Notebook: McMillan praises play of Howard, Pendergraph

PORTLAND — Where Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said Friday he thinks the NBA should avoid Christmas Day games, Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said playing on the annual holiday is an honor.

To McMillan, being chosen by the NBA to play on Christmas means you matter.

“The league feels good about you if you are playing on Christmas,” McMillan said. “And I think it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for guys.”

McMillan said he understands that players and coaches went to spend the holiday with their families. But he referred to the ability to play on Christmas before a nationally televised audience as a “special time.”

“I grew up watching games and looking forward to that,” said McMillan, before the start of Friday’s game against the Denver Nuggets at the Rose Garden. McMillan said he played in two Christmas games as a player.
He has now coached the Blazers in three consecutive winter holiday games.

Portland’s coach said he spent Christmas Day with his family, opening gifts and watching the early slate of NBA matchups.

“It was a good morning,” McMillan said.

Then the Blazers’ coach had a contest of his own to prepare for.

Stepping up

McMillan had words of praise for the recent performance of veteran forward Juwan Howard.

Howard assumed the team’s starting center position when Joel Przybilla went down Tuesday with a season-ending patella injury.

Howard, a 16-year NBA veteran, recorded consecutive double-doubles in the two games before Friday’s matchup against the Nuggets. And he poured in 12 points and 12 rebounds — five offensive — in the Blazers’ 98-94 road victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

Portland signed Howard last summer as a free agent, and many expected the former University of Michigan standout to contribute more in the locker room than on the court.

But a Blazers season filled with injuries has severely shaken up Portland’s roster. And with Przybilla and Greg Oden out for the season, Howard is the only Blazer other than starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge who has legitimate experience at the center position.

“He’s done some good things,” McMillan said. “Played a lot of minutes.”

He added: “He knows where to be. And the things we were hoping he could give us if he had to step in and play, he’s showing that he can.”

Baby steps

Blazers rookie forward Jeff Pendergraph racked up a season-high 17 minutes during Portland’s victory Wednesday over the Spurs. The former Arizona State standout added career- and season-highs with four points and rebounds apiece.

“He’ll put his head in there,” McMillan said. “He’s not afraid. He scraps. He plays physical. He plays bigger than he is.”

Pendergraph missed the Blazers’ first 29 games of the season while recovering from hip surgery. He was cleared to travel with the team during Portland’s recent four-game road trip.

However, Pendergraph was not expected to play. But when Przybilla went down, the rookie forward was activated.

McMillan stated that Pendergraph has excelled with defensive weak-side help and rebounding while he has been on the court.

“He’s willing to give up his body,” McMillan said.

Weeks away

McMillan said rookie guard Patty Mills is at least 2-3 weeks away from game-time action.

Mills has missed the entire season thus far while recovering from foot surgery. He has recently participated in light practices with the team, and traveled with the Blazers during their recent road trip.

The 6-foot, 175-pound guard was chosen by Portland with the 55th overall pick in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft.

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