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The 2007-08 season turned out to be a mixed blessing for Portland Trail Blazers fans. They celebrated the chance to pick once-in-a-lifetime center Greg Oden with the #1 overall pick of the draft then winced as Oden went down before the season and spent the year convalescing from microfracture surgery. It was like getting a shiny new bike for Christmas then being told you couldn't ride it until the weather got better. Dreams of dynastic dominance were put on hold for a year as Oden recovered and the team notched a 41-41 record...a significant improvement but still .500 ball.
2008-09 was greeted with understandable expectation, therefore. Summer moves included swapping draft picks to snag Arizona guard Jerryd Bayless and French forward Nicolas Batum. Famed Spaniard Rudy Fernandez also hopped across the Atlantic to Portland following a nice showing in the Summer Olympics. But those were appetizers beside Oden's main course. With Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, and Steve Blake playing alongside Oden the team looked set. Even modest contributions from the supporting cast would be enough to boost this team back into the playoffs.
The Blazers got more bad news in the summer as Webster went down with a foot injury that would keep him out for all but 5 minutes of the coming season. Most assumed that Outlaw, having earned more playing time and scoring responsibility the season prior, would take over at small forward. Outlaw's greatest strides had been made as a mobile power forward, however. Murmurs of surprise drifted through Portland's fan base as the rookie Batum started creeping up the small forward depth chart. Batum's summer league play had been halting at best but camp observers pointed to his speed and newly-demonstrated defensive ability. If the Frenchman was worthy of playing time...wow. This team had unforeseen depth, cementing dynastic plans even further into stone.
As opening night approached all eyes were on Oden. Reports had him slightly slow, struggling to adapt to the NBA game, but still an awesome physical specimen with good defensive instincts and amazing raw tools. Those observations were borne out as he took the floor in the Blazers' first game of the season, a tilt against the Lakers in L.A. Oden started the game. He missed his first four shots and turned over the ball twice but grabbed 5 rebounds and blocked a shot in the process.
Then he went down.
That's right. After 13 minutes of play in his first NBA game after an entire season off Oden was broken again. It was like finally getting to ride that new bike in clear weather and having the chain fall off after a half block of pedaling. The coming out party for Portland's future dynasty featured the Blazers losing their center and losing by 20 to L.A. Groans around Blazers Nation were audible and sustained.
Thankfully Portland would get several pieces of good news over the next few weeks. Oden's injury was only a foot sprain, having no correlation to his knee problems of the year prior. He'd return soon. Meanwhile Roy and Aldridge were tearing up the league, scoring 20+ on most nights and looking unstoppable. Batum looked surprisingly good after assuming the starting small forward role from Outlaw in the Blazers' third game. Outlaw himself looked more comfortable returning to the four spot. The offense looked brilliant at times, more potent than it had in years. Defense lagged behind but help for that was on the horizon...cross fingers....knock on wood...rub your Oden bobblehead for luck.
The big man returned to the lineup on November 12th as a four-game road swing commenced in Miami. He scored 3 and grabbed 2 boards in that first game, looking lost. Portland fans groaned again. But then he went on a tear, notching a double-double twice in three games including a 22-point, 10-rebound effort against the Warriors. Fans cheered again. Then Oden made his home debut in a game against the Bulls, a year and a half after he had been drafted. He received a sustained ovation the moment he rose from the bench and all was right with the world. When he advanced to the starting lineup three days later he kicked off a six-game winning streak and all was even righter. The Blazers finished that streak at 14-6. The forecast called for clear sailing ahead.
The injury bug continued to gnaw at the Blazers, however. Oden missed games again, as did Roy and Blake. Webster returned for a heartbeat and went down, never to return. Fernandez, Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Joel Przybilla...all filled in admirably. But every time the Blazers looked to hit their stride somebody else went down, hitching the giddy-up just enough to turn the headlong rush towards victory into a decent trot.
The sick part of the story was how tight the ultra-competitive Western Conference turned out to be in '08-'09. The Blazers ended up winning 54 games, an amazing 13-victory improvement...that after gaining 11 and 9 the two previous seasons. To put this in perspective, Portland had improved by more games in the last three seasons under Nate McMillan (+33) than it had won the first year he started (21). But the rest of the West remained tough. The Blazers' 54 wins nestled them in a group of four teams within a single game of each other. San Antonio and Denver won 54 while Houston managed 53. Playoff brackets weren't decided until the last game of the year and even then went to a three-way tiebreaker. The Blazers emerged victorious in an amazing 10 of their last 11 games to earn their way into that tie-breaking equation. Sadly they ended up a single victory short of owning the second seed in the conference outright. That honor belonged to the Denver Nuggets, courtesy of a tiebreaker which also sorted out division-winning San Antonio above Portland. The Blazers would claim the fourth seed and a date with fifth-place Houston in the first round.
