Wednesday November 4th, 2009

Greg Oden didn't put in weeks of running stairs, playing endless pickup games and having long, confidence-building conversations with Trail Blazers coaches over the summer to see it all flushed away with a pair of missed free throws.

But in the minutes after the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft clanked the potential game-winning attempts last Thursday against the Nuggets, sealing a 97-94 loss, Oden seemed destined to relive the quiet disappointment of last season.

"It may not be easy," Oden told reporters of how he would bounce back after the misses.

It seemed all to familiar for Oden. He played last season, his rookie year, as if weighed down by the expectations of becoming an immediate force upon his return from microfracture surgery. He was tentative, a 7-foot giant who missed dunks and appeared joyless.

But instead of reverting to his old form, Oden responded to the blown opportunity against Denver in an aggressive, animated way. Three nights after that loss, Oden barked and cajoled his teammates toward a victory against Oklahoma City. The 12 points, 10 rebounds and 4-for-4 from the line helped, too.

"I feel like he's coming into his own," general manager Kevin Pritchard said recently. "He's smiling. He's talking. He's the Greg Oden we had a few years ago when we drafted him."

Actually, he's a little less than that player -- 13 pounds less -- after coach Nate McMillan asked his team to arrive to training camp in shape.

"Light is better in this league," McMillan said. "First, it will allow [Greg] to get up and down the floor. And I feel it will allow him to be more explosive as opposed to being more powerful. He's not a guy who is going to lose his strength."

Though Oden has yet to show an expanded offensive repertoire early this season, he has doubled his block rate (from 1.1 to 2.2) and is averaging nearly three more rebounds a game (7.0 to 9.8).

"Progress [for Greg] isn't anything numerical or statistical," Pritchard said. "It's that he goes out there and makes a positive impact on the game, every game, and plays his tail off."

To help facilitate that, the Blazers sent an armada of assistant coaches and trainers to work on Oden's body and mind over the summer in Columbus, Ohio, where the former Ohio State star took classes when he wasn't sweating through drills on footwork and defensive anticipation.

"Coaches and organizations ... don't have control like a college program, where you can tell your guys this is the time you need to be somewhere and to do this and do that during the offseason," McMillan said."It's up to the individual. With Greg, we talked about where we thought he needed to be, he told us about how he felt and where he wanted to be, and we worked to try and get him there."

If the first few games are any indication, Oden's destination may well be a place the Blazers are happy to go.

Many injured returns. Knee injuries stole much of last season from Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O'Neal, Al Jefferson and Andrew Bynum. A summer of rehab and intense workouts has all four back on the floor and playing productively. The Wizards' Arenas is shooting 47.3 percent for his 26.5 points; O'Neal is averaging 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in helping Miami to a 3-1 start; Bynum is giving the Lakers 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds; and Jefferson has again taken his place as the surest option on a Timberwolves roster with few of them.

Rookie point guards. A week does not a career make, but Brandon Jennings, Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans gave their respective clubs reason for optimism with promising debuts. Jennings, in particular, distinguished himself with a near triple-double in his opener followed by 24- and 25-point performances.

The Rockets. Who needs Yao Ming when you've got the two-headed post presence of Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes? Who needs Tracy McGrady when you have Aaron Brooks averaging 21 points? And who needs Ron Artest when you have Trevor Ariza chipping in 21.3 points and 1.8 steals? The Rockets, widely expected to fade badly in the Western Conference, won three of their first four thanks largely to Rick Adelman's unselfish offense, which is producing the second-most assists in the league.

Hoops along the Hudson. The Knicks and Nets may be saving their marbles for the free-agent bonanza of 2010, but that hasn't left much for fans in 2009. The Knicks are among the highest-scoring teams but, not surprisingly, rank last in points allowed and field-goal-percentage defense. The Nets are shooting only 41.1 percent as the league's third-worst scoring unit. Combine the two franchises and you get seven losses in eight games.

The Elton Brand experiment. Brand posted career lows in scoring (13.8) and field-goal percentage (44.7) during an injury-shortened 2008-09. Now presumably healthy, he's putting up even worse numbers in the second season of a five-year, $80 million deal with Philadelphia: 11.8 points on 45.9 percent shooting to go with 5.8 rebounds.

