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After the injury-riddled disappointment of 2009-10 Blazer fans had one, simple question: Was the step backwards a random speed bump on the way to Destiny or an indicator of deeper problems within the team and organization?
The popular approach viewed the glass as half full, i.e. "If a decimated Portland team could win 50, what could the whole team accomplish when healthy?" Center Greg Oden had been thrice injured, playing a single season's worth of games in his first three years. That was a major concern. Not many believed he'd clock a long, healthy career anymore. But if the Blazers could get even a small, regular contribution out of him--combined with the newly-re-signed Marcus Camby and Joel Przybilla--while the rest of the team returned to normal this was an elite squad.
On draft day 2010 the organization flashed a disturbing sign that the correct answer to the Big Question was "systemic, not random". Mere hours before the start of the draft news leaked that ever-popular general manager Kevin Pritchard would be fired after Portland's picks were complete. This came as a shock to Portland fans, more so given the utter vacuum of justification coming from ownership and the front office. Former GM's Bob Whitsitt, John Nash, and Steve Patterson had been ushered off to throaty roars over rattling torches and pitchforks. Pritchard left amid stunned silence and confusion. Local media sources began retroactively revising their assessments of his tenure, minimizing the once-generous credit given for the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge draft and speculating that he was dismissed because of the disaster Oden had become. Those most familiar with the reasons remained mute.
Draft day itself was dominated by the Pritchard firing. The most significant move of the evening was a trade sending former lottery phenom Martell Webster to Minnesota for mid-level pick Luke Babbitt and a soon-to-be-waived Ryan Gomes. For the second time in three months the Blazers had shipped out their longest-tenured player. The franchise's memory now stretched back to 2006 and not a minute farther.
Over the summer the Blazers would make two acquisitions. They poached young shooting guard Wesley Matthews from the Utah Jazz with a contract offer widely considered overpriced. Matthews had been a defensive hero in the playoffs versus Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. He came equipped with a nifty jump shot as well. Fans speculated he'd be an excellent backup for Roy. Much as with the Juwan Howard signing the year prior, bringing in Matthews would prove sadly serendipitous...though one could speculate that this time around the organization knew the extent of the role he'd fill. Given his future contributions that "overpriced" label would quickly fade.
Portland other move filled the front office gap with a second straight hotshot rookie general manager. Rich Cho, recently Assistant GM with Oklahoma City, stepped into Pritchard's shoes and the Portland limelight. A cap wizard, shrewd mind, and self-made exec, Cho appealed to the cerebral portion of the fanbase. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad after all. (The joy was short-lived. Cho himself was fired less than a year later.)
An October transaction sent now-extraneous guard Jerryd Bayless to New Orleans for a future first-round pick. With that the team was set for fall. The game plan was to run with a rested and recovered Roy-Aldridge duo for the first couple months of the season then assimilate Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden as they returned from injury. The team could cruise with its 50-game-winning pace through mid-December or so then bump it up to a 60-game rate once the dominant center crew returned.
It didn't take very long to figure out that this delicious, multi-tiered winning cake was made entirely of styrofoam. One glance at Brandon Roy indicated to even the most casual observer that something was seriously wrong. Once an author of omni-directional offense. Roy now looked slow, ground-bound, and starved for lateral movement. The step-back jumper was the only move his gimpy knees left intact. As part of an unpredictable array of options that jumper had served him well. As his primary means of scoring it proved lacking. Night after night the Blazers would trot out a lineup that should have been the envy of the league: Miller, Roy, Batum, Aldridge, Camby. Each time they'd suffer from a lack of speed, backcourt defense, and the consistent ability to score.
On November 17th the team got another piece of crushing news. Following a strenuous on-court workout in preparation for his imminent return Greg Oden experienced discomfort in his left knee. A routine examination revealed the need for microfracture surgery. This would leave Oden in proud possession of two separate knees having been operated on in said fashion. It would also leave him out for at least another calendar year, probably more. Dreams of elite status flew out the window and onto the operating table...again.
Despite some amazing performances from Matthews the end of November found the Blazers sporting an 8-9 record. That was good for a 50-win year...provided the season was 106 games long. Portland soldiered on for a couple more weeks--and 5 more losses in 9 games--before making a second gut-wrenching decision. Brandon Roy was coming out of the lineup and eventually heading for surgery himself. His knees were missing vital cartilage. Nobody knew when he'd return. Rumors whispered he'd never be able to play at his old level again.
Oh, and Joel Przybilla had indeed returned his injuries left him unable to get more than an inch off the ground. He routinely got bullied out of rebounds and couldn't even think about blocking a shot.
This wasn't a season. It was a funeral.
