The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 109-94, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving to 27-31 on the season.
Move over, death and taxes, Saturday served as a reminder of two other certainties: Brandon Roy will always believe his body will allow him to play in the near future -- maybe next week, maybe the week after -- and the Timberwolves will not be worth watching come March.
The first tendency when a hero returns is to glorify, but Roy's stalled career makes that difficult, at least on this night. He's just so clearly stuck -- one foot in the past, one foot afraid to enter the future -- that it's hard to reflect at length on his present without feel like you're enabling.
"I'm still young," he told reporters before the tip off. "If I was to just stop playing basketball, I don't know what I would go into right away."
He talked of returning to practice, then returning to the court, and then evaluating his future in the offseason, and he said that doctors have reassured him that he hasn't made his knees worse. He said he reached an internal "peace" during training camp, knowing he had made it back to the league after a season away.
"Everybody that's seen me says that I'm still smiling," he said. "That's what I want people to see. I don't want them to see a frustrated person, I want them to see a person who is still happy with how things are going."
That's not what the media saw. The smiles, with the cameras and the questions about his health rolling, were forced. His lack of eye contact was a far cry from his absorbing, immersive post-game speeches or practice conversations. He didn't look comfortable meeting the mob of reporters and the most media-savvy Blazers player in at least a decade even claimed that, these days, he's "not really big on doing press conferences or talking to the media." This from a man who held court from his corner locker for year after year, delivering line after line.
The smile he gave to the Rose Garden crowd, when he was acknowledged during a first quarter timeout, was as natural as could be. Wearing a full suit and seated on the end of the bench for most of the first half, he was able to fully enjoy a minute with 20,000 people who weren't asking anything of him other than his presence and a wave. Perhaps his return visit last year produced a louder reaction, but the ovation here was a goosebumps inducer.
"That was owed to him," LaMarcus Aldridge told Blazersedge.
Reporters represent obligations and timelines and ugly health realities; the crowd represents memories and mutual respect and legacy. The reporters are the present; the crowd is the past and also the future.
Retirement for star players like Roy is an endless series of handshakes, acknowledgements, standing ovations, back slaps and swapping of tales. Watching Clyde Drexler work the room in a Houston hotel last month boiled it down: he had 1,000 best friends and not a single enemy. Roy might not possess Drexler's same zest for social interaction, but the well-wishers will be waiting for as long as is necessary and the good sentiments will reach him one way or another, there's no question about that.
But that's the future, at least for a little while longer. The present involves going through the daily machinations with a Timberwolves team headed nowhere, a team with half its roster sidelined and the other half capable of getting slaughtered on any given night. Minnesota played "American Idol" defense on Saturday; they could make a guy off the street look like a star.
Portland's approach was direct and they reached the right conclusion midway through the opening period: this wasn't going to be a real game. The Blazers hammered Minnesota's nonexistent interior defense to the tune of 57 points in the paint and a season-high 55 rebounds. J.J. Hickson put up 18 points and 16 rebounds, Aldridge barely needed to lift a finger to compile 17 points and eight rebounds, and Meyers Leonard had another solid outing, finishing with 12 points and eight rebounds.
Leonard prompted coach Terry Stotts to provide what was, I believe, his first no-qualifications, all-positive post-game summary of the season.
"That may have been one of his better games if not his best game, both ends of the floor," Stotts said. "He made his jump shots, offensively he was effective. Defensively he was much more alert. When he rebounded he outletted the ball well. It seems like in the last week he's focused on what he needs to do."
"He's playing better offensively and defensively, trying to block shots," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "He's taking shots with more confidence, I think he is getting it."
The rookie center played more than 20 minutes for the first time since November (If only all my gripes were responded to this quickly!). He got to the rim plenty, but his reactions were a bit more subdued, likely because Stotts has harped on his overly demonstrative celebrations. Leonard agreed that Stotts is holding him to a higher standard, and he welcomed the approach, despite the public chastising.
"That's the way it's supposed to be," he told Blazersedge. "I'm young. I think they see good things in me, high expectations. I would expect that [Stotts] would do that. That's good for me. If a coach isn't yelling at you or challenging you, that means they don't care."
His proactive play over the last few games has stood in contrast to some of his work earlier this season, which usually looked either robotic, lost, passive, or some combination of those descriptors. Leonard's floor-stretching mid-range ability is a nice asset but it's not a complete offensive approach, of course. While he and Hickson are two totally different body types, they share many of the same opportunities playing alongside Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Leonard's length and athleticism makes him a threat to finish plays with authority but his passivity and perimeter-oriented positioning has held some of that back, at least until recently. Now, he's showing a little bit more Hickson-esque diving capability and he said that the coaching staff is "absolutely" drilling him on the importance of timely off-ball aggressiveness.
