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Hopes and expectations ran sky-high among Portland Trail Blazers fans heading into the 2009-10 season. In the spring of '09 the Blazers had returned to the playoffs after an extended absence. Though the end result--a hard-fought loss to the Houston Rockets--was disappointing it was all part of the process. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge had emerged as legitimate stars. Portland's supporting cast, though still shaky on a night-to-night basis, appeared strong and deep. Most importantly franchise center Greg Oden tucked his rookie year under his belt and was now ready to start owning the league. With overhead space still plentiful and the Blazers' growth curve yet in upward swing, a leap into elite status seemed all but assured.
The 2009 NBA Draft heralded a philosophical shift among Portland's management team. After several straight lottery picks and a couple years of wild dealing on draft day, the Blazers now contented themselves with selecting in the 20's and fiddling with second-rounders as a respectable team should. In the first round Portland made a minor move to draft yet another Spanish player, forward Victor Claver. They scored three second-round keepers in forwards Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph plus point guard Patty Mills, losing only Sergio Rodriguez in the process.
Instead of going bonkers for potential on draft day the Blazers saved their big moves for free agency. The headline-maker was snagging Philadelphia point guard Andre Miller. A journeyman only in the literal sense of the word, Miller instantly gave Portland's lineup the experience it had been missing. Miller had 10 seasons under his belt. His four potential co-starters had 8 between them. Portland's other significant signing, Juwon Howard, had 15 years in the league. The ancient power forward was meant to be an assistant coach on the floor, filling spot minutes while demonstrating professionalism and smart play. Nobody guessed it at the time, but this move would be critical to Portland's season. Either way, signing Miller and Howard further revealed the Blazers' new commitment to buttressing its nascent core with high-level veterans.
Even with all this, the biggest moves of the summer involved Portland's budding superstars, Roy and Aldridge. Both were eligible for contract extensions. Both looked to make bank as the Blazers were reticent to let either hit the free agency market the following summer, even in the restricted sense. Blazer fans agonized with each twist and turn of the extended saga, the team seemingly driving hard bargains and the two players insisting on more favorable terms. In the end all turned out well as Roy got a maximum deal and Aldridge nearly so. Portland fans applauded and turned their attention to basketball once again, secure in the belief that they'd be seeing quality highlights from this pair for the better part of a decade.
Every eye in Blazer Nation was laser-focused on training camp in 2009. Between Miller and a returned Martell Webster the Blazers now had legitimate position battles for the first time in years. With those battles came controversy. Miller, a notorious slow starter, got on the wrong side of intense coach Nate McMillan. Steve Blake retained his starting position as the season began while Miller came off the pines for the first time in forever. Martell Webster versus Nicolas Batum never happened, as Batum was out indefinitely with a cartilage tear in his shoulder. But neither discontented point guards nor missing small forwards could overshadow the development of Oden, who by all accounts was looking like a beast. Ready or not, it was time to roll.
The first game of the season featured a tilt versus the Houston Rockets, the team that had so rudely handled the Blazers in last year's post-season. Travis Outlaw scored 23 as the Blazers won by 11. "Jeepers," thought Portland fans, "If Outlaw is going to go crazy too this season could be magical!" Oden's performance was a mixed bag, his 2 points, 7 turnovers, and 5 fouls in 26 minutes contrasting with 5 blocks and 12 rebounds. Groans followed over the next two games as the quick, muscular front line of the Denver Nuggets made Oden look bad followed by a return punch in the nose from the Rockets. But Greg broke out with a double-double against the Thunder and began to hit his stride. He was clearly a rebounding machine, adding blocks more often than not. The offensive-rebound dunk was his best scoring option but even a rudimentary post game was enough to draw attention, sometimes double-teaming, from the opponent. The team played better with Oden in his groove. His solid performances over the next two weeks led Portland to a six-game winning streak. Portland's defense with Greg in the game was nothing short of spectacular. If the offense stalled, well, Roy and Aldridge (or Webster and Outlaw) would eventually hit some shots. Life was good.