There was no time for regrets or injury-related what-ifs. The Blazers were back in the playoffs. Not only that, they had homecourt advantage! This was amazing. How would a young Portland team fare in its return to the post-season?
In some ways the draw against Houston looked fortunate. The Rockets had lost in the first round in four out of their last five seasons, failing to make the playoffs in the fifth...poster boys for playoff futility much as the Blazers had once been. Their win total had actually declined from the previous season, indicating they had plateaued. They were missing superstar scorer Tracy McGrady, a victim of chronic injury. They didn't look like they were going anywhere. Indeed, another playoff loss would likely cause the team to get blown up.
The matchup also presented problems for the Blazers. Chief among them was mammoth center Yao Ming. He and Shaquille O'Neal were the only players in the league demonstrably bigger than Oden. Without physical advantage Greg's game would depend on skill and timing...qualities in short supply for the still-developing rookie. The rest of Houston's front line was also a physical nightmare. Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Dikembe Mutumbo were tough customers, willing to play rough. Houston's mid-sized players included super-defenders Shane Battier and Ron Artest, both intimidating in the physical department as well. This series wasn't going to be a hundred-yard dash for the skilled, speedy Blazers. It was a brutal obstacle course. The big hope was that Portland's legs, energy, and passion could overcome Houston's power and knowledge, causing the playoff losers to fall once again.
Houston served notice in Game 1 that this wouldn't be happening. The totally inexperienced Blazers came out to play basketball. By contrast the veteran, victory-hungry Rockets came out to kill the totally inexperienced Blazers. Houston pasted a physical whipping on Portland that makes fans cringe to this day. The Rocket front line of Yao, Scola, and Artest scored 24, 19, and 17 respectively. A new threat emerged as lightning-quick point guard Aaron Brooks sizzled past any Blazer who tried to defend him. Blake, Bayless, Roy...all stood flat-footed as Brooks led his team with 27. The Rockets destroyed Portland 108-81 in the Rose Garden, setting the tone for the entire series.
Brandon Roy led the Blazers to victory in Game 2 behind an amazing 42-point performance. Aldridge also outplayed his counterparts for the only game in the series. Even so, Portland only managed to win by 4. Ominously, Oden picked up 6 fouls in 11 minutes trying to guard Yao.
Game 3 saw Portland play their toughest game of the series, locking down Houston defensively and forcing Yao into a 2-7 performance by denying him the ball. This was also one of a pair of games in which Brooks wasn't a major threat. But Scola, Battier, and Artest ganged up on Roy and Aldridge, holding both below 40% shooting. Rudy Fernandez, feasting on a lack of defensive attention, registered a 17-point performance. He was the lone ray of hope. Despite Rudy's heroics Houston's supporting cast ended up slightly better than Portland's after both pairs of stars were suppressed. Houston took Game 3 by three points.
The victory margin was but a single point in Game 4 as both teams' stars shone again. Roy tallied 31 and Aldridge 19. But the Rockets dispensed with Portland's fronting attempts on Yao after Oden once again collected 5 fouls in 10 minutes. As soon as Houston's huge center started catching the ball he converted points and the Blazers found their defense plagued by an unstoppable leak. Sending extra men only allowed everybody else to score. Houston put five guys in double figures and managed an 89-88 victory to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Blazer fans lamented that the toughness Portland had shown in the two games in Houston didn't arrive early enough to prevent that fateful Game 1 massacre.
Despite balanced scoring from Houston again in Game 5 Portland managed to divert the ball from Yao and take the game at home, 88-77. But Brooks, Artest, and Yao easily closed out the Blazers in Game 6, a game in which Roy and Aldridge again shone but no other Blazer made a peep. Just like that Portland's season was over.
Even so, Blazer fans saw plenty of reasons to celebrate. The team was still on the upswing. The Blazers could halve their double-digit win improvement in the next season and still win 60, placing them among the league's elite. The players had earned playoff experience, understanding now what it takes to succeed in the post-season. Roy and Aldridge had cemented themselves as stars. Batum and Fernandez had demonstrated major progress and exciting potential over the course of the season. Outlaw still had room to grow. Webster would be coming back. Most importantly of all, Oden hadn't even tapped a tithe of his enormous abilities. Once he learned not to foul and turn over the ball he'd own every opponent he met. It was all too easy to look two years down the road and forecast amazing things for this team. The Blazers were definitely, inarguably on their way into the stratosphere. How could it not happen?
Next Time: The Cookie Crumbles
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