I’ve been in the Blazers’ locker room following a game probably close to 100 times. That’s not that many times compared to some, but it’s still enough to know how to read a team’s overall attitude by their behavior.
The first Blazer team I had the privilege to be around was the 2008-09 Blazers. That locker room was something else. A group of young guys, anchored by a young superstar, anxious as a group to show the NBA what they were made of. I wasn’t around for the next season, so I had no first hand experience of the early Nate McMillan/Andre Miller dust-ups.
Last season was a strange locker room. Brandon Roy’s presence was always there, more so when he physically was not there. The most dejected group of individuals I’ve ever seen was the collected Blazers sitting in front of their lockers following their game six loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
This season the locker room has been hard to pin down. Maybe the best thing to look at is what has become of Brandon’s old locker, which sits in the corner furthest from the entrance and closest to the showers.
That stall is now occupied by Kurt Thomas. Instead of handing down B Roy’s locker to an heir apparent, giving that guy all the pressure that comes with it, the locker now belongs to the oldest player in the league, who since the addition of J.J. Hickson has seen his minutes completely disappear.
There’s a sense in the Blazers’ locker room that this season is about moving on from the past and addressing the future. Just what that future holds, however, is still totally undetermined.
That’s a long lead-in, I know, but I said all that because Wednesday night the feeling in Portland’s locker room after they put on a spirited, dare I say fun, show and defeated the Golden State Warriors, knocking them officially out of the Playoffs, can be summed up in one word: loose.
Not loose like the 08-09 locker room was loose. Those guys were confident and relaxed. They knew that most nights they were going to win. Wednesday’s locker room was loose because we’ve reached the point in the season where no matter how badly we as fans or the Blazers as a team want the games to matter they simply do not. I’m no math genius, but I think that even if Portland were to win the rest of the games they have left there’s no guarantee they’d be in the Playoffs.
A loose locker room isn’t a bad thing, especially not with this team. To say that things have been tense this season is an understatement, so it’s a welcome change to see some of that tension dissipate, even at the expense of Portland’s record. It’s that lessened tension that allowed the Blazers to have the game that they had Wednesday: up and down, lots of turnovers, lots of bad decision making, but enough stops and enough big shots to overcome a mini collapse and get a win.
A more laid back locker room also opens up the opportunity to talk more candidly with the players. When a season is on the line, there’s a tendency among players to keep responses to canned answers about preparing for the next game and not thinking too far ahead and stuff like that.
Wednesday night I took the chance to ask a couple of questions that have been burning me up. (I pull a lot of audio, but I usually leave the hard hitting journalism stuff to the guys who write more game and quote heavy recaps while I try to produce more free-form, post-modern recaps.) So instead of talking about J.J. Hickson’s manic 23-11 double-double, Raymond Felton’s point guard impersonation (16 points, 10 assists, masterfully running the offense), and Jamal Crawford’s first real Jamal Crawford game with the Blazers, I’m going to put on my best journalism face, and share what was on my mind post game.
Nic sat out Portland’s last game, and seemed likely to not play again Wednesday. But with LaMarcus Aldridge scratched, the Blazers needed Batum to step up and go, and he did. Post game Nicolas was sitting alone while the majority of the media was across the locker room talking to J.J. Hickson. After the radio guys cleared out I had a chance to talk to Nic one-on-one.
Matt Calkins didn’t lie when he said Nicolas was the best guy in Portland’s locker room to talk to. Nic’s always candid, and he loves talking about basketball. I started out asking about his late-game defense, specifically a two-minute stretch when he guarded David Lee, Richard Jefferson, and Nate Robinson on three separate possessions.
“I think on this team I’m the only one who has to guard five positions,” Nic said, laughing. “I’ve got to guard one through five, I’ve got to know everybody.” That knowing everybody means knowing what David Lee is going to do when he catches the ball in the post, and that RJ looks to shoot threes, and that Nate Robinson might be under six-feet tall but he’s going to attack the rim with enough reckless abandon for four Nate Robinson sized people.
Of course, the real questions for Nicolas had nothing to do with his play Wednesday night, or at least not any specific plays from the game. The questions were about his playing at all.
“I love this game so much. I don’t want to be on the side,” Nic said in response to me just asking whether or not the pain he reported feeling that kept him sidelined Monday was in his quad or in his knee. “The last game was so hard for me, I was like this,” he said and buried his head in his hands, pantomiming his in-game agony. “OK, so the next game, I don’t know yet, but I’ve got to be there.”
Just for good measure I also asked Nic about the Olympics. When he injured his knee in Utah, he talked about the possibility of missing the Olympics and being upset about that. With the Blazers’ fate all but sealed, now seems like a good time shut it down if he gets even the slightest inkling that his tendonitis could have an effect on his performance in London. After all, Portland is out of the race for an NBA Championship; the French have yet to be eliminated from contention for a gold medal.
“I’m going to think about the Olympics when the season is going to be over, when I’m going to be back in France,” he said to this line of questioning. “I think about it, but I’m going to be really focused about it in like two months.”
After Nicolas, I had a few questions for Jamal Crawford.
For a long time I’ve wondered what is it about Seattle that has led it to produce so many great basketball players that are all about the same age. Wednesday night featured two Seattle products; guys that went to the same high school.
A lot of high schools would be pumped to have two pros ballers in their entire history (to this day my high school trots out Harold Reynolds as its most notable sports-related graduate), but I can’t imagine how excited Rainer Beach gets when Jamal Crawford faces off against Nate Robinson.
In 08-09 I asked Brandon Roy what he thought made Seattle such a special place for basketball. Back then he couldn’t give me a very clear answer. Here’s a snippet of my conversation with Jamal on the same subject:
Me: What makes Seattle such a good basketball city?
Jamal: There’s nothing else to do, all that rain.
Me: You could say the same thing about Portland, but how many guys do you have (in the NBA) that are all in the same age group? Ten, fifteen?
Jamal: We’ll I think their guys (Portland) at one time were Damon Stoudamire, Terrell Brandon. They had a crew.
Me: That’s two guys in like 15 years (Damon – Wilson High class of 1991, Terrell – Grant High class of 1989)
Jamal: Yeah. You got to be blessed I think.
Beyond just being blessed with talent, Seattle basketball seems to also be blessed with longevity. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One of the Emerald City’s latest stars is the under-sized, cold blooded Isiah Thomas. Taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings, Isiah has reached the very top of Grantland‘s rookie rankings, and could keep Kyrie Irving from winning the Rookie of the Year award by unanimous vote.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Jamal said of Isiah’s breakout year. “I wasn’t surprised when he made the NBA, a lot of people thought he was crazy (to leave college a year early), but I said ‘it’s not like you’re going to get taller next year.'”
As for winning Rookie of the Year, Jamal concedes that Kyrie probably will take it. He did say that for a guy like Isiah, who nobody thought would be able to compete at the NBA level, to make the All-Rookie Team would be “a heck of an accomplishment.”
So there you have it. A loosened up locker room makes for some decent, if off-topic, post game conversation.
The Blazers will have another chance to see if their more fun and gun style of play can take down a good team when the meet the Mavericks in Portland on Friday. The major difference between that game and Wednesday’s is Dallas has something to play for.
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