(DON RYAN / The Associated Press)
(DON RYAN / The Associated Press)
PORTLAND — The year will end with the Trail Blazers as winners of their last seven home games. After a Saturday night waltz with the Philadelphia 76ers — Portland took the 89-85 victory — the Blazers close out 2012 with a record over the .500 mark (15-14) and a feeling that this next road trip in the new year will be different.
The ball hasn't dropped yet in Times Square but behind a strong performance from Nicolas Batum (22 points, eight assists, seven rebounds), hope still abounds. Still, auld acquaintances — as well as injuries — cannot be forgotten for the Blazers as another key player left the game with an injury.
Rookie center Meyers Leonard had to be helped off the floor early in the fourth quarter with a right ankle sprain. An understated diagnosis for an injury that drew a significant reaction from those who saw it. Leonard, the 11th pick in the past draft, received X-rays after the game.
"I heard 'Oooo!' " center J.J. Hickson said, recalling the reaction echoing throughout the sold-out Rose Garden (20,569 in attendance). "I knew it was serious before that because Meyers the type of guy, he's going to keep playing through and fight back through injuries."
With 9:01 remaining in the game, Leonard positioned himself for a defensive rebound, holding his post near the right block as Lavoy Allen missed a second consecutive layup. Leonard leapt for the ball — though he did not make contact with another player, his right leg appeared to buckle on the landing. Leonard crumpled to the court and immediately grabbed near his knee, however the pain, at least according to the report from the Blazers' PR staff, was shooting from his ankle.
"He laid there," Hickson said. "I don't know if I saw a tear drop or not, but he laid there I knew it was serious."
Fans could see Leonard, red faced and quailing in intense agony, but after watching the slo-motion replay on the overhead scoreboard, their silent concern deepened to a loud wince.
The video showed Leonard rolling his ankle. Hickson turned his head. LaMarcus Aldridge refused to watch. Batum, bowed and talking to Leonard, missed the replay but heard the reaction throughout the crowd and knew it was bad. Fans gasped, several held their hands to their mouths and others certainly had to vanquish bad memories that included the four-letter words "knee" and "Oden."
"I (heard) him scream. At first, I saw it was his knee. He said, 'no, it's my ankle,' " said Batum, who then told Leonard: " 'Oh, okay. You'll be fine.' "
"I hope he's going to be OK … We have too many knee stories in this franchise."
The team trainers have been busy this month. With Batum's back and Wesley Matthews' nagging left hip flexor strain (he sat out Saturday), and even Aldridge — he played with a chest pad under his white jersey top to protect the sternum after injuring it Friday night in Los Angeles — the Blazers have been banged up.
After the game, not much was clear about Leonard's status. Although Batum reported that Leonard told him it was not a break, by late Saturday night it was unknown whether Leonard would join the inactive list or get back into action as the team prepares for a four-game road trip through New York, Canada, down south to Memphis and back to the chilly lands of Minnesota.
"I thought Meyers was playing a good game, it was one of his more energetic games in the last couple of weeks," coach Terry Stotts said of the four-point, four-rebound performance through nearly 14 minutes. "When a guy goes down you never know what the issue is, but hopefully it's just a sprained ankle."
The injury occurred in the midst of the Blazers running off seven straight points to start the fourth quarter and led 77-69. Despite bidding adieu to Leonard at that point, the Blazers remained intent on closing strong. The Sixers clawed back into the game but Batum carried the energy on both ends.
Batum threw an alley-oop lob to Hickson with 5:34 to go to stop a 7-0 Sixers run. He also asked for the defensive assignment on Philadelphia point guard Jrue Holiday, who at 6-foot-4 pushed and plowed through Damian Lillard and Ronnie Price earlier in the game. However with the lanky Batum defending, Holiday had to pass to teammate Spencer Hawes to take a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 26.9 seconds remaining.
Hawes missed the corner attempt, the Blazers secured the ball and it found Batum's trusting hands. When Batum absorbed the foul, he walked down court and calmly sank both of his free throws to seal the win. Holiday finished with a game-high 29 points but only made one of five field goals as Batum silenced him through the fourth quarter.
"The reason to put Nic on him is he's our best perimeter defender," Stotts said. "I think he's doing what the team needs."
In the slow-paced game, the Blazers shot at a 44.7 percent clip but four starters scored in double figures. Rookie Victor Claver, starting in place of Matthews, finished with a career-high eight points.