By John McMullen
Philadelphia, PA - It wasn't quite Willis Reed limping out to the floor before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but Brandon Roy's surprise return on Saturday saved the Portland Trail Blazers' season.
Just eight days after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, Roy suited up and gave the Blazers and the Rose Garden faithful the emotional lift they needed after the club had lost the previous two games in their Western Conference quarterfinals series with Phoenix by a combined 48 points.
The All-Star guard, who averaged a team-high 21.5 points per game this season, played nearly 27 minutes and scored five of his 10 points in the final quarter for Portland, which pulled out the 96-87 victory to deadlock the series at two games apiece.
The Blazers weren't playing for an NBA title like Reed's Knicks were in 1970. Heck, Portland wasn't even playing for its season, but a loss would have put the club in a virtually insurmountable 3-1 hole.
Roy could have sat back, rested his knee and started reserving tee times. No one would have blamed him. In today's money-driven, sports world, a superstar risking his long-term health for the good of the team is as rare as a bipartisan bill in Washington D.C.
To be blunt, putting yourself before the team is expected these days.
"He thinks that he is bulletproof," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "Cooler heads have to prevail and say are we really going to win an NBA championship? Does it really make a difference if he plays right now? If we are really that good let's wait two weeks."
"You just have to wonder what the Portland Trail Blazers are thinking," Charles Barkley added. "He is your franchise, he's your best player, I'm not sure I would take that chance. Clearly he is a great player, terrific person; you have to admire his heart. But, from a medical standpoint, I'm not sure you can have surgery and play basketball (eight days later). He might be alright but somewhere down the line whether it is this series or later in your career, you are going to have some side effects."
Well, Roy ignored the naysayers and proved he was a rare breed just like Willis Reed.
"The doctors said it was a pretty bad tear," Roy said. "The minute the surgery was over and I woke up in the recovery room I said my knee felt great. It has been feeling good all week, I've been working out and preparing for a moment like this. I am happy I was able to help my team and help these fans and we definitely have a Game 6 for sure now."
Yeah, Reed's return in 1970 was a tad more dramatic. The Hall of Famer was crippled by a torn thigh muscle and the Knicks appeared to be in dire straits after being walloped by Wilt Chamberlain's Lakers in Game 6. Reed emerged from the tunnel prior to Game 7 and the Madison Square Garden faithful erupted.
After he knocked down New York's first two baskets, Reed retreated and let Walt Frazier take things from there. "Clyde" went on to pour in 36 points and dish out 19 assists as the Knicks won their first NBA championship in a 113-99 rout.
But, Reed's actual play wasn't the difference, his inspiration was. Roy has a chance to carry the banged-up Blazers on his back both emotionally and physically.
"The big thing about Roy is that he is a scorer, we know that," former NBA coach Mike Fratello said. "But Nate McMillan has also played him in the role of point guard, a facilitator. He may not be able to create his own shot or get his own shot but he can certainly make the pass to someone else that is open as a result of screening. He is a guy that you can put the ball in his hand and trust his decision making."
Whether Roy's knee holds up for the rest of the series remains to be seen but momentum has clearly shifted and its Phoenix that is on the run now.
"I just wanted to come out and contribute," Roy said. "That's what I told coach before the game. I wouldn't feel right sitting in the back feeling as good as I do."