There’s little you can say to make someone think that Saturday night’s win against the Minnesota Timberwolves was not Nic Batum’s best game as a Portland Trail Blazer. It may not have been his greatest seasonal impact, given the quality of opponent, but statistically it was his best line and will probably be the game we point back to at the end of the season when arguing his grip on the starting small forward position for the foreseeable future.
Random fan: “Why didn’t you guys trade for Gerald Wallace? You need a small forward.”
Blazer fan: “31 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 threes, 3 steals, 0 turnovers. Put that in your pipe, smoke it, taste it, and like it.”
I didn’t catch the game live, though, having recorded it earlier in the night, and came away slightly underwhelmed by the performance. Some of it I attributed to Minnesota’s “We don’t need no stinkin’ defense” defense, some of it to the fact that a lot of his offense was created for him, as he mostly needed to take care of positioning and shooting. Those are very important aspects to the game, of course, but role players like Eddie House and Kyle Korver both have career-highs of 31 points with positioning and shooting, and have dished more than seven assists, just not all in the same game. Mostly, as elite at Batum’s stat line was, he never appeared to be dominating the game like other elite players do. In other words, he never looked unstoppable.
Maybe this is a good thing, that he can put up fantastic, efficient numbers in a supporting role without having to stand out in a ball dominating role like Jerryd Bayless has this season in his own explosive games. Nevertheless, Batum put himself in such rare company — check was Mookie had to say at asternwarning.com — that it’s worth a second look at Nic’s 22-point third quarter, just to see what we can see.
First, the raw data. Of Batum’s 11 field goals, 10 were assisted. The only one which didn’t come off a pass was a baseline offensive board and putback. He also made 4-of-4 free throws. Compare that to Bayless’ 31-point night on Dec. 23rd against San Antonio, when only 4-of-10 baskets were assisted and he got to the line 10 times.
Nic hit 5-of-8 threes, giving him an effective field-goal percentage from that range of 93.8 percent. Pretty sure you can win a 3-Pt Shootout with that. After the triples, Batum shot 1-of-2 from 16-23 feet, 1-of-1 from 10-15, missed his only shot within 10 feet while converting on all four at the rim.
Out of Batum’s seven assists, three were on mid-range jumpers, while four were on shots at the rim. Efficiency wise, his true shooting percentage was 87.3 while scoring 1.73 points per possession used. That’s the Brandon Roy zone. Now lets look at the qualitative stuff, looking at Batum’s offensive possessions beginning with the second half and ending at the end of the third:
- 10:40 in the third — Batum begins the set on the right wing, with Roy in the corner. Batum moves toward the block, making contact with Ryan Gomes. As Andre Miller begins to drive on the opposite side, Batum backpedals into the corner slot, replacing Roy, who moves to the wing, catches Miller’s kickout, and hits Batum for a three. The nearest defender to Batum was Roy’s man, 12 feet away.
- 10:22 in the third — Batum inbounds the ball off a Flynn make and streaks down the left side of the court. Miller finds him a little inside halfcourt, and Batum takes the ball directly toward the hoop for the foul, catching Minnesota’s defense off-guard and in poor position.
- 9:14 — Roy misses a short jumper from the right side of the paint, Batum glides into the middle behind two Minnesota defenders and tips the ball to Marcus Camby for an assist. Mike Rice calls it “Super”.
- 8:42 — Roy gets a clearout from the right corner, with Batum on the left wing. Roy drives and kicks to Miller, who then drops it to Batum who misses the three with a hand in his face.
- 7:22 — Batum gets the ball from Miller on the left baseline, takes two dribbles into the defense, and passes back to Miller. Batum then retreats to the left corner, gets the ball back from Miller, and hits a three with Kevin Love closing out well from a zone defense.
- 6:42 — Batum is standing in the right corner. Roy and Aldridge run a pick and roll at the top of the key, getting Aldridge a long jumper. Batum trots down the baseline, grabs the miss and puts it back in before any Minnesota player so much as looks at him. Once again, poor awareness by the Wolves in a zone defense.
- 6:16 — Batum tries to cut baseline, but backs into the left corner, getting the ball from Camby, who moves into the lane. Batum takes one dribble forward and rises for the contested jumper before bulletting the ball to Camby for the layup and assist. Batum smirks as he backpedals down the court, like he ate a cookie and his mother doesn’t know.
- 5:43 — Batum enters the ball into LaMarcus from the left wing. He cuts baseline, Aldridge hands the ball off with Batum’s defender trailing the play, and Batum waltzes into for an open dunk.
- 3:35 — Rudy gets the ball with five to shoot at the top of the arc. Batum streaks from the right baseline, around Howard in the post, out to the left wing, receives the ball, squares his body and hits a very tough, very contested jumper just inside the line.
- 3:10 — Batum brings the ball across halfcourt and passes to Roy, who drives down the middle and misses a short floater. Howard tips the rebound, which bounces off Darko’s right hand and back to Roy on the left side. Roy takes the ball behind the hoop as four Minnesota defenders watch him and swings the ball out to Batum on the right wing for a three. The nearest defender was in the restricted circle.
- 2:40 — Batum is chillin’ in the right corner after a timeout. Roy comes baseline from the opposite side, hands it to Batum, who fakes the three, gets Ellington in the air, takes a dribble and then gets fouled on the two-point jumper. He makes both freebies, putting the Blazers up 27.
- 1:10 — Roy gives Batum the ball on the left wing after Nic curls off a pick. Batum fakes and passes back to Roy. Then Rudy comes over and screens Batum’s defender, allowing Batum to step back and to the right and receive the ball for an open three, which hits back iron before falling. Nic now has 29 points, 22 in the quarter.
- 38.9 — The Blazers run through an offensive set that goes nowhere, leaving Batum on the right wing and Rudy up top with the ball. The Wolves at this point are in a 3-2 zone. Rudy swings the ball to Batum and the defense finishes one of its better rotations of the quarter, contesting Batum’s three as he misses and falls to the ground with little contact.
- 01.0 — The Blazers play for final possession of the quarter, with Batum waiting in the left corner. Rudy replaces Batum in the corner, pushing Batum to the wing. The ball swings to Rudy, who fakes and gives it back to Batum, who misses with a defender flying right at him.
In total, Batum made seven field goals in the quarter and four threes. On three, arguably four of those baskets, the defense had either ignored or forgotten Batum, or they been picked off by a Blazer screen. Six of the seven buckets were assisted. Of the 14 possessions listed above, Batum only had to put the ball on the floor in five of them. Nic was also never out of position, and moved fluidly as the ballhandlers went though their progressions. Still, as well as Nic played off the ball — and the cuts he made, whether resulting in a hoop or not, were hard, deliberate and effective, even if an inane zone defense didn’t react — there’s no doubt that for most of the quarter, his teammates did much of the heavy lifting in terms of play creation.
The most encouraging things about the quarter, other than the off-ball movement, was Batum’s willingness to test the defense, pass the ball back out and find a better shot, whether with a quick dribble, backpedal or pump fake. Not once did he try to play outside of his own game. The two best examples of him creating for others were the offensive-rebound tip-assist to Camby, and the jump pass that, despite being a jump pass, was an excellent look into the paint that makes you think about Batum’s ability to get healthy Greg Oden the ball, as the team often failed to do in November thanks to Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw.
My reaction wasn’t very different after analyzing the quarter than after my initial watch. Batum did all the right things, he just didn’t do a ton of things, at least not of the sort his MVP-caliber stat line makes you think of. It was a great performance in a supporting role, with a couple glimpses of creative possibilities, but hardly deserving of a Best Leading Actor nomination.