It’s going to be hard to stay rational when discussing Wednesday’s home opener, a convincing 116-106 Portland victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Mostly because some of what we saw flies in the face of rational thinking.
I would guess that most seasoned Blazer fans know that when the Lakers are in town the team and the city take it to a higher gear. Having the entire off-season to prepare for one night doesn’t do anything to dampen the energy or the drive of either the Blazers or their fans. Because of that, I was pretty confident that if Portland didn’t beat LA to start the season, they would at least put up one hell of a fight.
Things took a turn for the more interesting yesterday evening when the new-look fully loaded Lakers got handily whipped by the no-Dirk, no-Terry, whole new roster Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers took a dive in the preseason, that’s for sure, but falling apart on opening night is a horse of a different color. My personal expectation for Wednesday’s game was that Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol would pull their heads out, realize that they have a zillion All-Star games between them, and come to play against the Blazers. I was wrong. But that was only half of it.
I’ve spent much of the last month and change watching footage of the Blazers in practice and preseason games, reading about how the team is developing, and trying to figure out what this season is going to look like. I’ve convinced myself that Damian Lillard is a top-flight point guard. I’ve convinced myself that Nicolas Batum is the kind of player who deserves to be paid a TON of money. And I’ve convinced myself that if Wesley Matthews doesn’t finally get it together then he can at least be traded. I’ve also convinced myself that this Blazer season is going to have a lot more losses than wins, it’s going to end before the Playoffs, and it’s part one on a two or three part major rebuilding effort, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m OK with that.
That’s why we have to tread very lightly on Portland’s first of 82 games. Damian Lillard was spectacular (or at least one or two turnovers short of spectacular). LaMarcus Aldridge looked like he’d spent his entire summer in the gym shooting jumpers until he couldn’t lift his arms anymore. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews made timely shots, limited their stupid offensive possessions, and totally manned-up on defense. Those are the things we should expect for this season. We should also be prepared for four guys playing well to not be enough to win many games.
And once again I’ll say, Blazer fans let’s take a deep breath and talk about the things that happened Wednesday night that don’t fall into the category of things that will likely happen every single night of the season. Let’s start small.
Nolan Smith looked absolutely, positively, god awful in the preseason. So bad, in fact, that Portland has basically said nice to know you hope some other team feels like developing you into an NBA player by passing on his option. (The party line is that declining Nolan’s option is a move to increase cap flexibility in the off-season, but come on we all know the truth. When a camp invite makes you look expendable, you are expendable). Nolan wasn’t incredible by any stretch Wednesday, especially considering that the Rose Garden fans were getting a first hand glimpse of a real point guard of the future, but in just under 14 minutes he was able to keep the damage he caused to a minimum. He controlled the offense. He didn’t turn it over. And he didn’t get totally exposed on defense. It might not sound like much, but it was far and away better than anything we saw from Nolan in his preseason appearances.
OK, on to Meyers Leonard. Again, not a great line, but he managed to get through 23 minutes while guarding Dwight Howard and only accumulate three fouls. Remember, Leonard had two five-foul nights and one six-foul early termination in the preseason, and in those games he wasn’t guarding the mountain who plays basketball. Howard did basically whatever he wanted to against Meyers, but you could almost see Leonard improving as the game wore on. By the end of the night, Meyers was standing up to the big fella, and keeping him from scoring in the paint while also keeping him from going to the free throw line.
I’ve covered Meyers Leonard and Nolan Smith, two guys that produced better than expected, so now I’m going to dip into some dangerous territory. There are two Blazers who seem to stand out above the rest when it comes to unmitigated disdain, or at least that’s how it looks on my Twitter timeline. Those two are Sasha Pavlovic and J.J. Hickson. My thinking is that these are the two players who could be considered outliers in Portland’s rebuilding plan. Neither is very young, both are on one-year deals meaning their long-term importance to the franchise is basically null, and both are potentially stealing minutes from younger players looking for long-term deals who will be pillars of the franchise two or three seasons down the road. Also, a lot of people I follow on Twitter think they just aren’t that good.
