The Portland Trail Blazers, who took the Celtics to overtime on the road last night and fell short in the final minute, have had it worse. Riddled with injuries all season long, the Blazers have found ways to persevere when most teams would have surrendered. And for that, they should be admired — even when they lose.
“That’s a tough team,” Doc Rivers said Friday night. “They’re just so physical — they really should be in the East. They have no business being in the West.”
For their East Coast road trip this week — first to Washington on Monday night, then to Philadelphia, then to Boston — the Blazers brought a tough, hard-nosed style of basketball that’s kept them competitive despite countless shifts in personnel. It doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, how overmatched they look on paper — these Blazers just tough it out.
They’re without their best center, Greg Oden, who had season-ending surgery on his left knee. They’re without their second-best center, Joel Przybilla — Przybilla had season-ending surgery on his right knee. Travis Outlaw had foot surgery — he’s out. Nicolas Batum had shoulder surgery — he’s done. Just this week, the Blazers lost Brandon Roy to a hamstring injury. On Wednesday he tried to come back, aggravated the injury, and now he’s out another week. The hits just keep coming.
The Blazers are left with Juwan Howard, who turns 37 next month and was basically out of basketball when Kevin Pritchard picked him up in September. Howard is 6-foot-9 and has minimal experience as a center. Their bench is decimated and their rotation runs just nine deep. The Blazers have had to start 11 different players this season; seven are 25 or younger, and one, Howard, is an NBA senior citizen.
But they’re winning anyway.
After losing in Boston on Friday night, the Blazers are 26-18 and just three games out of first place in the Northwest Division. If the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs with home-court advantage in the first round.
The Celtics and Blazers are alike in that both teams have had scads of injuries this season, and both have found ways to overcome them. Both will ultimately be stronger for it.
Nate McMillan and Rivers both know what’s important in the NBA. It’s not ultimately about scratching and clawing for every last regular-season win you can get — it’s about emerging at the end of the season, all in one piece, and ready for what lies ahead.
So far, both of these teams have done that. For the Celtics, it’s been a matter of falling back on their extraordinary depth. Every time someone has gone down, players have stepped up to replace them.
For the Blazers, it hasn’t been that easy. But with discipline, and with guts, they’ve pulled through.
Nate McMillan deserves a medal. Heck, he might even deserve a coach of the year award.
This game is never easy — it’s physical, brutal and unforgiving. But with the right personnel and the right leadership, the strong survive. The Celtics could learn a thing or two from these Blazers.