"You've got to understand how to space the floor and when to dive, when to not dive," Leonard said. "Twice earlier I had two corner jump shots but the other times I'm diving right at the basket, trying to finish at the rim. You have to read the defense, I'm finding myself around the basket a lot more."
That's a nice development to track and the arrival of Eric Maynor should help keep that under the microscope. Maynor's command in pick-and-roll situations was evident from his first game in Portland and Minnesota's weak defense helped him provide a taste of his ability to collapse a defense by getting into the paint and then locating his big men for quality looks.
"He gets to the basket all the time," Aldridge said. "He always keeps his dribble and he makes a guy commit and then he drops it off."
Maynor assisted on five of Leonard's six baskets and finished with a career-high 12 assists in 31 minutes.
"It's great," Leonard said of Maynor's arrival. "He sees the floor very, very well. Definitely a pass-first point guard, as a big guy that's what you love. He's a nice complement to Damian. Damian can score, he can pass, he can defend, he can do a lot of things, and so can Eric. It's nice to play with a guy who gets into the lane and instead of throwing up a hook pass maybe he dishes it down, easy dunk, run back on defense."
"That's lovely," Hickson said. "A pass-first point guard coming off the bench. He's a great addition for us."
Maynor, for his part, said that the feel with his new teammates in some of those tight spaces and narrow windows is still a work in progress, but that he enters the paint knowing he has options.
"J.J. finishes, LaMarcus finishes, you've got Meyers finishing, you've got shooters around the court," Maynor told Blazersedge. "It's just pick and choose whichever one you want to hit. Guys have been finishing. We're all going to get more comfortable with each other as time comes."
Lillard finished with a game-high 24 points, six rebounds and four assists, and he said the concept behind the two point guard lineup -- allowing him to focus on scoring for stretches and alleviating some of the ball-handling load -- came to fruition against the Timberwolves.
"It's fun to have somebody else who sees everything else that's happening on the floor," Lillard explained. "I know he's a point guard so he sees what I see. He's thinking what point guards think when he's bringing the ball up the floor. You're looking for guys in their spots, and it makes it a lot easier when I'm not the guy the defense is going to set up their pick and roll defense right away. A lot of times I'm on the weakside and I'm catching the ball and that makes it hard for them to get in their coverage. That makes it a lot easier to score the ball."
The scoring came easy all night for just about everyone. This was an opponent that played with both of its hands tied behind its back thanks to injuries to Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Roy. The Timberwolves are 3-16 in their last 19 games and coach Rick Adelman looked down at the floor in apparent disgust at his team's defense and shot selection on more than one occasion. It wasn't the first time his team has been blown out and it won't be the last.
For Portland, it was the rare start-to-finish thumping: the 15-point margin of victory was the team's largest since the Indiana Pacers laid an egg on Jan. 23.
"The first two times we played them, we played really well and then in the fourth quarter fell apart and put ourselves in a tough spot," Lillard said. "Tonight they made a little push but I thought we handled their push way better.
Hickson added: "We were talking to ourselves, 'We can't play to the level of this team. They're hurt. They're kind of slim on players over there.' We wanted to play our game and not worry about what they had going on in their locker room and we did that tonight. We've just got to put our foot on teams' necks."
The neck-stomping rendered the second half fairly noncompetitive and the Timberwolves' no-show left the mind to wander. The last time I saw Roy in an interview setting was a July 2011 charity basketball game in Seattle. The media and crowd in attendance had hoped he would play but he opted against it, patiently taking questions and soaking in the cheers from a courtside seat. They delayed the start of that charity game for Roy just as a Hall of Fame presentation waited on Drexler's before-the-buzzer arrival in Houston. Organizers at both events didn't have a choice. The show couldn't go on, at least not properly, without them.
The thought crossed my mind at that 2011 exhibition -- remember, this was in the middle of the lockout, pre-amnesty -- that Roy looked awfully comfortable in street clothes, among his adoring fans, with his child in his arms, and with a big check to donate to charity. Just months removed from his greatest triumph, Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks, he already looked far less like an All-Star and far more like a retired legend. Add 40-to-100 pounds and he would have had as much in common with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp as he did with Martell Webster and Isaiah Thomas.
In 2011, the interviews still felt very newsworthy, his answers and predictions for his health still came off as conceivable. His successes that year, though they came through considerable hardship, still demanded consideration.
Here, he seemed in much the same spot, armed with improved perspective and peace of mind, but now stubbornly putting off a future that seems inevitable and is that much closer and more real. His hesitancy to jump towards it is understandable, and excruciating to ponder, but his current purgatory seems worse than what comes next.
"If I never play another game, I'll still be completely happy with my career," Roy said, and you hoped he meant it, and you hoped he realized how much happier he looked in the limelight than he did in the video camera's view finder.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced as a sellout and it was packed.