Unfortunately Outlaw would suffer a stress fracture in his left foot during a game against the Charlotte Bobcats on November 14th. He would not return for several months. That made two forwards down, in case anybody wondered. The Blazers were still winning, so who was really counting that kind of thing? That's what depth is for, right?
The peak of Portland's season might well have been a 122-98 pasting of the Chicago Bulls on November 23rd. Oden scored 24 with 12 rebounds and 2 blocks. The Blazers' record shot to 11-5. A three-game losing streak almost immediately after stirred more questions about the point guard position, Steve Blake being tabbed as the only weak link in an otherwise stellar starting lineup. Now that Oden was ready to contribute full-force, wasn't it time to start Portland's best five players? Miller waited in the wings as Blake struggled.
That was the hot debate on Saturday, December 5th when Portland's world fell apart. As the Blazers faced the Houston Rockets for the third time in a month, Oden lifted off the floor and cracked his left knee, requiring the insertion of two screws, putting an end to his season 1/4 of the way in. Once again the big man was done. Once again the Blazers were left scrambling.
Joel Przybilla, as always, proved a capable defender and rebounder. That is, until he too went down to a season-ending injury just nine games later. Now Portland was relying on second-round picks and former cheerleader-in-uniform Juwan Howard to man the middle. The offensive limitations of this group, plus the limited range on Miller's jump shot, put extra pressure on Portland's mid-to-long-range scorers. Webster, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless suddenly found themselves in high demand with bigger minutes and bigger shots coming their way. Bayless showed the most promise and progress. The others mixed brilliance with regression. Over-relying on the jumper, the Blazers' offense became hit-and-miss even with the newly-promoted Miller firmly in control. They were capable of scoring 105 or 85 on any given night. The absence of Oden and Przybilla took the heart out of the defense. Once able to hold teams in the 80's with regularity, the Blazers now watched opponents clock mid-90's or above.
Soon the Blazers would lose Roy and Fernandez to decent-sized injuries, Roy's involving knees...a particularly scary development. By that time Portland fans were throwing up their hands in disgusted amazement. Batum, Outlaw, Oden, Przybilla, Roy, Fernandez...in the middle of '09-'10 watching the Blazers play was like buying tickets to a Beatles Reunion Tour only to find Yoko Ono and three members of ELO taking the stage.
From the time of Oden's injury through mid-March Portland's longest streak in either direction was four wins in a row, achieved but once. Otherwise it was win one, lose two or the inversion. The team was going nowhere. A revolution was in order. It came in the form of a mid-February trade sending Blake and Outlaw to the Los Angeles Clippers for center Marcus Camby. Camby had turned in an impressive season to that point but the Clippers already had Chris Kaman in the middle and Marcus' contract was coming due, complete with a presumed hefty fee for re-signing him. Portland was willing to pay that price to get a starting center. Losing Blake and Outlaw was almost incidental at that point.
Mid-February also saw the return of Nicolas Batum. He provided energy where Webster had given mostly shooting and standing.
Portland would finish the season 17-6 behind their new starters, improbably achieving 50-win status in a season where the dominant story was injury to nearly every significant player on the roster. Portland would head into the post-season as the 6th seed, facing the 54-28 Phoenix Suns.
Despite the relatively narrow gap between records, the Blazers sat behind the 8-ball entering the Phoenix series, and not just because the Suns had homecourt advantage. Two of Portland's Big Three--Oden and Roy--remained in street clothes, Roy having just come off of knee surgery. Fernandez and Bayless had their moments during the regular season. Some of Bayless' were particularly big. But nobody would dare suggest that such a young combination could equal Brandon's potential at shooting guard.
