PORTLAND, Ore. -- Fourth quarter, game in the balance, a sold-out crowd whipped into frenzy -- these are the kind of moments Brandon Roy lives for. Time after time, Roy has proved to be clutch in these situations, most recently in last Friday's win over Denver, when the All-Star guard canned a three with the clock winding down in the fourth to send the game into overtime.
But when Sunday's game against Atlanta came down to the wire, Roy could only watch from the sidelines. He had already exceeded his 15-minute maximum, a doctor's mandate for Roy as he begins his comeback from double knee surgery in January.
"It's frustrating," he said. "I'm used to playing those crunchtime minutes. But I knew this would be part of the process."
That process, Roy hopes, will someday result in his return to status as a full-time player. At his best, Roy ranks among the elite shooting guards, a dynamic scorer with a sneaky first step and fearless demeanor. But a series of knee surgeries -- six, actually -- have robbed him of his quickness, and frightening phrases like "arthritic knees," "no cartilage" and "bone-on-bone" associated with Roy have led many to question whether he will ever be able to make it back.
Count the Blazers among them. Ask coach Nate McMillan about Roy's future and Portland's head coach just doesn't have an answer.
"It's week to week," McMillan said. "We are trying to bring him back slowly and manage his minutes. Will he be able to finish the season? We don't know. It's a [game of] wait and see."
Indeed, the cold reality of Roy's situation is that he may never be the player he once was. That's not to say he can't keep playing. But to do that, Roy will have to accept his physical limitations and adapt his game accordingly. McMillan likens it to the changes a player in his 30s makes in order to prolong his career. He points to Tracy McGrady, a knee-surgery veteran who has reinvented himself as a point guard in Detroit, as an example.
"We have talked about that, about making adjustments," McMillan said. "Every player goes through that. It's just he is going through it at 26. Most guys go through it at 33, 34, where you have to adjust how you play and what you do and how teams use you. If you play long enough you go from starting to possibly coming off the bench, from isolating to posting up, from being able to guard a smaller guy to looking to guard bigger guys. It happens."
It's not easy. McMillan understands that. He knows what it's like to have your body fail you. As a player, McMillan waited nine seasons to make it to the NBA Finals. When he did, as a member of the Sonics in 1996, a severe back injury limited him to two games in the series against Chicago.
"I know what [Roy] is feeling," McMillan said. "You work so hard to get to this point and now you can't perform. I had a back injury. I was like why, where did this come from? That's one of the toughest things to deal with, to not be able to perform because something is there that hampers you, keeps you from playing the best, being at your best. As players, all we want is to be healthy and for it to be me going against you. If I've got something holding me back, on a big stage, that hurts. You're questioning a lot of things. It's like you're playing, you're doing something you love and something is slowly taking it away from you. You don't see many ways to improve. Sometimes, you get to a point where you are embarrassed by the situation."
McMillan believes it is important for Roy not to put too much pressure on himself. Roy is in the first year of a five-year, $82 million contract -- a figure McMillan says he needs to put out of his mind.
"Signing a new contract and living up to that, it's hard," McMillan said. "As an athlete, you want to be able to honor your contract. You want to give people what they paid for. He wants to help the team. He wants to play."
McMillan wants him to play, too. For the second year in a row, Portland has been decimated by injuries, especially knee injuries. Roy missed 33 games, Marcus Camby sat out 16 games (torn meniscus), and Greg Oden (microfracture surgery) and Elliot Williams (dislocated patella) will lose the entire season. With Portland in a dogfight to make the playoffs -- through Monday, the Blazers were seventh in the Western Conference -- McMillan can use as many weapons as he can get.
"It's tough [not being able to use Roy]," McMillan said. "But I have to do it. Some of the things we are doing here, they are going to cost me as a coach. And you just have to take the hit for it. But you have to do it because it's the right thing to do. Sometimes you are in a tough situation and you have to take the hits that go along with it."
Ideally, McMillan will be able to steadily increase Roy's workload to the point where he would be medically cleared to play 25-30 minutes per game in the playoffs. Roy says he is pain free but is still getting comfortable making some of the moves that used to come naturally.
"The biggest thing is getting my timing back on the court, making some moves, balance, things like that," Roy said. "I feel like I can get back to being a highly productive player. I just have to keep getting more and more playing time."
In the meantime, Roy will continue to come off the bench, his minutes closely monitored and back-to-backs out of the question. Through it all, he has tried to stay positive. Late in Sunday's loss to Atlanta, Roy was on the bench, exhorting his teammates and offering advice during breaks in the action.
"We have tried to keep him positive," McMillan said. "We don't want him to look at himself as if he can't help the club at all. What we have to do is try to get him as healthy as possible and see how we can use him this remaining part of the season. We will see if his minutes can increase. If it's something that we do without a risk to him, we will do it."