- Nicolas Batum on the ovation for Roy: "He deserved it. It's normal. For what he did for this city for the last seven years, it's huge. When he retired we didn't know what would happen in the future but he's still a big part of this franchise. He's one of the best players in this franchise of all time. He deserved that. ... I always say that he's the best player I ever played with. And I've played with a lot of good players. I played with Tony Parker, I play with L.A."
- Batum, Aldridge and Roy met before the game to catch up. Batum said they talked "about the game, about this season." Aldridge called Roy "one of the great players to play here" and said the two "don't even talk about what-ifs any more. We just catch up about our kids and things like that."
- Maynor said that he's no closer to understanding his specific "role" on this team and that his marching orders from Stotts remain pretty simple: "He just says go out and play. Whatever minutes you get, just go out and play them hard. Make your teammates better, create for yourself, just play basketball. That's good for me."
- Leonard said he thinks he's responding well to Stotts' strict treatment: "Every now and then I get down on myself if I make a mistake but it's a lot better than it used to be."
- Here's a transcript of Roy's full pre-game comments.
- Here's video of Roy's ovation.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian with a great picture of Roy's waving to the crowd.
- Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com with some quotes from after the crowd's salute to Roy.
"You know before your child is born and you wonder what he may look like and when he's born, he's just perfect?" Roy asked. "That's the way I felt tonight. I didn't know what to expect but it was just perfect. It caught me by surprise. For them to do that, showed me how important I was and I will be forever grateful for that moment."
"It's weird, because I don't see myself as a great player," Roy said. "I'm your everyday guy that has to work to get what he wants like everyone else. I never viewed myself in that light. It's amazing to see how many people stood up and acknowledged me. It was an incredible feeling. I can't really put it in words."
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian on the circle of life between Roy and Lillard.
As Lillard signed for the kids, promising the ones on the other side of the aisle that he would get to them, I asked if he realized the significance of Roy in these parts. He nodded emphatically.
"I could feel it when I hear people talk about him - how much they loved him,'' Lillard said. "And watching his highlights on YouTube, you could feel it. And on Twitter, when I first got drafted, they were talking Brandon Roy, and they were really emotional about it. I could tell how much he meant to people around here.''
- Some good signs in this one. An elderly couple's read "I'm 93 and love the Blazers," and "90 years young and love the Blazers." Another: "Wolves are endangered." Another: "Jam Jam Hickson" with extra-large J's.
- Mike Tokito of The Oregonian reports on Twitter that Roy and Blazers owner Paul Allen "greeted each other warmly."
- I saw one man look to the heavens and offer extended praise for his free Chalupa. I thought he might catch the holy ghost!
- New Blazers president Chris McGowan got his first taste of Roy-mania as he walked towards what looked to be an event for season ticket holders in the Rose Garden's Courtside Club. He stopped in his tracks to survey the massive media crowd before chatting with members of the team's public relations staff.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought it was a solid win for us. Minnesota is depleted with injuries and that certainly makes a difference. From our standpoint we came out with good energy, good execution, offensive rebounds were a help, transition was good. They create a lot of problems with their guards, their penetration, their passing. For the most part I think it was a solid win.
It was good. I didn't even realize it, someone said it was a career-high for assists. I thought he and Damian have played well in practice, the last two times we have had practice, their line-up lends itself to playing those two guys together. I thought we ran better when those two are in the game. The ball got up the court pretty quickly. I was pleased.
Reassuring having a solid back-up?
Yeah, it's reassuring. Eric has come in and he's played a lot of big games. He has a lot of confidence and poise out there. I still like having scorers out there with him but I think he controls the game pretty well on offense. I'd like to see him be a little more aggressive with the ball, he's fulfilling his role very well.
I'd have to go through the games but that may have been one of his better games if not his best game, both ends of the floor. He made his jump shots, offensively he was effective. Defensively he was much more alert. When he rebounded he outletted the ball well. It seems like in the last week he's focused on what he needs to do.
Victor Claver shot well
Shooting is a lot about confidence. I was glad he hit the three, the step-back as the shot clock was going down. It was a tough shot. For him that's a bonus for us because of how he plays. He passes. He makes good defensive plays. He's very alert at the defensive end, rebounds well as a three or a four. It's a plus when he makes his shots.
Sweeping the Timberwolves
I really wouldn't put it in context in terms of sweeping Minnesota. They've had a lot of injuries and some hardship there. At this stage, it's about getting another win regardless of what's happened before.
A similar game against the Bobcats on Monday
Same position. Charlotte has struggled. I really liked the demeanor that we came out with in this game and we addressed that, I thought the guys took it to heart and we need to do the same thing on Monday before we hit the road.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter