Preface: For Portland Trailblazer fans like me the 2009-10 season started with tremendous optimism. Every season we were told to lower our expectations, that the team was too young and inexperienced to make much progress. Yet season after season the team added double digit totals to the win column. They made it to the playoffs last year. They even won a couple games in the playoffs.
But then the season got off to a rugged start. Nicolas Batum went down to injury. No problem, Martell Webster is the better offensive player, and his defense has improved so we all thought it was a minor set-back. Greg Oden moved into the starting line-up and Andre Miller arrived.
Soon we had three new starters in the line-up with Oden, Webster and Miller replacing Joel Przybilla, Batum, and Steve Blake. Nobody doubted it was an overall talent upgrade, but all the new faces and roles had the team struggling.
Ugly home losses to teams like the Grizzlies, where the home team got wrecked by a massive 21-0 run, had us wondering how long it would take for this team to gel. Then, just as they started coming around, players started to go down.
Key 4th quarter performer Travis Outlaw went down. Oden went down. Przybilla went down. Rudy Fernandez went down. LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy both missed games.
Somehow, the Blazers kept chugging along, winning plenty and losing more than we expected in the preseason. Everyone stepped up from time to time. Eventually, a trade was made to bring Marcus Camby to the Blazers for Outlaw and Blake, both shoring up the center position and lightening what would have been a major playing time crunch.
The Blazers closed the season strong, achieving the 6th seed...lower than it would have been if they were healthy, but six slots higher than it should have been. We as fans were pumped, excited, ready to win a series against a team that many NBA fans still believe is soft and therefore exploitable in the Phoenix Suns.
As an aside...the Suns have changed. Beware, whoever faces them in the second round...these are not your Daddys' Suns.
We were ready for this series to start. Sure enough, even with Roy out for at least the first round of the playoffs, the Blazers came out in game one and played a classic Blazers game. Tough, inspired defense, bit step-up games from second-line players like Batum and Webster, and a will-not-quit attitude. This was the team that over achieved by over a dozen games.
But then something happened. The new Suns attitude reared its ugly head. They came out in game two and kicked the Blazers' teeth in, dominating them in every phase of the game. No problem. I actually had predicted it at work (though to be fair, my exact statement was, "Am I the only one who thinks the Suns are going to blow us out by 20?" If I had said 30, it would have been impressive).
That was not a big deal. The Blazers won their one game in Phoenix. Everything was set up perfect. Portland would win a close-fought game three, lose game four, then take games five and six to score the upset.
Except the Suns did not realize that was the plan. What they did to Portland in game three bordered on felonious assault. They not only kicked in the Blazers teeth, they added a few groin shots as the Blazers lay on the ground wondering what hit them. The Suns came into the Rose Garden and showed everyone the late-season road blow-out wins in Utah and Denver were n flukes, that they are a team that can not only win any time, any place, against any team, they can win those games handily.
The atmosphere leading into game four was somber. The series score might be only two games to one, but Blazer fans were wondering not just if they would not win another game, but if they would avoid getting blown out two more times.
Rewind: 1990: Kevin Duckworth, the Blazers' center, broke his hand in the first round against the Mavericks and was unavailable to the Blazers for Game 7 against the Spurs and their amazing David Robinson. Then, with everyone on the floor warming up, the fans were treated to a surprise and one of the greatest moments for fans...the unexpected entry of Duck.
Just thinking of that moment brings chills. It is the Blazers' version of Walt Frazier for the Knicks.
The Pre-game. My friend and I get to the game about 25 minutes early, settle into our seats. Their is a subdued atmosphere to the place. It is almost as Blazer fans have been completely demoralized by the back to back spankings the Suns laid on us.
13:00 to game time. The familiar music hits. The Blazers are about to be shown getting ready to leave their locker room for the playing surface. We casually glance at the Jumbotron as it pans over the Blazers...and suddenly the mood, the atmosphere, everything changes. The panning stops on Brandon Roy. And he is not wearing a suit...he is wearing warm ups.
Really? Can it be? Is there any chance he could...play? No way...no way...not possible...what the...the scoreboard now shows Fernandez on the bench and Roy starting!
The Garden is maybe a third full when they hit the floor for warm-ups, but suddenly the crowd is on its feet, applauding the players...well, okay, applauding the unbelievable, unforeseen entrance of Roy in playing gear.
Now there is energy in the building. Now we know he might play. And if he plays, then we win. Not might win. Not will keep it close. We win.
It is that feeling that defines why Roy is great. If you look at his numbers for the game, they were anything but phenomenal. 10 points on 10 shots is pedestrian. But his presence, that changed everything. It changed the way the game was played.
In a post-game interview, Aldridge was asked what it changed and you could hear the smile in his voice as he said, "He came in the game and I got the first open shot I have had all series."
A lot of Blazer fans have been down on Aldridge because defense like that pictured above has made his numbers minuscule. Personally, I think a lot of the blame goes to guys like Fernandez who have not made themselves available for his passes and/or have not made their shots. If three guys are guarding one, two guys should be open.
Be that as it may, with Roy back in the line-up, Blazer fans had hope. And when he entered the game for the first time, suddenly you just knew it was going to be a real series.
The Suns are still the favorites. They have two games left at home, the Blazers just one. But this was a moment worthy of memory.
I was not there when Duck made his unexpected return, but the impact that moment had on those great Blazer teams of the late 80s and early 90s went far beyond his modest stat-line against the Admiral.
Roy coming back from surgery in eight days to life the spirits and morale of an entire organization and sports town will have the same effect.
Obviously I hope the Blazer pull off the improbable and replicate the '77 run, though I more reasonably expect them to be done long before the finals. But the heart shown by Roy, the mind-set to come out and play...that will be there when this team is healed and whole and holding up the trophy a few times.
Thank you, Mr. Roy, for giving me my own Duckworth moment.