Blazers resilient in face of injuries
The Trail Blazers have lost six top players for at least six games apiece
Without its two big centers, Portland has been forced to scramble its defense more
Two second-round picks and Juwan Howard have been unexpected contributors
Last week it was star guard Brandon Roy reaggravating a hamstring injury during a game in Philadelphia, followed by guard Jerryd Bayless spraining his ankle in an overtime loss in Boston two nights later. This week it was the return of small forward Nicolas Batum, who missed the first three months of the season after shoulder surgery; Bayless was back but Roy remained sidelined.
Such is the roster carousel that has defined the Portland Trail Blazers' season. Six of the team's top 10 players -- Roy, Batum, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez -- have missed at least six games apiece because of injury, with centers Oden and Przybilla out for the season. The Blazers have already lost 214 man games to injury, or nine more than last season. (For good measure, coach Nate McMillan ruptured his Achilles tendon.)
And yet, just past the midway point of the season, the Blazers (27-19) are mere percentage points away from having first-round home-court advantage in the rugged Western Conference. Sure, some of the names in the box score and on the backs of the jerseys are a bit confusing -- Pendergraph? Cunningham? Howard? -- but the Blazers' identity, as shaped by general manager Kevin Pritchard and McMillan, is, in some ways, stronger than ever despite the lineup shuffling.
"Everybody has their process for what they are endeared to, and one of the things for us is finding guys who can play multiple positions and are willing to put the team first," Pritchard said. "Another thing is looking at how competitive they are."
Said McMillan: "We believe in preparation and execution at both ends of the floor. It should be that way whether your top man or your 12th man is in the game."
More specifically, Portland plays at the league's slowest pace, the better to avoid turnovers and clinically dissect opposing defenses in the half-court game.
"We talk about playing early or playing late" in a possession, McMillan said. "If we can't get a layup or a [feed into the] deep post in the first few seconds, we want to force defenses to defend," McMillan said. "The longer you do that, the better scoring opportunities you are going to get, because most defenses don't defend well after you've run through your second option."
The key to that philosophy is Roy, who has the vision and instincts of a point guard and the size and strength of a swingman. But when the Blazers' best player was injured last week, Portland still rallied to beat the Sixers, forced the Celtics into overtime and, at the tail end of a back-to-back, finished the road trip by defeating Detroit as guards Andre Miller and Steve Blake made up for Roy's absence with a combined 23 assists and just two turnovers.
The point isn't that Portland can flourish for long without Roy, who could be back later this week. But the Blazers' ability to execute the same efficient offensive style without their one irreplaceable player indicates the strength of their system and the depth of their talent.
And so it has gone. When Batum went down before the season opener and Outlaw broke his foot in the 11th game, Portland plugged in forward Martell Webster (who himself was lost to injury almost all of last season) and swingman Rudy Fernandez. When Fernandez was subsequently waylaid for six weeks with a bad back, second-year guard Jerryd Bayless finally got the minutes for which he had clamored, and has proved his mettle with double-digit scoring in 15 games.
On defense, however, the torrent of injuries has compelled the Blazers to make much more dramatic adjustments. Oden and Przybilla, two shot-blocking 7-footers and polestars of the team's defensive philosophy of aggressively preventing points scored in the paint via putbacks and dribble penetration, underwent knee surgeries for injuries that occurred 17 days apart last month. There just wasn't another sterling 7-foot defender around to take their place.
"We have had to defend differently," McMillan conceded. "Now we are a team that traps more, that scrambles coverages to defend the post and speed up the game [for opposing offenses]. We've gone from a team normally accountable for your man to one that is double-teaming more. Sometimes we'll trap on the dribble, sometimes trap on the pass, sometimes front and deny [the ball to an opponent in the low post], sometimes mix in a zone. It just depends on the team we are playing and what their strength is."
LaMarcus Aldridge, a willowy 6-11 forward known primarily for his superb mid-range jumper, has been pressed into duty defending the paint. He has responded with a career-high 8.3 rebounds per game. "We wouldn't be where we are without his increased inside presence," Pritchard said.
But Aldridge can't replace the grit and sinew that Oden and Przybilla brought to the paint game by game. For that, Portland has had to rely on a trio of undersized bangers: rookie second-round picks Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham, as well as 16-year veteran Juwan Howard, who has become the unsung hero of the Blazers' resilience.
"We needed a guy with experience for our young roster," McMillan said. "With Juwan Howard, we knew we were getting a guy who kept himself in great shape, who would be ready to play if called upon. A professional. And he has been that."
Howard, who will turn 37 next month, has already logged nearly as many minutes this year as he did in the previous three seasons combined. On Monday against New Orleans, he entered the game after the Hornets had controlled the paint en route to a 22-8 lead. He immediately began doing all the "little things" -- moving without the ball for an open jumper, keeping offensive rebounds in play for a teammate, rotating over to force a penetrating opponent to kick the ball back out -- and allowed the Blazers to climb back into the game. He finished with a season-high-tying 16 points and seven rebounds in a 98-97 loss.
Howard has also been valuable as a mentor to Pendergraph and Cunningham, two four-year college players acquired, Pritchard said with a laugh, "because we wanted toughness, and these guys would rather hit than do anything." But through Howard, whom Pritchard describes as a "phenomenal communicator," they are learning the fine points of inside play in the NBA.
"I'm teaching them to play the game the way people taught me when I was coming up," Howard said. "They've been great as far as asking questions and staying humble."
Howard exhibits a similar modesty when asked about his contributions, downplaying how a guy listed at just 6-9 and 240 pounds can play center by noting that "there aren't as many classic big guys as when I came in, like Patrick Ewing, Rik Smits, Alonzo Mourning and David Robinson." Hearing those names (Rik Smits!) makes you realize that not only is Howard undersized but he's also been around since the mid-1990s.
"There were no promises made when I talked to them" about coming to Portland before the season, Howard continued. "They were straight up and honest about wanting me to back up LaMarcus at the '4' and for veteran leadership. I told them that I was honored and that I liked the team, liked the way Nate plays, thought we had good talent and good depth. I said I thought we had a chance to do more than make the playoffs, but to do something special."
McMillan said the Blazers set a goal of winning 10 games per month. Though they fell short with nine victories in December and have won six with three to play in January, Portland has also not lost more than three in a row all season.
"With so many injuries and no centers, for us to be where we are means we have done good things," McMillan said. "But we know we still have a long way to go. Now our goal is to try to stay in this race and get in playoffs."
Under the circumstances, that would be something special.
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