Roy logs heavy minutes, responds well

MINNEAPOLIS – To the ignorant eye, Brandon Roy looks anything but frail, and those knees are just knees. To the ignorant ear, the thud of his 210-pound frame hitting the hardwood sounds no louder than any other thud, the squeak of his shoes as he slides no shriller than any other squeak.

But to those of us who know, we cringe. We see Roy as a little weaker than we’d ever let him know, a lot more vulnerable than any other man on the court. Watching Roy play basketball in this fledgling comeback is an exercise in wincing and exhaling, in redefining what’s normal and what’s worrisome.

Maybe someday, the ignorant will be correct. Maybe those who don’t know about the knees and the cartilage and the procedures actually know best. Maybe the worries and the gasps and the analysis of Roy’s face as he gets up off the ground are all for naught. But that’s not so, not yet, and so for now Roy remains a tenuous yet promising novelty.

On Saturday, Roy made his Target Center debut in the Timberwolves’ 82-75 win over the Bulls. He started the game, and he finished the first half with more minutes than any other Timberwolves player. By the end of the night, he’d racked up 26 minutes of playing time, fewer than only Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved and Nikola Pekovic. He had 13 points, which could have easily been more had he not missed four of his 10 free throw attempts. He’d gotten it over with, this debut in front of new fans in a new uniform, and he’d passed with flying colors.

But at this point anything Roy does without hobbling off the court is considered such a success. The focus is still on the injury and the transition, as his team dares to imagine that he might be something close to the player he once was. It’s a new set of expectations for Roy, and he’s easing his way back to normal.

Normal is still a long way off.

Coach Rick Adelman hoped to take another step in that direction on Saturday. Roy hadn’t played at all in the fourth quarter, and Adelman hoped to get him back in to close out the game. But with the team on the court playing as well as it was and giving the Timberwolves their greatest shot to win, that seemed like a chance at ruining the best rhythm yet of the night. So Roy sat.

“I really was going to put him back in the game in the last six minutes,” Adelman said. “Him and I talked, and he had gone I think 26 minutes, and sooner or later we’re going to have to do that. I want to do an exhibition to see how he feels.”

Sooner or later we’re going to have to do that. It sounds as if they’re preparing to get a flu shot or to rip off a Band-Aid. Hold your breath and go, hope for the best, and maybe this won’t be the move that dooms the grand experiment. But this is a process, and Adelman is doing it right. As the basketball world erupts with cries of “Brandon Roy is back!” Adelman and Roy himself have maintained their pragmatic approach, as if they’re the only ones breathing normally while the world holds its breath.

When will he play in the fourth quarter? How much is too much? Will he get up? Does it look like he’s in pain?

For Roy, though, the questions are fewer. It’s not a matter of what he can do, but when he can do it, so a foul-ridden game like Saturday’s is hardly the nightmare to him that it might seem. Yes, he was splayed out on the court several times and aggressively fouled. Yes, he knocked knees. But so did most of his teammates, and no one batted an eyelash.

At the half, one of the referees pulled Roy aside and told him it seemed like he was looking for a lot of contact. Roy’s response: “Hey, it’s just the way I play.” He’s not letting the past redefine his approach.

“I don’t shy away from contact,” Roy said. “It looks a little bit more with a team like Chicago. They’re a physical team, and again, they’re not backing away from anything. You like those tests, especially right now.”

The challenge at this point, just three preseason games into Brandon Roy 2.0, is to view him like any other player. That’s a long way off, and what he went through won’t be easily forgotten. But so far, he’s passed every test. He’s doing things that no one expected, and though the worries remain, they’re easier to temporarily forget.

“He came in the second half and had a bounce to his step,” Adelman said. “He’s feeling good, which is a good sign for us.”

For now, Roy needs to remain ready. He did so on Saturday, waiting through the fourth quarter and hoping to get another few minutes on the court. That expanded role didn’t come, but it will. It has to if this plan is going to work, or even if it’s going to fail. But based on the past few months, Roy is creeping close to normal.

And so the Timberwolves hope that the player who was once one of the game’s best guards, who averaged 22.6 points in the 2008-09 season and 21.5 the next, will be normal. He was never normal before, always the best, “The Natural,” the go-to guy at the end of a game. But now, normal is the next step.

No way Brandon Roy thinks that, though. No way he’s thinking about normal. He’s thinking beyond that, in what could be a crazy dream or a realistic forecast. No way to tell yet.

So maybe we stop wincing, at least a little. Maybe we stop holding our breath. Maybe now, we just let him do his thing.

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