On February 23 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Fla., former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden started in an NBA basketball game. Prior to taking the court with the two-time defending champions last week, Oden had last started in a NBA game on Dec. 5, 2009.
Last time he saw action, Oden played a scant four minutes and 15 seconds, and a non-contact knee injury basically ended his career (or so everybody thought).
This is pertinent, because on the same evening Oden ended his three-plus year hiatus from an NBA starting lineup, back in the town where he made his NBA debut, the Blazers trotted out only the second starting lineup they’d used for the entire 2013-14 season.
Short LaMarcus Aldridge, sidelined to nurse an injured groin, the Blazers were on their third straight game without the full starting five that carried them through the first 53 games of the season.
But the Blazers’ three-time All-Star wasn’t the only Blazer missing in action. Joel Freeland went down first, suffering a sprained MCL during a home loss against the Thunder just days before the All-Star Break. L.A. came next.
The news that Aldridge would be out for awhile was chased by an announcement that Meyers Leonard, the Blazers’ habitually disappointing back-up to the back-up center, would miss two to three weeks with a left ankle sprain.
Over the course of a few days, a team that has had to face very little in the way of injury-induced adversity this season found themselves short a couple of seven-footers.
And the injuries couldn’t have come at a worse time. As many Portlanders are undoubtedly aware, the Blazers, once the hottest team in the league, have slipped to just a hair above respectable.
They might still be in the top tier of the more competitive of the NBA’s two conferences, but the bloom just might be off the rose. Whereas a month ago, the Blazers and some of their more ambitious fans were already preparing space on their mantel for the Larry O’Brien trophy, it appears now that the last eight weeks of the regular season could be shaping up to be a bit of a white-knuckler.
Or maybe not. Sunday evening, the same evening Greg Oden logged nearly 13 minutes of court time in a Heat victory, a mix-and-match Blazer team nearly burned the Moda Center to the ground.
A motivated Thomas Robinson, the only back-up big left on the Blazers’ roster, an always hyperactive Will Barton and an almost completely forgotten Spaniard by the name of Victor Claver may not have provided every thing the Blazers needed to blow out the never-quite-there Minnesota Timberwolves, but Portland’s deep-end of the bench squad certainly gave Blazer fans something to scream their heads off about.
Wesley Matthews has talked about the Blazers learning what they’re made of during the games they have to play without probably the best power forward in the NBA.
Following a season-high 24 minutes played in the Blazers’ win over Kevin Love’s soon-to-be-former team, Victor Claver (who after Sunday had six appearances on the season, three coming since the Freeland, Aldridge, Leonard triple injury) said that he’d been waiting all season, knowing that, should somebody get injured, he would get the chance to step up and contribute.
Ridiculous sports clichés aside, there is some truth to be taken away here. Yes, the Blazers started out incredibly hot, and yes they’ve given themselves a pretty solid cushion, with only March and three quarters of April left in the 2013-14 season, but there’s still a ways to go, and the Western Conference playoff picture is far from being finalized.
The Blazers will be forced to address some of their issues over the course of the next two weeks. Is the offense too reliant on Aldridge and Damian Lillard? Can the defense actually get stops when head coach Terry Stotts elects to go small with shooters at four positions?
And more than that, these next few weeks—or games, really, since Aldridge will likely be back sooner than later—is the season for players like Claver and Barton. Thomas Robinson, too.
Selected one spot ahead of Lillard in the 2012 NBA draft, Robinson’s career hasn’t had the sparkle some thought it might. Whereas Damian has outplayed the incentives in his first contact with Adidas and is poised to maybe become the face of global basketball for Portland’s second-biggest sneaker company, Robinson has gone on record to say he’s happy to know his second season as a pro will end in the same place it started.
Robinson’s 18 rebounds and defensive presence helped stymie the Timberwolves, and his block on Corey Brewer might have been the best highlight of the season, but his inconsistency is the main reason why he’s averaging only a shade under 12 minutes of action a night.
As Coach Stotts said Sunday night, he’s still not super comfortable with what passes for a rotation without the bulk of his front line. Sunday was Robinson’s night, and next week might belong to CJ McCollum or Victor Claver. But regardless of who plays, the end goal is still the same: get wins, and hold off the hard-charging bottom-half of the Western Conference.
“Nothing is set in stone as far as things are going,” Stotts said Sunday of his lineup permutations and rotations.
That means even though minutes will be available for Robinson and company going forward, they’re probably going to be doled out on a game-by-game basis.
And who knows—with only a few Blazers locked up in any kind of long-term contract, these next few games could serve as auditions for next season’s lineup. And maybe even, when the playoffs do roll around, Stotts will have faith in Barton or Robinson should they be called upon to produce when the stakes are raised.
Or, as Robin Lopez said Sunday night with his trademarked stone-face when asked about the mindset of his team now without a few key players for the first time this season: “I think it’s just win any way possible.”