LOS ANGELES – The evening ended with Sun Yue launching a 3-pointer, the Los Angeles Lakers sitting atop the NBA and the sellout crowd sending a message to their good friends some 2,600 miles to the east.
Bos-ton sucks! Bos-ton sucks! Bos-ton sucks!
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers owned yet another night, and the Portland Trail Blazers were but bit players in the latest act of greatness. They left their leading scorer, Brandon Roy, at home to nurse his sore hamstring, gave the Lakers a game for one quarter then faded gently into the night. Still, not all was lost for these Baby Blazers.
This time, at least, Greg Oden didn't need crutches to leave the locker room.
Oden did a little more than walk to the bus, scoring 10 points and collecting four rebounds in nearly 35 minutes. Those numbers won't rate him among the top rookies or even among the top rookie Blazers. Everyone knew Rudy Fernandez from the Olympics, but Nicolas Batum? All the lanky French forward did was score 17 points on six shots while shadowing Bryant for much of the game.
Batum hardly looked nervous playing on the Lakers' stage. Nor did Oden, and that's one reason why the Blazers flew home toward a bright future. If the Blazers needed more evidence, all they had to do was look across the court. Three seasons ago, more than a few people had doubts whether Andrew Bynum could play. Two months ago, the Lakers gave him a $58 million contract extension because they now think he can.
Bynum didn't justify that kind of payday with the four points, 10 rebounds and one block he totaled against Oden and the Blazers. Nor do his season averages of 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds merit max money. But that's the thing with young big men these days: Nine times out of 10 you're paying for potential. The best prescription for Oden is the same as it was for Bynum in his first season: patience.
"It's tough," Oden said. "You want to come in and dominate right away."
Oden isn't close to dominating. He still looks mechanical and he's slow to the ball. But he's also a little more than two weeks shy of his 21st birthday and his NBA career has spanned all of 28 games. He spent one year in college then sat out all of his first season with the Blazers after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee.
Even healthy, few big men have dominated with so little experience. The same Dwight Howard who now terrorizes the league is the same Dwight Howard who averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in nearly 33 minutes per game as a rookie. Oden's averages this season: 8.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 23 minutes per game.
"I see myself working hard and becoming more aggressive out there on the court," Oden said. "As each game goes by and each day, I'm going to get better and better."
Oden showed signs of that while facing Bynum and the Lakers for the first time since he limped off the court with a sprained foot during his season-opening debut. On the Blazers' first possession, he caught Bynum out of position and threw down a powerful two-handed dunk after catching a dump-off pass from Steve Blake. The next time down the floor, Oden passed out of the post to LaMarcus Aldridge for an open jump shot. Early in the second quarter, Oden bumped Bynum deep into the lane then tossed in a jump hook as he was fouled by Vlad Radmanovic.
"I thought he was more aggressive and a bit more relaxed out there," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "A little calmer."
Opposing scouts also have begun to see signs of growth. "I really like him," said one Eastern Conference scout. "He's strong and he plays physical. I think once he gets his legs back under him and gets his timing, he'll be fine."
Given Oden's medical history, any lingering concerns about his health are legit. During his first year in the league, he looked like a 7-foot version of the Operation board game. Touch any part of him – whether it be his tonsils, wrist, knee or foot – and the buzzer sounded.
Though Oden still doesn't appear to be moving the same way he did before his knee surgery, he says he feels "a little bit healthier." The Blazers haven't fretted as much about his right foot as they have his mental health.
Warm and funny in interviews last season, Oden grew more and more withdrawn. In Portland, he'd quickly duck out of the locker room before reporters could speak with him. Any question he did field was usually answered with a mumble. Nor did he socialize much with his teammates.
Even before the season began, the Blazers were worried Oden had begun to wilt under expectations. "We have to make him understand this is his first season," Blazers guard Brandon Roy said then. "You have to start low and work your way up. There's nothing wrong with that. It's our job to help him out there and keep him relaxed. I just tell him, ‘Have fun. Just enjoy it and don't make it work.' "
The problem was that Oden looked like he couldn't wait to punch the clock and head home. A couple early fouls and he was trudging back to the bench, head down, shoulders slumped.
Oden admits he fell into a bit of a funk after he was injured in the season opener. He had waited more than a year to play in his first NBA game and less than 13 minutes into it, he was back on the training table.
"I had my family in here and everything expecting to see my debut," he said.
Oden's other frustration is common to all rookies. He's still learning how NBA games are officiated. Despite playing only 23 minutes per game, he ranks second in the league with an average of 3.8 fouls.
"They call ticky-tack fouls on me and I'm not in the game, and I need to be in the game to help this team win," he said.
The Blazers' coaches have worked with him on cutting down the unnecessary stuff: pushing through an opponent to get a rebound, bumping a guard 23 feet from the basket on a pick-and-roll. More importantly, McMillan has had a series of sit-down sessions with Oden, each with the same theme: Show everyone what you can do. Play like you want to play.
And if Oden doesn't start to consistently produce?McMillan has made it clear he won't continue to start ahead of veteran Joel Przybilla.
"We have to be patient, but yet also be somewhat hard and be critical," McMillan said. "…The fact he is a rookie, this is his first year, there are certain things you can be patient on, but other things if you continue to see the same mistakes then you have to discipline him in the sense of calling him out and sitting him down."
Oden followed his last meeting with McMillan with two of his better games: 16 points and 10 rebounds against Toronto; and 13 points and 11 boards against Boston. He's also begun to interact a bit more with his teammates. On Sunday, Oden walked out of the shower asking Aldridge about a busted play. The Blazers will help their rookie center, but they won't baby him.
Oden followed his Boston performance with a four-foul, 16-minute night against the New Orleans Hornets, and the Blazers, as a whole, continue to search for consistency. They've lost their past two games and they'll have a tough time picking up many more wins before Roy returns in a week. Even with their star guard, the Blazers have often played like a young team: strong at home, weak on the road.
McMillan wants to see the scrappiness the Blazers showed in their win over the Celtics. "I think it was the type of basketball we have to learn to play to start winning in this league," he said. "It's January now. All the top teams are looking at the standings."
After beating the Blazers, the Lakers are looking down on the rest of the league. So far, they have yet to find a suitable challenger in the West. With games against the Hornets, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs over the next 10 days, they'll have a better idea whether they'll be able to find one at all.
"I haven't even put it in third gear yet," Bryant said smugly.
Oden's still trying to find second. The Blazers can't depend on him, but history tells them to be patient. Two months into his career, their big rookie center has lost his crutches. Sooner or later, he'll start to walk on his own.
- Greg Oden