PORTLAND, Ore. – Through it all – the curse of the big men, the seven injured players , Steve Blake’s pneumonia, the gripes from Andre Miller about playing time, and finally Miller’s 30-minute shouting match with coach Nate McMillan – the Trail Blazers keep winning.
Of course they won Friday night, because they were playing the Lakers at the Rose Garden, where they’ve beaten L.A. nine straight times. This time, it was 107-98 in favor of the Blazers, who had rising star Brandon Roy outplay Kobe Bryant and enjoyed a 32-5 advantage from the free-throw line (39-10 in attempts). But the details hardly matter from night to night.
The Blazers are winning – seven of 10 now – with an eight-man rotation that includes rookie Dante Cunningham, who logged 18 minutes against the Lakers. They are winning with a starting center named Juwan Howard, whom I watched play at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., when the Hoosiers hosted Michigan and I was a sophomore at Indiana in 1992. Think about that. Juwan Howard is the Blazers’ starting center, and a capable one at that, with eight points and 10 rebounds Friday night. Juwan Howard was drafted in 1994, the same year as Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams. The same Monty Williams who roams the sideline for McMillan, who sits on the bench with a walking boot because he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon.
“It’s been a crazy year, but I just never really like to look back,” Roy said. “I just say, ‘Let’s keep pushing,’ and I think we’re doing a great job of not looking back.”
How could the year get any crazier after Greg Oden (knee) and Joel Pryzbilla (knee) both were lost for the season, Blake wound up in the hospital with pneumonia, and key rotation players Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Travis Outlaw all out for significant time? Miller and McMillan found a way Thursday, getting into a heated argument during practice over various things, including Miller’s mistake of telling Jerryd Bayless to make his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left and the Blazers trailing Memphis by two Tuesday night. McMillan had instructed Bayless to miss the free throw to create a putback opportunity. Miller’s season-long angst over how he’s being used – sometimes not starting games and often not finishing them – erupted.
“That was a situation where I needed to handle that and handle that better than I did,” McMillan said. “We’re past that. We’ve talked and I’ve talked to the team and addressed the team about it.”
Asked about his relationship with Miller, McMillan said, “Let me say this, and I hope you guys write this. Get your pens out. I love my players, OK? And not just current players, but past players, my relationship with my players are important. … I had some say on bringing Andre Miller here and so to bring these guys here and to assume that I have an issue – no, there’s no issue or no problem. … I’m OK with all of my players, so there’s no issues.”
Not on the court, anyway.
The Blazers got 21 points off the bench Friday night from Bayless, who’s been getting Miller’s closing minutes lately. They’re winning with small lineups, did a better job of getting out in transition Friday night, and have fallen back on McMillan’s long-time emphasis on defense – his forte – to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff picture.
“There hasn’t really been a calm moment this season,” Roy said. “But 23-15? We’ll take it.”
Getting by with what they have has done more than create an inspirational story line. It’s reduced anxiety over whether Portland GM Kevin Pritchard needs to give up long-term cap flexibility for the short-term boost he would get from acquiring a big man in a trade.
Pritchard, being one of only a handful of GMs with real cap space, has explored bestowing it on any number of cost-cutting colleagues in exchange for a much needed body – with no takers, yet. But if the Blazers keep playing like this, and if the injuries and other distractions continue to galvanize them, what’s the rush to do a deal?
“It’s kind of a wait and see for us,” McMillan said. “We’re not even at the midway point. We know that we have a long ways to go and a huge challenge ahead of us to go through the remainder of the season without those two big guys.”
Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson bemoaned the Blazers’ epic bad luck with big men and injuries, invoking the names of Sam Bowie and Bill Walton. But there were no ghosts involved in Portland’s latest homecourt mastery over the defending champs.
“They’re extremely well coached,” Bryant said. “They execute everything well. They don’t make mental mistakes, and I think that’s been the key. They’ve been able to adjust their game and adjust the tempo of the game having most of their horses out.”
And somehow, one of the improbable early-season success stories in the NBA gallops on.