Pavlovic shined Wednesday in a short stretch in the third quarter, a stretch that included bricking a free throw, and then getting his own rebound and turning it into an easy lay-up, and helped the Blazers turn a close game into basically a blowout. But more than that, Sasha logged 18 minutes whereas Will Barton, Victor Claver, and Joel Freeland (guys that might be factors at some later date when Pavlovic has moved on to some other squad) all grabbed their first DNP-CD of the season.
But where Pavlovic was good and effective in a short burst, Hickson was solid all night. J.J.’s line was 13 points, 10 rebounds, five offensive rebounds, two blocks, one assist, and one three. He was active under the hoop, he attacked the glass on both ends of the floor, and he did the best he could to neutralize Dwight Howard. All in all a very solid night from J.J. Hickson.
And it’s because of Hickson’s great line, Pavlovic’s spark off the bench, Nolan’s ability not to throw the game away, and Leonard staying on the floor for almost an entire half that I reiterate that rationality is key at a time like the present. A win, a great win, doesn’t change the fact that this team has a long way to go. We need to remember that next week and the week after. We need to remember that in February.
Celebrating a win is the best part about being a sports fan. But when you celebrate too early you’re bound to spend at least a little time eating crow. I’m not trying to be a downer here, I’m as excited as all of you are about the potential of this team, I’m just saying that if we take a step back, try and remember that this is a long season, and don’t get too caught up in the significance of one single game, it will make gloating that much easier when the wins start piling up and NBA fans across the nation are jumping on the Blazer bandwagon.
Portland travels to Oklahoma City to face the Thunder on Friday. That game will be OKC’s home opener.
Just a couple of quick things:
- Portland’s lottery picks are going to be a must-watch all season, on and off the court. Damian Lillard’s line was, as I said, basically phenomenal: 7-of-17 from the floor, 8-of-8 from the line, 11 assists, three rebounds, and 23 points. He did have six turnovers, so clearly he’s not perfect. Meyers Leonard had a more modest stat line (four points on 1-of-2 from the field, three rebounds, and an assist) but for Meyers right now it’s going to be more about staying in the game. Both rookies had telling post game experiences also. Leonard was out of the showers first and dealt with a small contingent of media. He’s a super pro in front of the camera, but when the cameras go away and the reporters turn their attention elsewhere, it’s clear that he’s really just a big kid. Meyers was joking around with Blazers.com writer Casey Holdahl about his watch being the lynchpin of his outfit. He also showed Casey a ticket he’d found or more likely been given for the game, sliding it into his pocket while saying that since it was a ticket for his first NBA game he was going to be keeping it forever. Leonard left the locker room, as his teammates were doing their interviews, barefoot with his shoes in his hand. Lillard’s post game was a little more dramatic. He was one of the last guys out of the shower, and there were a lot of reporters waiting for him, so many people in fact that Nicolas Batum, who had already finished his post game, came over to the scrum and started making jokes about how it was Damian’s first pro game and he’d been in the league for years so it didn’t make sense for people to want to talk to Lillard instead of him. Like Meyers, Damian handles himself very well in front of the camera, but unlike Meyers that business-like mentality doesn’t go away when the cameras do. He lets his guard down some, he joked with Jason Quick of The Oregonian about not being packed and not knowing what to pack for the trip to OKC, but for the most part he’s a serious dude. It makes sense. He feels, and rightly so, that he’s got a lot to prove at the NBA level. If he can maintain the attitude that just getting to the league wasn’t enough, he’ll very likely be a star before he knows it.
- Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points. He took 20 shots to get there.
- Dwight Howard went 15-of-19 from the free throw line following an atrocious 3-of-14 from the stripe on opening night. Howard’s night from the line wasn’t really regression towards the mean (after two nights he’s shooting 72% from the line and he’s a 59% free thrown shooter for his career) but I don’t really think he became a good free throw shooter overnight. In his post game, head coach Terry Stotts said they weren’t fouling Howard on purpose. Whether you believe that or not is up to you, but if I’m the coach and Howard has made 10 straight from the line, I’m still fouling him. In fact, math tells us that if he’s made 10 in a row, he’s a lot more likely to miss a few than if he’s already bricked a bunch.
- Speaking of math, I had a short chat with Kevin Pelton and John Hollinger after the game, no word yet on when they’ll be throwing down with Reggie Miller. I imagine it will be sometime soon.