March 29th 2012 might very well one day be officially recognized as Luke Babbitt Day. Because on that day, or to be more accurate that night, Luke Babbitt finally appeared to be an NBA basketball player.
Sure Luke’s breakout game came against the team with the worst record in the Western Conference, and it came due to an increase in minutes not so much earned as given as part of the post trade deadline strategy to lose games get more people involved, and it was certainly incomplete as Babbitt–Portland’s Chalupa specialist–sat out the final minutes Thursday night and watched as his teammates struggled in vain to get from 99 points to 100 and send a half-full Rose Garden home with free authentic Mexican delicacies (more on that later). Forget all of those things. Portland’s 99-93 victory was very easily the best we, or probably anybody, has seen from Luke Babbitt.
All kidding aside, though, Luke Babbitt had himself a nice game, a career-high game, a game that was so good that most of the post game questions to other players were about they way he played. I know that Portland’s supposed to lose games like the one they won on Thursday, but if in the process of trying to lose games a guy like Babbitt finds his way, and his way leads to wins, then I think it’s OK to not lose to the Hornets. Luke is locked in for next season, he’s cheap (relatively), he knows the system, he knows his place on the team, he knows what the fans expect, and he knows the culture of the organization. If Portland is going to rebuild, seriously rebuild, and be a contender in the near future, they are going to need guys that have a lot of those traits.
I’m not saying that Luke Babbitt’s one big night moves him into potential franchise player status. What I am saying is the Blazers’ rebuild isn’t just a face lift, it’s a total overhaul. Bench players, role players, starters, the whole works, everything needs at the very least a tweek. The more guys Portland can rely on from what they already have, the less likely the off season rebuild of 2012 turns into the rebuilding season of 12-13, or the rebuilding seasons of 12-13 through 15-16 or 18-19.
With that in mind, Thursday night was also another good night for J.J. Hickson. His line wasn’t amazing (12 points, six boards, and crucial steal), but he played 28 and a half minutes, pushed Kurt Thomas down to Craig Smith status (DNP-CD his first of the season apart from those games missed with a concussion), and was part of the Blazer unit that was able to do the most damage against the Hornets. That unit consisted of Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Hickson. I cringe a little when I say this, but that very well could be the starting five for next season. Hickson is a bit small for a true center, but if Portland goes out and picks up a big man in the draft (another cringe inducing idea) or in free agency that can come off the bench, they might not be in such bad shape.
But apart from the size issue, having J.J. Hickson in a lineup with LaMarcus Aldridge gives Portland a very interesting front court combination.
“We’re kind of a two-headed monster,” Hickson said post game of his partnership with LA. “When you have LA popping, and me ducking in, we kind of put you in a bind.”
That combination of LA popping out to shoot jumpers, and Hickson cutting to the rim for dunks and put backs was the focal point of Portland’s decisive run at the end of the fourth quarter. A Hickson dunk with 6:02 to play gave Portland a 85-81 lead, a Hickson put-back about a minute later made it 87-84, an 11-footer by LaMarcus with 2:49 left in the game made the score 91-89, and a 18-footer from LA sealed the win at 99-90. That’s exactly the two-headed monster Hickson talked about.
NOLA’s a big physical team, so the play of LaMarcus and J.J. Thursday might actually be a pretty good indication of what can be expected when these two guys are on the court together. Friday Portland plays the Clippers in LA. They’re a strong front line too, but they’re also a vulnerable front line. If LA and J.J. have big games for the second night in a row, expect there to be at least some rumblings about moving Hickson into the starting lineup.
