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Trail Blazers at a loss once again

3/11/2015
Despite a strong start to the season, Wes Matthews' injury dealt a big blow to the Blazers' chances. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

As Wesley Matthews lay on the ground and the images of him rupturing his left Achilles replayed over and over in Portland, familiar questions started to run through the minds of a quiet Trail Blazers fan base:

Why us? Why again? Why now?

Paul Allen left his courtside seat to check on Matthews in the locker room. Upon returning, the Blazers owner shrugged his shoulders with his palms held up, unknowingly speaking for every fan in Portland.

The Blazers’ history with injuries is a particularly cruel one, littered with countless surgical procedures and broken dreams. Just two weeks prior to Matthews’ season-ending injury, they faced more bad news, as franchise legend Jerome Kersey suddenly died at age 52.

On the court, the Blazers were just hitting their stride. Dogged last season by questions of their ability to hang with the Western Conference’s elite, Portland had firmly entrenched itself as a contender in the conference. Nicolas Batum, injured earlier this season, looked like himself again, and the Blazers had just completed an impressive overtime comeback on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers in front of a national audience.

They closed that win with Batum, Matthews, Damian Lillard, Arron Afflalo and LaMarcus Aldridge, a strong lineup that outscored opponents by 23 points in 13 minutes together. After giving up a first-round pick at the trade deadline to get Afflalo, the Blazers seemed to have the sort of five-man unit that could cause nightmares for opponents in the playoffs.

And then, it was gone. In the final season before the contracts of Matthews, Aldridge, Robin Lopez and perhaps Afflalo (player option) come up.

Until now, Matthews was something of an anti-Brandon Roy. In his first five years in the NBA split between Utah and Portland, the undrafted 2-guard had missed only 13 games. He had the kind of tireless work ethic that fans love, and he was finally starting to draw the appropriate appreciation during a season in which he averaged a career-high 16.1 player efficiency rating. For the first time since Roy left Portland in 2011, there was a sense of comfort at off guard.

The Blazers also didn’t hesitate to call Matthews the heart of the team, the type of player whose profanity-laced tirade in the visitor's locker room in Orlando helped spark nine wins over their final 10 regular-season games last season.

In many ways, his place in Portland mirrors the one held by Kersey decades earlier. A second-round pick from obscure Longwood University, the longtime Blazers forward was revered in this city for his hard-nosed style and his deep involvement in the community. Everybody loves an underdog, and Portland grew to love Matthews just like they did Kersey.

Losing one for the season and the other forever drained virtually all of the morale that had been building all season.

The Blazers can ride with Aldridge, Lillard, a revived Batum, Afflalo and Lopez. But, as a Blazers fan texted me on Sunday, "Who is going to guard James Harden?"

After their first game without Matthews, a loss to the Western Conference's worst team, Portland’s new reality looked a little bit worse than expected.

The Afflalo trade was seen as pivotal, all-in move. But without Matthews, what will that mean?

In the wake of Matthews' injury, coach Terry Stotts has reached back into his Dallas days, pointing to the Mavericks’ 2011 team that lost Caron Butler in January but went on to win the title.

But the belief that this team can make it to the same heights has rightfully been shaken.

Erik Gundersen covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Follow him, @blazerbanter.