Tuesday December 22nd, 2009

Will they make the playoffs despite injuries to five key providers? And isn't it a shame what's become of Greg Oden?

This kind of self-defeating talk has been growing around the Trail Blazers, and it needs to stop. They were a playoff team before the losses of Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla, and they should be a playoff team now. If it turns out they can't fight their way through this bad time, then the Blazers may be afflicted with something more troubling than a few injuries.

"It's going to be a difficult road going down the stretch, and even though we've gone through all of this adversity, we don't want to think that it's over," Portland coach Nate McMillan said of his team's playoff hopes. "It will be something in the end -- no matter what happens -- that will make us better and will make us stronger. It will give this organization an opportunity to look at really where we are and where we want to go."

It is time, to put it nicely, for Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge to grow nasty. Roy is a two-time All-Star and Aldridge wants that status. This is their fourth year together after joining Portland as top-six picks in the momentous 2006 draft, and last summer each signed five-year extensions worth a combined $149 million.

The evaluation of the Blazers' roster applies, as well, to the likes of second-year guard Jerryd Bayless, who filled in with a career-best 29 points in a 105-102 beating of Phoenix last week. But no one should focus on the role players at the expense of the stars. Portland's stars are Roy and Aldridge, and now is the time for them to grow up as franchise leaders. McMillan agreed with that assessment wholeheartedly during our talk last week.

"They certainly understand it, but they're still trying to adapt in the sense that that's not their nature," said McMillan, while adding that Roy and Aldridge need to be "demanding and not concerned about your feelings [as] teammates. They don't want to look selfish. Well, you're the best player on the team. Get the ball.

"They want to be liked, but as I told Brandon and LaMarcus, 'You didn't probably think of this when you were drafted or as you were dreaming of being an NBA player, that you will be running an organization. Basically that's what you're doing. You inherited this. You were the second pick, the [sixth] pick and all of that, and you signed your contracts -- and all of a sudden it's yours. Now what do you do with it?

"'You become the CEO and you've got to run it. Now run it. If guys are not practicing, you've got to say something. When you walk in that office every day, they're looking at you, and your teammates are going to follow you.'

"They've inherited this," McMillan continued, "and now they're trying to figure out how to run it, how to make this thing successful. And some of it is fear -- I want to go back to just worrying about me. Well, you guys are captains, you are [or in Aldridge's case should eventually become] All-Stars."

The young captains learned last spring in their playoff debut just how much they have yet to learn. The 6-foot-6 Roy averaged 26.7 points while 6-11 Aldridge managed 19.5 in the opening round, but the Rockets controlled that series in six games by playing with an edge the young Blazers couldn't match. That's why Roy now views this plagued season as an opportunity for him and his team to grow up, to learn how to fight and win in spite of a short-handed roster.

"I feel like this is a great opportunity, a great experience for us," Roy said. "I see what you're saying -- two or three years from now we'll be able to look back on this experience and say that was good for us, for our growth as a team."

Think about the championship contenders that find themselves in a Game 7. At that highest height, the game is played instinctively and all-out. It turns into a nerve-wracking fight that looks nothing like a game played in December, February or April. The young Blazers are just now learning to compete at that level. "Exactly, it's just mano-a-mano, and I'm getting a taste of that right now," said Roy. "My last few games I could feel myself growing as a player, and I could see guys like LaMarcus growing. Even if the numbers on our team don't show it, I feel it. And I feel like it's only going to help us, especially when we go through a playoff series."

How often do young teams of grand potential fail to fulfill themselves? Too often each player focuses on the needs of his individual game, instead of simply trying to win every game. The losers in the NBA concentrate on building their stats, while the stats of champions -- Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or now Kobe Bryant -- appear to accumulate on their own, like dividends that go unnoticed until the quarterly statement arrives.

Roy and Aldridge have already demonstrated they are winners, helping raise the Blazer franchise from delinquency to 54 wins last season. Now, they face the next crucial step, and the bigger leap must be made by Aldridge. Last week, McMillan confronted his 24-year-old power forward in the locker room after the visiting Kings had seized a 54-43 lead.

"'You have one board,'" McMillan told Aldridge. "'You have one board, and you need to be aggressive.'"

The reaction by Aldridge was profound. As one of the league's most talented big men, he is capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor. But in the second half, he exploded for 19 points and eight rebounds by dismissing that checklist and simply -- and forcefully -- attacking the basket. He isn't known as an especially aggressive or fiery player, but he drove his team to a 95-88 win by playing all-out.

"I need to see more of that," McMillan said. "That attitude, that aggressiveness is something that we see, but we need to see it consistently. Once he gets to that level where he's offensive-rebounding, he's attacking the basket, he's shooting, he's running the floor, he's blocking shots -- then he'll become an All-Star. We know it's there."

When asked about playing hard instead of thinking, Aldridge said, "You're right, I really can't think about things right now. I've just got to do everything I can to give us a chance. I've been taking a lot more shots lately, trying to get more rebounds, just trying to do anything I can. When we have everybody here, then I can really focus on doing things like thinking about what I want to do. But right now I'm trying to do it all and make things work."

Actually, if I'm hearing McMillan correctly, he won't want Aldridge to go back to "thinking" when the Blazers reinstate their full rotation. Which is not to say the coach won't want Aldridge to play smart. But above all, he'll also want Aldridge to play hard and demand that his teammates follow that example. For all of Duncan's skills, he is defined most of all by his competitive fire, his desire to make plays that win games, and his skills of leadership that turn role players into ring-bearers.

While this has the makings of a bad year, it may turn out to be the most important season for this group of Blazers. If they ever do win a championship several years down the line, they'll look back and realize the demands of this season taught them to play and fight harder than ever. If they don't learn how to make a stand and fight hard now, there is a good chance they never will.

We'll learn a lot more about them over the next month than we did all of last season, when most everything ran smoothly. "Since I've been in the league everything has been going great, according to plan, and we've been growing and getting better," Roy said. "This is that first bump in the road, and in order to be a championship team you have to have faced some adversity. And I'm thinking that this is it. This isn't the last stop, but this is something that we're facing to get to the level that we want to be at."

Last season, Roy said he felt "like a quarterback whose offense was just perfect and everything was on time. And now we have a little bit of timing off. But I think it's good for me to go through this, because who knows? When we're in the Western conference finals, something may happen where we can say we've been there before, and I'll know what I've got to do."

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