There’s one thing not to forget, however. Getting super excited about J.J. Hickson following a couple of pretty solid outings is a classic blunder made by Blazer fans. One good night often has the ability to erase weeks or months of failure. So far I haven’t seen anything I don’t like about Hickson. In this context, I’m really talking about Raymond Felton. It’s Felton’s name that made me cringe when speculating on Portland’s starting lineup for next season. I’m not super anti Felton. In fact, I believe that if at the beginning of the season he had been playing up to the level he seems to have found lately, probably none of the negative talk or hate tweets would have happened. That being said, this season has happened. Felton has been Felton. There’s a chance he gets himself in better shape over the summer and comes back next season game ready and disproves all that’s been said about him. I just don’t think Portland should take that chance. Right now the Blazers have a capable guy in Nolan Smith and cap space and picks to find somebody else. They don’t even need to find a starter, maybe just a split-timer. Felton is not the long-term answer. And because he’s not the long-term answer he is also not the short-term answer.
And finally, speaking of Felton, that brings me to the real intrigue of Thursday night’s game. There have been few joyful moments in this season for the Blazer faithful. We lost our favorite player and our favorite non-player (Brandon and Greg in that order). We lost our Playoff cred. We lost our coach. We’ve lost a lot. One thing that the home crowd hasn’t lost in all this turmoil is it’s desire for free Chalupas.
They came fast and furious at the beginning of the season (the Blazers plus-100 games at the RG from the start of the season went like this: four straight, five of the first six, eight of the first 10, and 12 of the first 15), then slowed to a crawl as the team fell apart (Portland blasted San Antonio’s practice squad’s practice squad and hung 110 on the T-Wolves while managing to lose by 12 before the blow up). It’s been almost a month since the Blazers last won free Chalupas for their fans (the aforementioned T-Wolves loss), and in that month they’ve only been within one basket of the century mark one time (the 97-93 victory over the Grizzlies a week ago).
It’s customary in the NBA to not try to score at the end of a game if the outcome has already been decided, hence no heaved three at the end of the Memphis game and the few other times a Chalupa shot has not been attempted this season an many others. But Thursday night, the Hornets fouled Raymond Felton with 16.5 seconds to play and the score sitting one point shy of pay dirt. Ray had no choice, he wasn’t going to refuse to shoot free throws in an effort to not run up the score. What happened next will go down in Blazer history as a fitting end to Luke Babbitt day.
Felton stepped to the line and promptly bricked both free throws. As Ben Golliver nearly expired from a seizure of pure bliss on the second auxiliary press row, the final seconds ticked away, the streamers fell, the Blazers won, and in a season of many many large defeats, the home town crowd was dealt yet another blow. At least they all know who to blame.
Portland is back in the Rose Garden Sunday for another shot at free Chalupas against the Timberwolves.
Just a couple of quick things:
- All my speculation on who would earn the back-up PG minutes following Tuesday’s audition were for naught. Nolan Smith was scratched from the lineup Thursday with an ear infection. Jonny Flynn played 14 and a half minutes, missed two shot attempts, picked up three assists, and turned it over once.
- Anybody that thinks NBA players don’t care about losing, or have a real interest in losing games on purpose because they think it will help them in the long run have probably never been in a losing team’s locker room. Thursday I dipped into the Hornets locker room post game, something I don’t often do, to catch up with former Blazer Chris Johnson. I had a nice little chat with CJ, which I’ll hopefully turn into something at some point when I have a free moment, but I also had a chance to see a really dejected Hornets team. For a solid five minutes as I stood waiting for CJ to get showered and dressed I watched Carl Landry sit wrapped in ice bags with his head down staring at the floor. Landry had a great game Thursday, 24 points on 9-of-13 from the field and nine rebounds in a toe-to-toe match-up with LaMarcus Aldridge. There’s no question that losing Thursday hurt for Landry, you could see it in his body language. And this is a team that has now lost 38 times this season. That’s two more losses than Chicago, Miami, and Oklahoma City have COMBINED. I would love to have seen Landry’s reaction if somebody had come up to him as he was sitting in front of his locker icing down and told him to buck up, a loss to Portland Thursday means NOLA improves their chances at the number one overall pick, and he and the organization should be happy about that. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have taken very kindly to that line of thinking.
- Marco Bellinelli went all Luke Babbitt Thursday, hitting seven threes and tying his career-high in scoring with 27.
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