Though the talent level suffered in the absence of Roy and Oden the team at least had stability and clarity of purpose after their departure. This was it. No cavalry would come to the rescue. Sink or swim, these players would have to manage on their own.
And surprisingly, manage they did. Matthews continued to turn in impressive performances. He was joined by a rapidly-evolving Aldridge. The star forward was no stranger to being an offensive focal point. The ball had run through him while Roy was injured the season before. That experiment had ended in a ton of bail-out passes and timid jumpers. Aldridge had taken the lesson to heart and worked on his offensive game during the off-season. He now sported a nice turn-around and the ability to dribble towards the basket instead of away. As a result his scoring skyrocketed. The Blazers had their #1 option.
An unsung hero in the resurrection of Aldridge and team both was point guard Andre Miller. Miller's fit had been tenuous a year prior. He started the season arguing with his coach and ended it in feast-or-famine scoring fashion that didn't necessarily take best advantage of his teammates' abilities. This year he dazzled with his smart passes, particularly lobs to Aldridge. Miller assisting on easy gets for LaMarcus was the snowflake that triggered the scoring avalanche. 'Dre still scored but his buckets were timed and opportune. Along with Matthews and Aldridge Miller provided the much-needed third pillar of Portland's starting lineup.
Behind a resurgent Aldridge the Blazers began winning in earnest, especially through January and February. Though he was famously snubbed for the All-Star game, his increased production apparently having come too late, he won the Western Conference Player of the Month award for February, leading the team to an 8-4 month.
Also going down in February: one of the biggest mid-season trades in team history. On February 23rd the Blazers sent Przybilla, reserve Sean Marks, forward Dante Cunningham, and two first round picks to the Charlotte Bobcats for franchise forward Gerald Wallace. Wallace, known as "Crash" for his reckless abandon and thunderous physical style, provided energy, drive, increased scoring, and a potential second star to the now-thinned Portland lineup. His injury history had been spotty...a roll of the dice for an already-fragile squad. But at this point the Blazers had to go all-in or fold. Either they'd make something of their current, ill-starred lineup or blow it apart and start over. Grabbing Wallace indicated they'd make a run, trying to manufacture a miracle. Fans approved of both the player and the philosophy.
Wallace didn't make an instant impact. In fact the Blazers lost the first two games he was in uniform. But eventually the team settled into a small lineup making copious use of Wallace, Aldridge, and Batum in the frontcourt. That trio produced wins and the Blazers got their groove back as the season closed. Brandon Roy also returned in late February, though his play had not improved much. Still, a lift was a lift. Portland finished the year 48-34, well under their dreams but fairly well given the circumstances.
That record was good enough to earn the 6th seed and a date with the 3rd-seeded Dallas Mavericks. Like Houston two years earlier, the Mavs were ridiing a streak of playoff futility. Unlike the Rockets they did not possess the physical tools to dominate the Blazers. Many professional observers, having seen the Blazers streaking at the end of the season, predicted this as a potential upset series. Portland fans, having witnessed a recent run of regular-season success against Dallas, had prayed for exactly this matchup. Against all odds, despite continued adversity, could this be Portland's year to escape the first round?
The Blazers came ready to fight in Game 1 of their series in Dallas. Aldridge played superstar Dirk Nowitzki to a standstill for three quarters and Portland trailed by a sparse four points, 61-57, heading into the final period. A combination of scary three-point shooting from point guard Jason "Methuselah" Kidd and a river of free throw attempts for Nowitzki in the fourth quarter secured the win for Dallas, 89-81.
Game 2 would see the story repeat with the Blazers playing tough for three quarters then getting blown away in the fourth, again courtesy of distance shooting. Portland could either defend Dallas' interior players and rebound or watch the perimeter shooters, not both. The combination of Tyson Chandler's board work and the marksmanship of Kidd and fellow octogenarian Peja Stojakovic proved too much for the Blazers to stop. Portland fell 101-89 and went down 0-2 in the series.
Coming back home the Blazers brought the fight straight to the Mavericks, opening both the first and fourth periods with nasty runs. Portland's guards--Miller, Matthews, and a surprisingly spry-looking Roy--provided the scoring while the duo of Batum and Wallace shut down the Mavs in the pivotal fourth period. The Blazers waggled their collective fingers and said, "Not in our house!" Portland fans cheered a 97-92 victory.
Anyone expecting a repeat of the rousing effort was sorely disappointed as Game 4 ensued. Both teams came out rather limp, particularly puzzling in the case of the Blazers for whom this was a must-win affair. The score was 37-35 for Dallas at the half. Then the Mavs pasted a whuppin' on the Blazers in the third period. Mark Cuban's pecs bounced in glee as Portland trailed by 23 in the closing minutes of the third. Though the home team managed to close it to 18 by the time the horn sounded, the Rose Garden was a morgue.
