In the regular season finale, Portland Trail Blazers center Joel Freeland returned from an extended knee injury, giving the team its full roster back for the first time in a while. This is not something to be underestimated as playoffs are just beginning – health absolutely plays a huge role in postseason success.
Just last week, the Warriors’ chances of postseason success were dealt a huge blow, as it appears that starting center Andrew Bogut might be out for the entirety of the playoffs. Last season’s Finals featured a dinged up Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade – either of them at full health could have swung the series in dramatically different ways.
This brings us to the Blazers’ first-round matchup with the Rockets, starting this Sunday. I am on the side that has the Blazers as definite underdogs, which seems to be the prevailing thought. I’m hoping against hope that they advance, and think they still have a legitimate shot to do so, but facts are facts. The matchups are not favorable in the slightest, and Dwight Howard has on the whole run roughshod over the Blazers this season.
However, which version of Howard will we be seeing? From March 28th to April 11th Howard missed eight games due to having his ankle drained. On the spectrum of injuries, this doesn’t seem too terrible, but as someone having undergone recent surgeries, I can promise you that the human body wants no part of needles or knives getting involved. Even a seemingly innocuous procedure is never cut and dry.
Added onto Howard’s injuries, Rockets defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley also missed the same eight games as Howard with what appeared to be a partially torn meniscus. Knee injuries are nasty business, and I cringe thinking about coming back so early from such a major one.
No matter how you slice it, two key cogs in the Rockets rotation both recently missed a chunk of time for some fairly serious health issues. On the other hand, the Blazers are just now hitting their health groove. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge seems to have shed the rust from time off due to a groin injury, and as mentioned above, Freeland made his long-awaited return.
The re-addition of Freeland could actually prove to be more sneakily important than it would appear at first glance, as he is another big body to throw at Howard. Howard is adept at drawing fouls, so having a full complement of Robin Lopez, Freeland, Meyers Leonard, Thomas Robinson, and maybe even Victor Claver to throw at Howard will be a valuable luxury for Head Coach Terry Stotts to have.
On paper, the Rockets should be favored, but every little advantage or disadvantage matters greatly, and health could swing the series back into the Blazers’ favor. Even a slight drop-off in production from either Howard or Beverley could loom large in a hard-fought series, and while I desperately hope not, a re-aggravation of either the ankle or the knee could alter the series’ dynamic drastically. The Blazers will need every advantage they can get, and each team’s respective health is a potential source.