Fernandez could return to Blazers’ lineup tonight

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — Rudy Fernandez wanted one more trip around the world.

The Portland Trail Blazers guard had already made the journey twice, swishing 3-pointers and working up a hard sweat that soaked through his long-sleeved gray shirt.

But Fernandez was not done.

“One more,” said Fernandez, holding up a finger and motioning for the ball.

His request was granted, and Fernandez made the final shots count, sinking 3s and then finishing off the session by softly dropping in a series of free throws.

The second-year guard smoothly ran through an entire workout Tuesday, and then walked off the court smiling. As a result of his ability to play without pain, Fernandez has been upgraded to questionable for tonight’s contest against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Rose Garden.

“I’m sure he was excited,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said.

Fernandez said the decision about whether he plays tonight will be made by a group consisting of him, athletic trainer Jay Jensen and the Blazers’ coaches.

But Fernandez said he is leaning toward returning to the court for the first time since Dec. 1, as long as his body feels right.

“If they look at me good in the (shootaround), then maybe I play,” Fernandez said.

The 6-foot-6, 185-pound guard has officially been out since Dec. 8, following a microdiscectomy to alleviate pain in his right leg. He was originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks, so his return would fall within the initial timeframe.

Fernandez practiced with the team for the first time since his surgery last Saturday. But Tuesday marked his most intense workout in more than a month.

“A couple days ago, I don’t feel good when I wake up,” Fernandez said. “But today in the practice, I feel good.”

The second-year guard is averaging 8.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in 20 games this season.

His addition should aid a Blazers team playing without injured forwards Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw. Batum is expected back by the end of January, while Outlaw’s official return has not been set.

Centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla are out for the season with knee injuries.

Fernandez averaged 10.4 points, shot 39.9 percent from 3-point range, and set an NBA rookie record with 159 made 3-pointers last season.

But the fan favorite has struggled with consistency throughout his sophomore campaign.

He was plagued with back pain during training camp, missing five of the Blazers’ eight preseason games.

He was then one of the first players to openly question his role and playing time on a Portland team that was loaded with depth and talent before injuries set in.

Fernandez’s return, though, would be another encouraging sign for the Blazers. Portland recently activated guard Steve Blake after he missed four games due to pneumonia.

The Blazers looked like a fleshed-out, healthy team for the first time in more than month during Tuesday’s practice. And while tangible positives such as the ability to go 5-on-5 were evident, McMillan said simply being able to watch his team run up and down the court without pain was enough for him.

“I can’t remember the last time,” McMillan said.

While the Blazers’ luck might be turning around, Milwaukee’s definitely is not.

The Bucks lost guard Michael Redd for the remainder of the season after he tore his medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament on Sunday.

But McMillan cautioned that Portland cannot play down against a shorthanded Milwaukee squad.

“We never should think that way, whether you look at a team’s record or you look at who’s missing,” McMillan said. “Because we’ve been in that situation a lot this year, where we have a lot of guys missing and we’ve been able to play well. It’s an NBA team with NBA players, and every night you’ve got to show up and play.”