn't commit to a recovery timeline. "I'm on schedule to heal," he said. "Take that however you want to. I'm excited for this year. I will be playing this year."
This was a player who had fallen off the map during the spring and summer, a player who was theoretically supposed to be ready for training camp, which was just around the corner at the time. His words hit a nerve then -- they just intuitively felt wrong -- and they hit the same nerve reading them back now.
The nerve still gets struck not because the microfracture was somehow preordained or fated to happen. The nerve still gets struck because of the waiting. The unavoidable waiting that is not Greg Oden's fault, will never be his fault. The waiting that will shadow his every move for the rest of his professional career.
The nerve still gets struck because nothing has changed since that conversation. Oden, bless his heart, one surgery later, is still on schedule to heal. Take that however you want to.
Clarity is coming but no one is quite sure when.
The Blazers bowed out in Game 6 on Thursday, 103-96, losing in the anticipated fashion. They shot 5-21 from deep, failing to hit the 25% mark for the fourth time in six games. Their better-shooting opponent finally kept the turnover differential within reach -- Dallas was only -2 -- nullifying Portland's major advantage at home. The Blazers bench was outscored 22-14 by Jason Terry himself, with Brandon Roy returning to mildly effective form and everyone else no-showing as has become recent postseason custom. LaMarcus Aldridge was very good, often excellent, but not super-elite.
Thursday's loss has me still writing past 3 AM because it is a release, a freeing from expectations for this group and its followers, expectations that for months have seemed difficult to imagine them achieving. When Blazers coach Nate McMillan said before the series that advancing to the second round was not only big for this team but big for himself, my first thought was: "Don't say that, Nate. Don't pin your self-expectations on this group." Still, his confidence was admirable and it was very nearly rewarded. Portland had chances, of their own making, and they let some chances go, also of their own making.
That type of loss is hard to build off of. An underlying issue: the not-quite-perfect-fits have accumulated. Andre Miller doesn't quite fit with Brandon Roy. Marcus Camby's age doesn't quite fit with the timeline of Portland's core. Gerald Wallace doesn't quite fit perfectly with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. None of those players is dramatically changing his game in the next season or two. What's left is a feeling that improvement will need to come externally rather than internally. That's tough to swallow given the labor situation, given Portland's lack of depth and draft positioning, and given the weak quality of this year's prospects.
If there's hope to be found it's in another scene: GM Rich Cho with spreadsheets at the ready, brooding in his think-tank draft war room, the walls covered with whiteboards and 100s of tiles representing the best college players, underclassmen, international players, free agents, D-Leaguers. The war room has been months in the making, a shrine to potential roster improvement.
As Cho said after the game: "We need some more speed, size and some more depth in general. And some shooting." As a dozen people immediately replied on Twitter: "So, basically everything."
Now the value of his "fresh eyes" will truly become apparent. This is a roster that could go in so many different directions but there are individual arguments for keeping everyone.
"It's going to be too hard to find a replacement for Andre Miller so he play out his team option."
"You can't trade Marcus Camby because then you won't have a healthy center."
"You have to commit to Greg Oden long-term because the thought of him playing elsewhere and succeeding is too horrible to imagine."
"You can't move Nicolas Batum because he's the small forward of the future and a potential All-Star."
"You need to keep Rudy Fernandez because he's still on an affordable rookie deal."
"You can't move Brandon Roy because his contract is untradeable."
"Wesley Matthews is untouchable because he's a core piece now."
"Gerald Wallace just got here and could go down as one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Pencil him in to the future."
This group might get better next year with more time together but it will certainly get older. In particular, it will get older at the one and five spots, two critical positions for playoff success.
A return to form from Roy could change everything and make most of these pieces work together. A healthy Oden would be a transformative element capable of creating unimaginably great things for this team. Hell, for this city/state/region. But each of those "ifs" now bears a risk factor, arguably a major risk factor. How does Cho weigh those risks? How do his bosses weigh those risks?
Until those questions are addressed the wait will continue. And so will the feeling that things just aren't quite right.
Random Game Notes
- My CBSSports.com column on the game.
- My CBSSports.com grades for the series.
- Blazers GM Rich Cho's thoughts after the loss.
- The season is officially over when the forklift is carrying away the stadium seats at quarter to 1 AM.
- There's chaos in Alabama right now with tornados wreaking major havoc. Gerald Wallace, an Alabama native, says his spoke to his mother who told him "Everybody's good." He also said that his mother told him that he "needs to clean up the yard."
- "This is the loudest place I've ever been, and I've been in a lot of places in 27 years." -- Rick Carlisle
- "Walking into this place to play a playoff game is no fun, brother." -- Rick Carlisle
- "I grew as a leader this season, as a main option." -- LaMarcus Aldridge
- "I can definitely say I honestly tried." -- Brandon Roy
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I wasn't able to get all of Nate McMillan's Post-Game comments. Here's what the Blazers provided.
Well, first of all, congratulations to Dallas and Rick. I just felt like this whole series, any time we made a mistake, they made us pay. They made big shot after shot throughout this series. Jason [Kidd] tonight goes 1 for 4 from the three point line and in the fourth quarter, he hits the big one. Same with Barea. I thought Marion's bucket late in the single coverage -- you don't want to leave the perimeter -- was a big bucket. They did that throughout the series. Last game it was offensive rebounding. Anytime we made a mistake, they made us pay. Tonight, I thought our guys competed. We got off to a good start. We lost Gerald for that first half and lost a little momentum in that second quarter and it took us awhile to get going again. But I just really appreciate, respect the effort our guys gave tonight.
Well, you're never ready for this moment when the season is over. It's like it just creeps up on you and all of a sudden, tomorrow you're going home. So basically, as I told them, I appreciate their effort. I really respect how they played tonight, really all season long. I thought we fought through a lot of adversity this season and we had an opportunity to do something special this year. The goal was to certainly get back to Dallas. I felt like if we could get back to Dallas, we could win that game. But we didn't and we end the way we've ended the last two years, so we get in this summer and try to improve the team and get ready for next season.
What was different about Gerald Wallace tonight?
I thought he just made up his mind he was going to attack, be aggressive. He got out in transition, he got to the offensive glass. We talked about someone needing to show that we weren't going to lose this game, as opposed to that we were going to try to win and he was trying to make plays to give this team a lift right from the start. He got off to an excellent start, getting some easy buckets in transition as well as I think two tips in that first quarter. So just much more aggressive looking to attack the glass.
On losing lead, going down, battling back
The momentum, I thought in the second quarter, we lost that and we couldn't score for ab out six, seven minutes there. Third quarter, we got off somewhat to a slow start, we drop down by 17. But we fought back, we had a big fourth quarter. You certainly need to make plays and as I mentioned, I felt like they made plays throughout the series whenever we made a mistake or left someone open, they knocked down those shots tonight. We had some guys to have good looks and we go 5-for-21 from the three point line, so you need to knock down those shots when you get them.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter