MARK IT DOWN: Tuesday, December 15. It's the day that the Portland Trail Blazers' clipboard cartel finally wised up and trotted out five starting players that did not include the dopey-eyed Steve Blake. Granted, Blake has been teetering on the cusp of losing his job for as long as he has been a Blazer—both times—a tradition rolled over from his brief appearances in other markets (Washington, Denver, Milwaukee) that welcomed his hustle and tepid competence, but were skeptical of the notion that he'd be capable of doing anything but leading their teams head-on into a wall of towering mediocrity. Forever a bridesmaid to such unsightly names like Sebastian Telfair, Sergio Rodriguez, Jarrett Jack (I can keep going...), Steve Blake is a pasty stopgap that is—technically better than nothing—definitely not the sort of player you want as a starting point guard. Not unless you are a team either headed for the draft lottery or a swift first-round exit from the playoffs. Despite his numerous flaws—defense, fastbreak passing, not being named Jerryd Bayless—Blake has defied convention, and logic, by having started 94 percent of his games in a Blazer uniform.
Tuesday's 95-88 Blazers victory over the not-as-bad-as-they-used-to-be Sacramento Kings featured Andre Miller in the starting role, with Bayless and Blake splitting time evenly off the bench. In fact, Blake beat out Bayless by a trim 11 seconds in time on the court, but it was the second-year ball of energy in Bayless that gets credit for leading a fourth quarter charge that toppled the Kings. Bayless was better than a veteran Blake perched atop the shoulders of Miller (picture the ugliest 12'5" basketball player ever), dropping 14 points, the majority of which came in the final minutes of the game. While Miller got the spotlight introduction as a starter, he remained seated for the final dozen minutes of the game.
"I liked the fight, I liked the scrap in the team tonight," commented a fighting/scrappy McMillan as he teetered on a pair of crutches—he had surgery on his Achilles last week—during his post-game press conference.
The victory was enough to placate a fanbase restless after witnessing two surgeries (if you count McMillan's operation), one "procedure" (that would be the sugarcoated definition of what happened to Rudy Fernandez on the operating table), and three losses in the past 10 days.
This downward spiral of fate set in the moment Greg Oden folded into a heaping pile of sadness during the December 5 game against the Houston Rockets. When Oden broke his kneecap, it shattered this city's collective heart. It's one thing for role players to dog-pile the injury reserve list, but Oden exiting the Rose Garden on a stretcher was a devastating blow to even the most casual Blazers fan. The Ferdinand the Bull of NBA players, Oden's immediate reaction after suffering a season—if not career—ending injury was to immediately apologize to his teammates.
Oden's switch from the hardwood to the rehab clinic changes the entire direction of the Blazers, immediately transferring every player not named Roy, Aldridge, or Bayless into trade bait, while placing some heat on the future of Nate McMillan, who up until this point has been infallible in his decisions as the team's coach. But with a limited roster of healthy players—who don't necessarily seem to like each other—Sarge will have a hard time justifying himself to upper management unless this team finds itself in the postseason. Injuries aren't his fault, but coaches have been fired for less.
No matter who starts at point guard, or what uniform Steve Blake is wearing later this year (he'd look downright dashing in an Idaho Stampede jersey), the Blazers are a mere shell of their former selves without Oden.