Anthony Randolph's takeoff. After his explosive summer-league performance and countless stories describing how coach Don Nelson was ready to tap into Randolph's many talents, the second-year forward has seemingly yet to gain Nellie's unconditional love. Randolph played only 10 minutes off the bench in the opener before getting 24 minutes as a starter in his second game. He may yet become the star many predict, but it won't come easy in Oakland.

An NBA scout breaks down why the Jazz are off to a disappointing 1-3 start:

"Everybody wants to talk about the decision between Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, but they're the same in a lot of respects; Jerry Sloan is going to run the same plays no matter who is in there. The real issue is that they've had a drop in their second unit. There's no Kyle Korver right now and no Matt Harpring [and Andrei Kirilenko has moved into the starting lineup to replace the injured C.J. Miles]. Harpring is a big loss. He's aggressive, he's physical and he can defend. And without Korver, they lack a guy coming off the bench who can just flat-out shoot it.

"The first five and Millsap sixth are extremely solid. It's the next four -- Kyrylo Fesenko, Kosta Koufos, Eric Maynor and Ronnie Price -- where there is really a slippage. Until they get healthy, their second tier of players will be an issue."

• "Post retirement job ... pest control." -- Manu Ginobili, on Twitter, after he swatted a bat out of the air with his bare hands and carried it off the court last Saturday in San Antonio.

• "To bludgeon a 4-ounce animal to death, it takes either a small man or a totally unthinking one -- with no respect or consideration for lives humbler than his own. This is a time when athletes in particular need to be on their best behavior around any animal and show that they have brains and a heart, not just reactionary brawn." -- PETA being PETA, on its Web site.

• "I paid a lot of money for this seat. I don't want to leave," -- Stephon Marbury, in the New York Daily News, responding to Madison Square Garden security as it escorted him from his courtside seat at the Knicks' home opener. Marbury was reportedly sitting in seats for which he didn't have a ticket.

• "No, I don't care much for this anymore. I've been beat up so bad by being honest with the press, I'm going to be the [Bill] Belichick of the NBA." -- Warriors coach Don Nelson, via AOL FanHouse, offering his blunt assessment of his media responsibilities.

• "I really don't go out when I'm in Cleveland no more. I just stay in my room. Ain't nothing to do in Cleveland. Have you been there?" -- Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson, to D.C. Sports Blog, previews his trip to Cleveland this week.

Basketball Prospectus: A closer look at rookie point guards Brandon Jennings and Tyreke Evans.

Associated Press: He may not have creditors on his tail like Antoine Walker, but former NBA player David Vaughn may be an even more sobering example of how fast a pro athlete can move from Mercedes life to one on the streets.

Boston Globe: Add Rumeal Robinson's name to the growing list of players who blew their NBA savings.

Suns.com: Eric Musselman may be the most prepared coach without a team to lead.

Democrat and Chronicle: Ever wonder what became of Manute Bol? Wonder no longer.

1. Critics will be quick to blame Allen Iverson for being his typical me-first self in telling reporters after his Grizzlies debut that he "had a problem with my butt sitting on that bench." But after 15 years in the league, Iverson's stripes are clear. Signing him and hoping he'd play the good soldier to the Grizzlies' young pups was simply naive.

2. The reports of Chris Paul's simmering unhappiness with the Hornets' poor start strike us as carrying as much fire as smoke. A scout once told us that if you watch Paul with his teammates, it's clear he's a tough guy to play with, demanding to the point of cruelty at times. After seeing his superstar peers add superstar help in the offseason, and with a flush market ahead that he can't exploit (he's under contract for at least three more seasons), Paul has to be wondering how his situation will get better soon -- especially with the finances tight in the Big Easy.

3. Many may greet Bill Walton's decision to retire from broadcasting with glee, happy to be rid of grandiose opinions of how to play the game the right (i.e. UCLA) way. Not in this quarter. Yes, he was hyperbolic, but he expressed a genuine enthusiasm for the game without being a cheerleader. If Shawn Kemp worked his rear end off for a rebound, Walton responded with colorful praise. If Kobe Bryant jacked up a three-pointer while ignoring an open teammate, Walton criticized. Walton wasn't perfect, but he made the game more fun to watch.

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