PORTLAND – When the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round last season, there was a sense of accomplishment because the team had pulled through so much.
The Blazers again overcame a string of untimely injuries this season to make the playoffs, but the feeling upon their first-round exit this time was utter disappointment.
“I think, with all the adversity that we faced, it was a good year. But for us personally, this wasn’t what we wanted,” forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “We wanted to advance and go to the second round.”
The third-seeded Dallas Mavericks defeated the sixth-seeded Blazers in six games in their best-of-seven playoff series. Many were watching the matchup closely, predicting Portland would overcome the Mavs just like they had fought through their roller coaster season.
The Blazers, who finished the regular season 48-34, got hit first in late November when it was announced that center Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007, required season-ending surgery on his left knee.
He also missed his rookie season after microfracture surgery on his right knee, and last season he broke his left kneecap. Because of his injuries, the former Ohio State star has played in only 82 games over parts of two seasons, averaging 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.
While fans were mulling what could only be described as a curse on Oden, it became clear that something was wrong with guard Brandon Roy’s knees. On Dec. 15 at Dallas, the three-time All-Star had just four points in 30 minutes, well off his season average of 16.6 points per game. Portland lost 103-98.
Roy would sit for the rest of the month while questions swirled about the health of his knees. Finally, on Dec. 30, the Blazers announced that the former NBA Rookie of the Year was sidelined “indefinitely.”
Roy had arthroscopic surgery on both knees on Jan. 17. He has said the problem is too little cartilage – something that will likely dog him for the rest of his career.
While Roy came back to play, his minutes were limited off the bench, and he finished with an average of 12.2 points, a career low, in 47 games.
“This has just been a tough year, my most difficult as a Blazer,” Roy said. “I tried to make the most of things. I can definitely say I honestly tried. I’ve given this team my best.”
The final blow in the string was veteran center Marcus Camby’s knee injury, which would also require arthroscopic surgery in January.
But instead of stewing in their bad luck, the Blazers did what they became known for last season when a series of injuries struck: They moved on.
Aldridge in particular rallied with the best season of his career. The 6-foot-11 forward from Texas averaged 21.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in the regular season. He had 36 double-doubles.
He was named the Western Conference’s player of the month for February and twice won the league’s weekly honor.
“I think this season was a big change for me as far as mentally becoming more of a dominant player, taking a big step and being that main guy every night,” Aldridge said. “I felt like I got better this season but I want to get a whole lot better.”
Aldridge was joined by a cast that included steady veteran guard Andre Miller and scrappy second-year shooter Wesley Matthews as the team stayed competitive.
A key boost came at the trade deadline, when Portland general manager Rich Cho acquired defense-minded forward Gerald Wallace from the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for Joel Przybilla, Dante Cunningham, Sean Marks and two conditional first-round draft picks.
Many – even Wallace – wondered how he would fit in.
“To be honest with you, when the trade happened, I was disappointed. I didn’t know what to expect coming here,” he said. “I knew they were a good team, they had All-Star caliber players on their team. I didn’t know how I would be accepted as far as the players, but I think they did a great job of welcoming me, making me feel wanted and inviting me into their family.”
Wallace went on to average 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in Portland.
Ultimately, the Blazers could not overcome the Mavericks in the first round. At the start of the season, the Blazers set a goal of taking the next step in the playoffs, but wound up ousted in six games for the third straight year.