We’ve gotten to see Andray Blatche just a couple times out on the floor before he makes his possible return this weekend after missing the last month with a left calf strain. Both times – in pregame warmups before the Wizards’ last game before the All-Star break against Sacramento, and then in practice on Thursday – he actually showed surprising explosiveness and a desire to dunk the ball.
What that might mean for his return remains to be seen. There are certainly far more variables that will be in play, including his health, his conditioning, how the Wizards use him and how he’s greeted by Verizon Center fans who have yanked away the welcome mat for him this season.
For his part, Blatche is aware of what lies ahead, that trade rumors are likely to dog him and by the March 15 trade deadline or this offseason he could find himself moving on from Washington. But playing is his top priority.
“It's something that I get paid to do and something that I love to do so I’m all for it,” he said. “That's the life of NBA. You've got to take the punches whatever they are. It’s a business. I’ve been here for seven years. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, but at this point, I’m not focused on that. I’ve just focused on getting back on the court and playing with my teammates and helping this organization in any way. If they feel like it’s time for me to go, it’s part of the business. No hard feelings in this at all. I’m just going to continue to play, and hopefully when I get back out there I’m playing well.”
For all the grief and disappointment that sums up his year - he's averaging 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds, down from career bests of 16.8 and 8.2 last year - perhaps there’s a chance that Blatche could actually play well upon his return.
“By dunking and shooting, I didn't feel nothing at all,” Blatche said. “Even though I lost something, I gained something back. My shoulder and my calf is good. Hopefully, this curse was a blessing for me. It helped me get my body back right, and I can come out Saturday and be back to being the person that I am.”
Of course, he was bent over sucking wind at the end of the practice on Thursday as he played two-on-two, mostly with Jan Vesely as his opponent. (By the way, it’s easy to tell when Vesely hits a jumper – assistant coach Gene Banks immediately starts clapping.)
Wizards coach Randy Wittman said that as long as Blatche checks out on Saturday with no pain – he went 100 percent in a two-hour, full contact practice on Friday – that he’d see some minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s all going to be based on conditioning,” Wittman said. “We’re going to work him in slowly. He’s not going to go out there and play 40 minutes. It’s going to probably be spot minutes, in and out, not long stretches of time together, just to see where he is, his legs and everything. We’ll know as we move forward in games and stuff where he’s at, his conditioning and how his legs are. Sitting out that long, it’s going to take a little time to get his legs back underneath him in the heat of the battle.”
Blatche brought the battle upon himself at the beginning of the season, calling out Flip Saunders’ offense after the regular-season opener, then moaning about the reaction to his complaining, but little could he have expected the kind of response it would generate from Wizards fans at Verizon Center. After he missed a trio of games with shoulder and knee issues, Blatche was intent on playing the right way, doing what Saunders wanted and rededicating himself to what the team needed from him.
Instead, he returned to find that Wizards fans had turned on him when they booed him during pregame introductions before an upset win over Oklahoma City on Jan. 18, which he finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. The next game, against Denver, Blatche made it worse, going 0-for-7 from the field.
After Saunders was fired, Blatche was then demoted to a backup role in the second game of Wittman’s tenure before getting hurt in the third trying to take a charge from Charlotte’s Boris Diaw, and he hasn’t played in 15 games since. At times he’s been missed because of his size and the Wizards’ limited frontcourt options.
“Knowing I have to miss basketball for anything is tough,” Blatche said. “You never want to miss basketball. It’s either an injury, or you're getting suspended for something. Being without basketball is never good news.”
Roger Mason Jr., who helped give Blatche support in the face of booing fans, said he’s also tried to keep Blatche’s spirits up while he’s been out.
“I’ve been trying to stay in his ear, keep him positive, letting him know that we’re still thinking about him,” Mason said. “He’s our teammate, and one thing about guys, when they’re hurt, sometimes you can get out of the loop, so I’m just trying stay in his ear, let him know that we need him to keep working and need him to get back to help us get some wins.”
Nick Young said Blatche looked good in practice on Friday, but he knows Blatche is going to be feeling the burn in his first game since Jan. 28. The question is, will the fans burn him, too.
“I know it’s been tough,” Young said. “He had a month off. The fans, hopefully, take it easy on him and give him another chance. And hopefully, he won’t let whatever happens affect him.”