Portland fans were overjoyed when the Blazers took Game 1 in Phoenix behind 31 from Andre Miller. The veteran had stepped into the scoring gap and come up aces, bullying the fancy-pants Suns much the way the Rockets had bullied the inexperience Blazers in Game 1 a year ago. Miller's physicality was matched by Bayless' as Jerryd scored 18 himself. (Maybe he was a fitting substitute for Roy!) Aldridge danced his way to 22 and Batum added 18 of his own. The Blazer faithful remembered that almost every series their team had ever lost to an underdog had started in this fashion, with a Game 1 upset. Hope burned brighter.
Game 2 was a different story. The Suns concentrated on Miller, employing the relatively simple strategy of playing off of him with big men--particularly wizened veteran Grant Hill--keeping Miller out of the lane and disrupting his passing options with long arms. Left with open jumpers, 'Dre looked human again. Bayless could not repeat his Game 1 heroics either. Worse, Phoenix woke up to the fact that the Blazers were fielding small and/or slight shooting guards. Jason Richardson went crazy for 29 and Hill added 20 as the Suns obliterated the Blazers 119-90 to even the series.
Still, Portland returned home with the split, ready to make some homecourt magic. That never transpired in Game 3 as Miller fizzled for the second straight game and Richardson blasted the Blazers for 42. The advantage again belonged to Phoenix.
Portland got an emotional lift from the return of Brandon Roy in Game 4, just eight days after surgery. Roy didn't start and only shot 4-10 on the evening but even his threat was enough to distract the Phoenix defenders. Aldridge took advantage to the tune of 31 points and the series was even again. With LMA playing well against Amare Stoudamire the Blazers had a chance, provided Roy could sustain any kind of run to counter Richardson. Blazer fans crossed their fingers.
Both Roy and J-Rich were non-factors in Game 5 in Phoenix as the Suns' big men surprisingly turned the tide. Marcus Camby's foul trouble and Portland's lack of depth in the middle set the stage for the opposing centers. Former Blazer Channing Frye scored 20 with outside shooting and Jared Dudley added 19 somewhat closer to the hoop. These were not the first two names on the "Fear Me" list but in this game their combined point production exceeded that of Aldridge and Miller, Portland's leading scorers. That left Bayless to counter the point production of Nash, Richardson, and Stoudemire. Shockingly the Phoenix trio managed to exceed his point total as the Suns cruised to a 107-88 win. Now the Blazers needed Game 6 at home to force a fierce finish to the series.
Brandon Roy's return to the starting lineup was not enough to salvage that win. In some quarters it was whispered that his participation--hobbled, slow, and perimeter-oriented--actually hurt the team in their farewell game of the season. Portland's starting five managed only 14-48 shooting in the contest. Not even huge performances from Webster and Fernandez (19 and 16 respectively) could dig the Blazers out of that hole. When the dust settled Phoenix owned the 99-90 victory and the series.
It was hard to tell whether the Blazers had been outsmarted, out-talented, or just out-healthed. Likely the answer was "some of each". In any case, the second straight first-round exit was disappointing.
Despite the sad finish, 2009-10 looked like a fluke season more than anything. Freak injuries ruled the year, right down to the final moments of the playoffs. No team in the league outside of the Golden State Warriors had come within sniffing distance of Portland's total games lost to injury. What's more, Portland's pains seemed strategically placed, striking at the heart of the lineup. Nobody could remember seeing anything like it before. Logically that meant it was not likely to be repeated. Even with the wide swath of devastation the team had still managed 50 wins and a playoff spot. The record and a decent showing from many of Portland's ancillary players kept the embers of hope glowing. With the return of Oden, the return of Roy, and reasonable health for the rest of the team the future for this team remained blindingly bright. If the breaks would just go Portland's way one time...
The safest course for now was to put the nightmare season to bed and awake to a nicer, injury-free tomorrow.
Next up: The nightmare continues.
The memories are far more recent now than they once were, as we're reaching the end of our journey. That means you have a great chance to share your remembrances from 2009-10 below. Feel free!