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Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Not how the Blazers drew it up

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Brandon Roy
Brandon Roy and the Trail Blazers had high hopes for the season. Now they're just trying to survive it.

The Portland Trail Blazers would be the most astounding thing I'd seen this month if I hadn't stumbled across this on YouTube. Yes, that's Kermit the Frog singing "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads. Random, huh?

But not as unlikely as the signing of Juwan Howard turning into a fortuitous move by the Blazers.

Or as astonishing as Portland losing not one but two centers to injury, then having their plug-in replacement miss games because of injury as well.

It's only slightly less unexpected than the prospect of the Blazers having to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies just to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Whether it's Kermit, David Byrne or Brandon Roy asking the question, it's the same line: "And you may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"

"It's just a weird year, man," Roy said. "We had high expectations coming in. Then all the injuries. It's been a weird year. We really haven't been settled. Then we had the trade. We're just fighting. Hopefully we can get it at the right point and try to make a run."

The Blazers (37-28) currently occupy the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings, four games ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland is three games behind fifth-place Phoenix.

But instead of looking at the standings you wonder if they should be checking the skies, on the alert for any wayward anvils or safes. Their star-crossed center Greg Oden fractured the patella in his left knee Dec. 5. Less than two weeks later, Joel Przybilla tore his patellar tendon. And in the most absurd moment of all, Przybilla reruptured the tendon when he slipped in the shower Saturday.

When athletic trainer Jay Jensen called coach Nate McMillan to tell him the news, he prefaced it with, "You're not going to believe this."

"And I didn't," McMillan said.

Przybilla had done a solid job filling in for Oden the past two seasons. But he shouldn't have been so prominent in the first place.

When you select one of the most anticipated big men to enter the draft in the past 10 years with the No. 1 overall pick, the center position is supposed to be the last position to worry about. Instead that's the biggest question for the Trail Blazers going forward.

Oden
Scenes like this -- Greg Oden getting carried off the court -- have been all too familiar for the Blazers.

Oden has played a total of 82 games during his three years in the league. For now, the definitive image of Oden is -- what, you didn't think I was going to link to that picture, did you?

This offseason, he'll be eligible for an extension from his rookie contract, but there's no compelling reason for the Blazers to sign him long-term. Meanwhile, Przybilla's availability for the start of next season is in doubt. All of a sudden, that makes Marcus Camby, who was acquired in a February trade with the Clippers for Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw, worth considering keeping beyond this season.

But the Clippers and Nuggets could be interested in his services, and a New York Daily News report over the weekend said the Knicks could make a play for Camby this summer.

"I've got no comment on the situation," Camby said. "I don't think it's fair to the Trail Blazers for me to be commenting on that. But like I always say, it always feels good to be wanted.

"[I'll] probably sit down with my wife and kids, see what's comfortable for them. It's tough for me right now: They're back in L.A.; I'm in Portland. My kids are in school. I know my kids and wife; they love the L.A. weather, they love being out there. But I've got to make the best decision for my family.

"I actually live in Houston in the offseason, so I always thought about in the latter part of my career playing down there. But I like the situation here in Portland. They're definitely in need of big men. So I'll just have to weigh my options."

And the Trail Blazers must carefully consider theirs. Camby isn't immune to injury himself; he has played in 63 or fewer games eight times (not including the 50-game lockout season of 1999).

Add Roy to the list of injury concerns down the road, and it's something to keep in mind when his five-year extension worth about $80 million kicks in next season. Roy missed 19 games with a heel injury in his rookie season and has fought his way through other leg injuries, then succumbed to a strained right hamstring this season that kept him out of 14 games in January and February. He has shot below 40 percent in each of his past four games, including a 3-for-14 night in Denver on Sunday.

"I feel like I have a rhythm one game, and the next game I feel like it's not quite there," Roy said. "That's the hardest thing. You don't want to sit out in the middle of the season as long as I did. The biggest thing is, I think, I've got to push to really get my rhythm early in games, because if I don't, then the team just kind of moves on without me a little bit. I think that's when I start to struggle. I've got to establish myself early."

With their star struggling and the athletic trainers kept busy around the clock, suddenly Andre Miller, who struggled to fit in for much of the season, is looking like just the type of player they need: someone who can be counted on to play every night. Miller hasn't missed a game since 2003, and in his 11th season, he keeps providing the occasional surprise, be it his 52-point outburst in a win at Dallas in January or his explosive dunk in Denver on Sunday.

The biggest surprise has been the 37-year-old Howard, the last member of the Fab Five still playing ball for a living, who's been thrust into the starting lineup 26 times already and has produced more points and rebounds than he did the previous two seasons combined.

"When we had training camp, I was competing for minutes. And some people probably thought that I was crazy because of the fact that they just considered bringing me in to be a locker-room guy, have a veteran presence," Howard said. "But I was going out there and letting them know that I still can play, and I wanted to be a part of helping this team be successful. No one had any clue that I would be the starting center in so many games this year. But when you go down with injuries with the key guys and you need other guys to step up. Truly I just tried to stay ready and wait for my name to be called."

Howard, the oldest man on a team stocked with eight players 25 or under, has taken on the advice-dispensing role as well. He called a team meeting when the Blazers were in New Jersey two weeks ago.

"I told them it's a time for all of us to recommit ourselves and look in the mirror and see what we can do better," Howard said. "This is a time of year when a lot of teams are starting to gear up and starting to play playoff-intensity-type basketball. Why not us? We have to do the same thing if we want to make it to the playoffs."

They won five of their next six games (the one loss was in overtime), regained their footing and no longer felt sorry for themselves.

"Guys have stepped up," Blazers coach McMillan said. "Every time we've had a guy go down, we've had somebody step up and play well. It's been a team. It hasn't been just one individual. It's been a team effort, and that's what you need in situations like that. When guys go down, it's an opportunity for someone else. And these guys have made the most of that."

In just one year, the Trail Blazers have gone from a template of how to assemble a team to cautionary tale of hopes running aground. At this point, nothing can come as a surprise. They know the injury risks involved with so many of their key players. The question is, how many will continue to form their nucleus?