It’s at the point where a season full of mounting injuries has gone from incredible to insane. But the Portland Trail Blazers keep triumphing over adversity, over and over and over again.
When LaMarcus Aldridge limped off the Rose Garden floor with a left ankle sprain late in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, he became the Blazers’ latest casualty. At least until point guard Steve Blake was hospitalized with pneumonia Friday. “This has gone past crazy to continue to see our guys drop,” said head coach Nate McMillan after the Blazers beat the Clippers, 103-99.
“I’m afraid when our guys are on the floor. I hate to say it, but when a guy goes down we’re playing good basketball.”
McMillan should know – he’s among the injured after getting on the practice floor to fill the void left by his wounded roster and rupturing his Achilles tendon earlier this season. Talk about leading by example.
In a season filled with bumps, bruises and breaks, the Blazers have persevered through the pain. Heading into Saturday night’s game against the Warriors, Portland’s roster has missed a combined 150 games due to injury. And that number keeps growing.
But it’s not the only one.
With the win – their seventh in the last nine games – the Blazers (21-13) moved into a tie with the Denver Nuggets for the Northwest Division lead. Their record is identical to the one during their 54-win season and playoff run last year. And their list of recent victims includes the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets – all teams with winning records.
Imagine if Portland was healthy.
“It’s frustrating, but the biggest thing is that we’re getting a lot of young guys a lot of experience,” said Brandon Roy, who has scored 23 or more points in 14 consecutive games. “It’s definitely hard because you’re still looking to the future and there are so many games to be played. It’s like we just don’t have the bodies so we just keep playing.”
Portland’s rash of injuries this season has resembled an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, complete with a gimpy cast of characters: Patty Mills (right foot), Jeff Pendergraph (left hip), Nicolas Batum (right shoulder), Travis Outlaw (left foot), Greg Oden (left knee), Rudy Fernandez (back) and Joel Przybilla (ruptured right patella).
Aldridge wore a walking boot Wednesday and Thursday and is listed as doubtful for Saturday’s game. Blake, meanwhile, is expected to remain hospitalized a few days and is out indefinitely.
“Our league is turning into one with a lot of injuries,” general manager Kevin Pritchard said. “Unless you are prepared and mentally tough, it is just difficult, because once you get out of rhythm, how do you get back in?
“We’ve got guys who are workers, and we’ve always felt if you work you can overcome a lot of things. No one is going to feel sorry for us. We have to stay competitive. I’ve never seen this many injuries. It’s going to be challenging, but I like the way some guys have stepped up.”
Despite being undermanned, Portland’s Juwan Howard, Jerryd Bayless and rookie power forward Pendergraph continue to make the most of their opportunity.
With both Oden and Przybilla out for the season, Howard has been thrust into the starting lineup. The savvy 15-year veteran has proved invaluable, while Bayless went for a career-high 31 points on the road against San Antonio on Dec. 23 starting in place of Roy, who is battling a strained left shoulder.
Pendergraph, who recently returned to action after missing about four months, is quickly becoming a fan favorite for his physical play.
“You’ve got guys who played garbage minutes who are now playing significant minutes,” said Pendergraph, who grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds against the Clippers.
“I’m just going out there and having fun. I don’t think there is any pressure on me, because there is nothing to be expected. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to play at all. I thought I was going to miss the whole season. To go from there to here is surreal.”
But good news may be on the way.
Both Batum and Fernandez could return to the lineup on Portland’s next extended East Coast road trip in mid-January, while Mills was assigned to the Idaho Stampede of the NBDL on Tuesday to work on his conditioning and game situations. In the meantime, Portland signed Shavlik Randolph as its 16th man after receiving another “hardship exemption” from the league. He replaced Anthony Tolliver, who was waived on Tuesday.
“With all that’s gone on, we won nine games this month,” Roy said. “Our goal is 10. Our biggest thing is that we’re going to keep playing. We don’t have anything to lose.”