As each 3-pointer rose, arced downward and fell through the net, Portland Trail Blazers guard Steve Blake bounced higher.
Soon, Blake was jumping around like a young teenager, throwing his hands behind his back while letting out a proud “Ooh!” each time the ball made the net sway but barely touched cloth.
Blake was on. He was happy. And he looked at peace, sinking 3-pointers, smiling wide, and then playfully elbowing Martell Webster off the court at the conclusion of Portland’s practice Thursday.
Nearly two weeks removed from being hospitalized with pneumonia, Blake has found his breath. He recorded 11 points, knocked down three 3-pointers and pulled down five rebounds in the Blazers’ 120-108 victory over Milwaukee on Wednesday.
The seventh-year guard out of Maryland said his strong performance was derived from a pregame decision to be active and engaged, rather than hide in the shadows while brighter stars shined.
“The first part of the year, I’ve been more passive. Give the ball up and just kind of run to the corner type of play,” Blake said. “I’m just going to be aggressive and push the ball fast. I like to play that way.”
A day later, Blake was still active. He appeared looser and more at ease than he has been all season. He showed off scrappy traits that made him a fan favorite during the middle part of his four-year, two-term run with the Blazers.
But Blake was also reflective. His fourth season in black and red has not gone as planned. And Blake, who is set to make $4.9 million during the final year of his contract with Blazers, is fully aware that this season could be his last in Portland.
“I’d like to be here for my whole career,” Blake said. “I like living here. I like the coaches, everyone involved with the organization. But right now, it’s just focusing on being a better player for right now.”
“Right now” is the only place where Blake’s mind is at. And each new day is a good one.
Three nights in the hospital and four missed games topped off several weeks in which Blake battled through what he first thought was a cold, but soon discovered was much worse.
General manager Kevin Pritchard said he recalled seeing Blake before and after the Blazers’ 103-99 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 30. Blake sank two big 3s in the second half and finished with 10 points.
Pritchard said the fact that Blake even took the court — let alone fought to stay in the game — was a testament to his character. But Pritchard also saw just how sick Blake was.
“He had no business playing in that game,” Pritchard said.
Two days later, Blake was admitted to a local hospital.
“You sit in the hospital room for days and days, and you just think,” Blake said. “And when you get out, you’re happy. You feel good about yourself. Coming back here, I just want to take advantage of the opportunities I have and not let things slip by.”
But for the first 34 games of the season, things did slip by.
Blake struggled through a shooting slump he described as the worst of his career, one season after posting career highs in points (11.0) and assists (5.0), while finishing fifth in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.22).
In addition, Blake watched his starting role disappear, as Portland coach Nate McMillan turned to Andre Miller in the attempt to find a veteran guide at point guard who could shine a light on a season littered with injuries and heartbreak.
At the time, the general consensus was that Blake was a perfect soldier — a player who would step down without biting back.
McMillan said that was the case. But he added that Blake is as proud as they come, and his heart should never be underestimated.
“He wants to be out there. He competes,” McMillan said. “It wasn’t just a clean transition. I had to talk to him about why.”
Blake said he understood and accepted McMillan’s reasoning. And after fighting through a major slump and then fighting off pneumonia, Blake is able to see everything in a new light.
“I just try to keep moving forward,” Blake said. “As bad as things get — even for yourself, like when I got sick — you have to look for the positives in things and move forward and take advantage of whatever you can; find the good things that can come out of it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
It’s what Blake has done his entire professional career.
Undersized, outmuscled and overlooked, Blake has spent seven years answering critics while carving out a niche in the NBA.
McMillan said Blake is the definition of dependable. The same focus, drive and do-or-die attitude Blake brings in practice, he brings to the game. It’s an all-out mentality McMillan loves — one he compared to his own playing days, when Sarge was better known as Mr. Sonic.
“There are more talented players in this league. But working harder? I don’t think there are,” McMillan said. “He gets the most out of his ability out there on the floor. He doesn’t say much. He just comes out and does his job. And I love the way he plays.”
And Blake is once again loving life.
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or brian.smithcolumbian.com. Read his Blazers Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter