Blazers' Roy makes a triumphant return

PORTLAND, Ore. -- We'd been hearing the whispers all week: that All-Star guard Brandon Roy's knee surgery was far less invasive than originally expected, that he had basically popped off the operating table and into the workout room, that his recovery had been amazingly pain-free, and that he might be able to return before the end of the first round.

Still, nobody expected this. Just eight days after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Roy returned and scored 10 points to lift Portland to a 96-87 win over Phoenix and tie their best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

The Blazers had been hoping to tread water until Roy could return, and as his recovery gained steam, that scenario loomed as more likely. Over the past few days, what started as "maybe Game 7," became "probably Game 6," and then suddenly ramped up to "how about now?"

That didn't happen without what Blazers coach Nate McMillan described as "a long, sleepless night" of text messages between Roy, McMillan and, eventually, general manager Kevin Pritchard and owner Paul Allen.

Roy said his knee felt fine and he had no pain even after playing 27 minutes. Nonetheless, McMilllan had told him he wouldn't play until Game 5 after taking a dim view of his conditioning during a 2-on-2 session in practice on Friday with reserves Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham and Patrick Mills.

However, Roy wouldn't take no for an answer and kept insisting he should play.

"I stressed to the doctor, it feels just like it did before surgery," said Roy. "[Nate] was a little disappointed in my conditioning 2-on-2, but even in my best shape I'm not a good full-court, 2-on-2 type of player."

The key determinant, according to a Blazers insider, was that trainers and medical staff determined Roy could do no further damage to the knee by playing. He actually had considered postponing surgery and playing with the torn meniscus -- again, doctors had determined it couldn't get any worse -- but the discomfort finally prompted him to go under the knife on April 16.

Roy appeared to favor the leg throughout most of the second half, but he saved his best moments for late. He had enough juice to hit a 3-pointer and a key pull-up jumper during a game-breaking 13-4 run late in the fourth quarter. Overall he shot 4-of-10 from the field with one assist and no turnovers.

He also got the crowd engaged with his mere presence. A thunderous ovation went up in the surprised Rose Garden Arena crowed when Roy reported to the scorer's table, and the Blazers rode it to an 8-0 run before he'd even checked in.

Once he did -- to the tune of "Rocky" -- the Blazers were much less easily guarded than they had been in blowout losses in Games 2 and 3. LaMarcus Aldridge took advantage of the increased air space to break out of a slump with a playoff career-high 31 points, while the Blazers' defense offered its strongest resistance of the series.

Despite the outcome, the Blazers were savaged by critics on national TV for putting Roy's long-term health at risk. The superstar guard has a five-year contract extension for the maximum that kicks in after the season, and the argument goes that Portland should have thought much harder about the viability of its long-term investment -- especially given the team's limited-at-best chances of winning a championship this season.

However, everyone I talked to emphasized that medically the decision was sound and that there was no way for him to make it any worse -- the only issue was going to be his conditioning and pain threshold.

Roy's return turns this series on its head after the Suns appeared to be cruising. Phoenix won Games 2 and 3 in blowouts, but those were without Roy. Now it's tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 in the desert, and Roy said "it's a given" that he'll play on Monday. The only question is whether or not he starts.

While Roy's return was the headline event, two other developments turned the tide in Portland's favor as well. First, its frontcourt showed up. Aldridge had been harshly criticized by Portland-area media in the 48 hours since Game 3's blowout loss, but emerged with a breakout performance.

He was joined in that area by centers Marcus Camby and Juwan Howard, who became key safety valves when Phoenix's defense pressured Andre Miller and Aldridge. The two combined for 16 points, 15 rebounds and six assists on 8-of-12 shooting, nearly matching the output of counterpart Amare Stoudemire.

Additionally, the Blazers regained control in the tempo war. Portland held the Suns to a mere four fast-break points after being run into submission by Phoenix in Games 2 and 3. Jason Richardson had tormented Portland with 20-point first halves in both games, but had just four at the break Saturday and finished with 15 points.

Finally, one other injury return got scant notice in the wake of Roy's dramatic recovery. Forward Nicolas Batum, battling a strained shoulder that knocked him out of Game 3 and -- as McMillan noted -- facing the risk of separating the shoulder if he's hit the wrong way, started and played 34 minutes, many of them while checking All-Star guard Steve Nash. Had he not delivered so strongly, Roy's return might have been for naught.

Instead, Portland's dramatic pattern of emerging victorious when things have looked darkest continues unabated. The Suns still have the upper hand with two of the final three games in the friendly confines of U.S. Airways Center, but between Roy's return and his teammates' rejuvenation, they face the real prospect of seeing this series slip from their grasp.

Two days ago that didn't seem possible. But way back then, Roy returning for Game 4 didn't seem possible, either.