That's when this happened:
The beginning of the fourth period saw the Blazers, ironically at that point, turn on the afterburners. They scored on their first six possessions of the fourth: three layups/dunks, a 5-footer, 2 free throws, and a three. You'll notice that most of those attempts came shockinglyclose to the rim. It's as if the Blazers remembered that, hey, Dallas doesn't always defend the paint well. Add up the distance of all of those shots combined and they probably wouldn't equal the distance of any two random shots taken from the third period. Dallas made a couple of J's but also turned the ball over twice and missed a couple of long shots. Portland was within 11 with 8:26 left. The teams would revert to their earlier miss-everything ways over the next four minutes and Portland still trailed 11 with 4:45 left. Then Miller and Roy hit twin 13-footers to pull the Blazers within 7, but Jason Terry hit a three with 3:30 remaining to push it back to 10 and place a little Superglue on that huge stone at the tomb entry.
That's when Brandon Roy showed up. Yes, that Brandon Roy. First he hits Wesley Matthews for a driving layup. 1 assist, Blazers down 8. Then he drove the heart of the lane for his own layup. 2 points, 1 assist, Blazers down 6. He ran a nice little pick play and hit Aldridge for a 10-footer. 2 points, 2 assists, Blazers down 4, 2:03 left. Then he hit a 21-footer off of a Wallace pass. 4 points, 2 assists, Blazers down 2 with 1:36 left. Then Shawn Marion hit a jumper to push the Mavs back up by 4 with 1:19 left. Darn it! Everything has to go exactly right in a comeback like this. So...Roy catches Marion on him defensively. Blazers down 4. Roy stands at the three-point arc. Blazers down 4. Marion's on him. Three-point arc. Blazers down 4. Three-point arc. Roy rises... Tweet! Whistle blows. Ball sails...sails...sails...DING DING DING DING DING DING DING!!! Three-pointer goes IN......AND ONE! Roy sinks the free throw. 8 points, 2 assists, GAME TIED with 1:06 left. Blazers fans are approaching the tomb in wonder.
After a timeout the Mavericks find Jason Terry for a three...miss. 39 seconds left. Roy comes down...hits a 9-footer. 10 points, 2 assists in 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Blazers lead by 2 with 39 seconds left. Dallas calls their final timeout. Jason Kidd ends up with the ball at the left angle three-point arc, down by 2. Kidd at the arc. Down by 2. But instead of lofting up one of those sweet, arch-filled, rainbow, New-Kidd-on-the-Block threes he pushes an old-school-Kidd shot, sailing it a foot beyond the rim. Gerald Wallace rebounds. 5 seconds difference between the shot and game clock. Roy misses a three with and Dallas gets the ball with three seconds left...no timeouts. Terry races down the floor for a final three, the Mavs' bread and butter in this series. NO! Despite their best efforts the Mavericks guards (Kidd and Terry and everyone defending Roy) fail to keep the tomb sealed. Blazers win 84-82. Series tied 2-2. Brandon Roy is near tears as his teammates surround him, jumping in a huddle and pointing their fingers at him as if to say, "Welcome back!"*
*(adapted from the Blazersedge Game 4 Recap)
Brandon Roy and company had engineered one of the most amazing, improbable, and stirring comebacks in league history, let alone Portland history. It was an amazing tour de force of everything that made Roy great in the first place. Everybody was juiced, not only for Game 5 but for the signs of life Brandon had shown.
Sadly Games 5 and 6 would not live up to the promise as the Blazers fell handily in Dallas and then got caught in Portland in the final game, losing the series 4-2. The bad news was that this completed a third straight first-round loss...not a good sign at all. The good news (besides those same Mavericks eventually ending up as World Champions, somewhat justifying the defeat) was that the Blazers had shown more signs of life in this series than in either of the two prior. Down the stretch in Game 6 the camera caught Gerald Wallace slamming his fist against the hoop stanchion. That moment encapsulated the hope and sadness of the team's current state. The Blazers really felt they should win this series...believed that it was theirs. That attitude hadn't been around since 2000. At the same time they couldn't do it. Since 2006 the Blazers had served up nothing but hope and promise unfulfilled. This series did nothing to change the menu.
2010-11 ended as so many Portland seasons had, with the joy of a surging Aldridge, hard-charging Wallace, and supremely satisfying Matthews mingling with the agony of a crippled Roy, a non-existent Oden, and playoff failure. Supporters can yet find reasons to anticipate improvement. Others ask rightfully when and how that improvement will come and, more importantly, if it will be significant enough to make a difference.
The question remains open. We'll all have to find out together. That part of the history hasn't been written yet.