Greg Oden Shows Maturity With Injury
Oden was coming off several strong performances, including a career-high 20-rebound effort in his previous outing. He talked about how he really wants to represent Team USA in next summer's World Championships in Turkey.
"That would be a great honor,'' Oden said. "Everybody wants to represent their country.''
Soon, it all came crashing down.
Oden, drafted No. 1 in 2007 to be Portland's franchise center, was defending Houston guard Aaron Brooks on a drive to the hoop. Bodies collided and Oden hit the floor with 7:45 left in the first quarter.
"The way he landed, it just looked serious,'' said Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy.
It was. Oden, undergoing surgery Sunday, will miss the rest of the season due to a fractured left patella.
It's the second time in three seasons Oden has been shelved with a serious knee injury. He missed all of what would have been his rookie season following microfracture surgery on his right knee.
But in yet another dark hour Oden, 21, showed what a class act he is. Roy hardly could believe what was coming out of the big man's mouth as he lay on the Rose Garden floor for seven minutes before a stretcher arrived to take him away.
"He kept apologizing to us when he was getting dragged off the court,'' said Roy, one of many players on both teams who gathered around Oden to wish him the best. "He felt he let us down.''
The fans had roared their support for the center when he was down, chanting "Oden, Oden, Oden.'' Then when he was being wheeled off the court, a fan extended his hand to offer encouragement.
Oden shook the hand.
Here in Portland they're getting used to what a gentle giant this man is. But he even continues to surprise Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard.
"He's a great kid,'' Pritchard said. "I can't tell you how much of a great kid. He'll pull through this. I know him. He's a tough kid and he cares. I'm telling you that he was more interested in the score of the game than how he was. I've never seen anything like that.''
Portland ended up winning one for Oden. Trailing by as many as 12 points in the third quarter, when they still looked shell-shocked by the loss of the 7-footer, the Trail Blazers came back to beat the Rockets 90-89 on a layup with 3.9 seconds left by Roy, who hung in the air for what seemed like a fortnight and shot the ball from below his waist.
Oden had been in the locker room at halftime after an MRI revealed the extent of his injury. While everybody was sympathetically patting him on the back, he kept reminding his teammates to keep their focus on the scoreboard.
"He came back in and he was like, 'I couldn't leave without saying you all better win this game,''' said Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge. "He came back and still showed his funny side.''
There's nothing funny about all of the injuries Portland has had. Forward Nicolas Batum had shoulder surgery before the season and forward Travis Outlaw suffered a fractured foot in mid-November. Forward Rudy Fernandez sat out Saturday with sciatic pain and had an MRI on Saturday, although the results weren't immediately announced.
Even coach Nate McMillan has gotten hurt. He suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon in practice Friday and will undergo surgery Monday. McMillan won't accompany the team on a four-game Eastern trip that starts Monday, and the Trail Blazers will be coached by assistant Dean Demopoulos.
It would figure McMillan got hurt when he was working out with players because the team was so short on practice bodies. But his injury didn't seem as bad after he saw what happened to Oden.
"(It's) a very unfortunate situation,'' McMillan said. "I think he did all the things he needed to do this summer to get himself ready for this year. And he came back this year and showed the potential we felt he had.''
After averaging 8.9 points and 7.0 rebounds last season, Oden entered Saturday averaging 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds (his three boards and no points in four minutes lowered those numbers to 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds in 21 games). Over his previous five games, Oden had averaged 15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
Oden's injury makes it more likely he will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011. The Trail Blazers figure to be more reluctant to offer Oden a lucrative contract extension when they can next summer for the first time.
Until he returns, Pritchard knows Oden will "get criticized for missing some games.'' Missing the rest of the season means he will have played in just 82 of his possible first 246 NBA game
Further adding to Oden's misfortune, he happens to man the pivot for the team that has had the two most banged-up centers in the history of the NBA. Bill Walton couldn't stay healthy after being the top pick in 1974 and Sam Bowie couldn't after going No. 2 in 1984.
"It's just coincidence,'' said Pritchard, who hasn't ruled out Portland making moves before the Feb. 18 trade deadline to replace the big fellow. "There's no bad luck.''
But don't bring that up to Oden. He's liable to resume apologizing.
Oden is so conscientious that before the game was over, he had issued a statement that was handed to the media. How many times has that happened immediately after a player sustains a season-ending injury?
"I'm obviously disappointed having worked so hard to get to where I was,'' the statement began. "This is a setback, but I'll be back.''
The Trail Blazers hope they'll be back before Oden is. Portland had been picked by many to contend for the Western Conference title, but the Blazers (13-8) have been getting lost on the trail and entered Saturday with a three-game losing streak.
It looked as if it would reach four after the Rockets led 57-45 in the third quarter. But suddenly it was as if the Trail Blazers stopped putting pressure on themselves. With McMillan later saying this was "the team I've been looking for'' all season, Portland roared back for the win.
"This is an opportunity for guys,'' said Roy, saying the Trail Blazers, who recently tried a three-guard starting lineup, figure to be more perimeter-oriented without Oden. "Let's make something out of nothing. Now, nobody expects anything out of us. So let's try to do something great.''
You better believe Oden, as soon as he is able, will be on the bench and in the locker room telling his teammates to do just that.
Many on the Trail Blazers talked about how they expect Oden to work harder than ever and come back even better. Don't think for a minute any believe Saturday's tipoff will end up being the peak of his NBA career.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter@chistomasson.