Cambys role changes, but will be key in playoffs

Blazers watching his minutes, while using his length
by: Christopher Onstott Trail Blazers center Marcus Camby extends to defend a shot attempt by Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki.

His left knee is still not 100 percent from Jan. 20 arthroscopic surgery. His right ankle is swollen from a fall Sunday night at Staples Center.

But Marcus Camby is game.

'I'm trying to suit up and play against the Spurs' Friday night, the Trail Blazers' center says. 'Big games this weekend. Trying to get back out there.'

Camby, who turned 37 on Tuesday ('I'm 29,' he says with a Jack Benny-like smile), is no longer a starter. The 6-11, 230-pound 14-year pro has been coming off the bench since March 15, when coach Nate McMillan inserted forward Gerald Wallace into the starting lineup and moved LaMarcus Aldridge to center against Dallas.

McMillan's idea was to get more quickness in the lineup - and though he won't say it, scoring power, too. Camby averages 10.6 rebounds per game - which would rank fifth in the NBA if he had enough games to qualify - but only 5.2 points on .398 shooting.

'Part of it is, we have to try to manage Marcus' minutes,' says McMillan, referring to Camby working back from the knee surgery. 'But we also have had to go small in order to spread the floor as far as playing off of LaMarcus to create some offense. On defense, we trap now and take advantage of our speed.

'Having Camby and LaMarcus (in at the same time) gives us length, but it hasn't been that effective on both ends of the floor. There are going to be some games where we need some length. We're still going to need Camby. He's just not in there at the start of the game.'

Camby - a consensus starter for all but three of his NBA seasons - has taken the demotion in stride.

'Of course you want to start,' he says. 'Don't get me wrong. I'm a competitor. I want to play and be out there. But I still get to play, so it's not like I'm not going to be in the ballgame. I pride myself in being a team player.'

As a starter, Camby has had eight double-doubles this season, including a 10-point, 20-rebound performance against Utah, a 16-point, 18-rebound showing against Phoenix and a 12-point, 19-board game against the L.A. Clippers. That was when he was playing 30-some minutes per night.

In his four games as a reserve, Camby has averaged 22.5 minutes and 7.5 rebounds.

'It's hard to get stats - rebounds, stuff like that - sitting on the bench,' he says. 'You have to come in and spell guys. What if the other team's big gets it going? You have to go in and try to calm that guy down. Even if you do, in the boxscore, it looks like he had all his numbers on you.'

McMillan knows Camby's value, though, and leans on him for advice.

'I wouldn't say our relationship is good - it's great,' Camby says. 'He has an open-door policy. He always talks to me to get a feel for the pulse of the team. We always connect.'

'Marcus has experience,' McMillan says. 'He knows the team. I talk to him a lot, because he talks. He has a feel for the game and the team and what's needed. He's not afraid to talk, and his teammates listen. He has been able to get them pumped up, whether he's in the starting unit or not.'

Camby, who has another year after this one on his contract, flashed anger when he heard his name involved in trade rumors before the deadline, saying he wouldn't have signed an extension with the club if he were going to be involved in a deal.

'That was solely because I'd moved my wife and kids up here, and we felt like this was a place where I could finish my career,' he says. 'I like our team. I love being here. The city has welcomed me with open arms. It's been great. I've enjoyed my time here in Portland.'

Camby has been to the playoffs nine times but to a conference final only once - with New York in 1999. The postseason is what he lives for.

'It's fun,' he says. 'There's all that work you put in during the summer and training camp to get to this point. Right now, we can smell the playoffs. We're not there just yet. We still have a lot of hard work to put in.

'Every game from here on out is equivalent to a playoff game until we get that 'X' by our name in the standings. We're playing for seeding, but we're also playing to get better as the playoffs approach.'

And there's a premium on veteran 'bigs' who can rebound and block shots.

'I'm the only real center we have out there,' Camby says. 'I know I have to be healthy and held accountable.'