Older, wiser Blazers look to advance for first time in a decade
Portland Trail Blazers guard Andre Miller has spent 11 seasons in the NBA. But Miller has yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs.
Blazers center Marcus Camby and forward Juwan Howard have accumulated a combined 30 seasons in the league. Neither has won an NBA championship.
The Blazers? Despite producing one of the proudest and most devoted fanbases in all of professional sports, the team has not advanced past the first round since 2000.
But that all could all start to change tonight, as No. 6 Portland tips off a first-round best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series against the No. 3 Phoenix Suns at 7:30 p.m. at the US Airways Center in Phoenix. The game will be televised live nationally on TNT (54) and locally on KGW (8).
A Blazers team that has faced and overcome adversity all season — Portland racked up 311 games missed due to injury — will again be shorthanded. Three-time All-Star guard Brandon Roy will at least miss the first round of the playoffs after undergoing arthroscopic surgery Friday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Sharpshooter Rudy Fernandez will replace Roy in the starting
But while an inexperienced Blazers team watched a magical 2008-09 season quickly turn into smoke when they were upset and knocked out of the first round, 4-2, by a tougher, more focused Houston Rockets squad, this time could be different for Portland.
Miller, Camby and Howard provide Portland (50-32) with 41 years of regular-season experience and 114 playoff games. The trio took turns guiding and carrying the Blazers all season. And they could be the difference if the Blazers are able to slow down a Suns (54-28) team that ranks first in the NBA in average scoring (110.2), field-goal percentage (49.2) and 3-point percentage (41.2), and eventually extend the series into a grueling marathon.
“I’m very confident,” Howard said. “All I’m concerned about is this team. … I think if we play our game as far as what we’re capable of playing, I think we can beat anyone.”
Confidence has been the underlying word for Portland all year. Counted out several times — none more so than when centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla went down with season-ending knee injuries — the Blazers have taken pride in a one-step-backward, two-steps-forward approach. Every time that one Blazer went down, another stepped up and rose to the occasion.
“It’s not going to be relied on one person’s shoulders,” said forward Martell Webster, who joined Miller as the only Blazers to play in all 82 regular-season games. “We want to go in there and carry each other. Ride that momentum and that chemistry that we have and that bond that we formed all year long — especially with playing through adversity and injuries. It’s an opportunity for this whole team.”
Blazers coach Nate McMillan and general manager Kevin Pritchard agreed.
While Pritchard envisions a physical, demanding series against a “terrific team,” McMillan sees the Suns as one of the NBA’s elite. But both strongly feel the Blazers can advance.
“We’re facing a very good team — probably the hottest team in the NBA the last month in the season,” McMillan said. “But we’ve been faced with this type of challenge all season long. We’ve just got to go and play. We’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to be connected out there. You’ve got to believe.”
Out of the four lower seeds in the West, Portland appears to have the best chance of advancing. First-round series between Oklahoma City-Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio-Dallas will likely be quickly decided, while a matchup between Denver and Utah will almost certainly be a slugfest.
But while the Blazers will be playing without Roy, they will not be without significant advantages.
Camby is one of the top defenders in the league, and he has found his offensive stroke just in time for the playoffs. Portland small forward Nicolas Batum is a rising star and one of the top scoring stoppers in the league. Miller holds a 22-pound weight advantage on Phoenix point guard Steve Nash that should create easy points in the paint. And Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is playing the best overall ball of his career, while leading his team in average scoring (19.7) during the final 44 games of the season.
It will not be easy for Portland. But with three proven veterans rounding out a young, talented group of players who have already overcome so much this season, the opportunity is there. And the second round awaits.
“This time, you wouldn’t say (we’re) comfortable, but we know what to expect,” Aldridge said. “We’ve been there. We played in the series last year with Houston — a very physical team. So, we know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve just got to be ready to do it.”
Pritchard on Roy: Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for an interview with Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard about Brandon Roy’s recent knee surgery