There was a point in the middle of the second half Monday when Portland let the game get out of their control. It wasn’t a coincidence that the stretch in which a close game turned into the Blazers’ first official blowout loss of 2012-13 also happened to be when most of the guys on the floor for Portland were second unit players.
We’ve been talking since opening night about the stark contrast between the Blazers’ starting five and anybody they can bring off the bench. Monday was a manifestation of that talk. From the end of the third quarter through the the beginning of the fourth quarter, Portland’s bench players couldn’t score to help break Dallas’s suffocating double-teams on Damian Lillard. At the same time, these same bench players couldn’t keep Chris Kaman, Vince Carter, and the rest of the Mavericks’ bench from getting the shots they wanted wherever and whenever they wanted them.
Following Portland’s overtime victory in Houston I brought up the point that we are likely to be discussing from now until the Blazer season ends: how should Portland best proceed to ensure that they’re not a lottery team forever. I suggested, following the win on Saturday, that the Blazers might consider making a trade that includes some combination of guys management has chosen to not develop any further (Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith) and some but probably not all of Portland’s available draft picks to get their hands on a top-level sixth man type (J.J. Redick) that would bolster then bench and might allow the Blazers to compete this season. In that posts, I tried to present both the upsides and the downsides of doing such a deal. In short, the upside is wins now, the downside is an uncertain future with few chances for long-term improvement through the draft.
There is, of course, another option here. That other option is what was on display Monday when coach Terry Stotts let his bench go for extended minutes. Guys like Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, and Will Barton may or may not be part of the future of this franchise, and to figure out whether or not that will happen they need to get time on the court. Giving them time on the court means there will be stretches all season like the middle of the second half on Monday. The upside to this strategy is that Portland will definitely not win enough games to make the Playoffs giving second unit guys extended minutes in the situations they were in Monday, so even without selling the farm for draft picks there’s a good chance the Blazers start next season with a couple more blue chippers.
But saying that Portland is doomed to lose with its bench and also doomed to cripple a long-term rebuilding project by trading for a sixth-man this season is a negative way to look at this team following Monday’s set-back. And I’m not one of those guys who is bent on focusing on the negative. So instead, let’s try and find a couple of positive things to take away from Portland’s loss at Dallas.
Positive Number One: Meyers Leonard
Meyers is looking totally lost on defense, and easily exposed in both one-on-one and pick and roll sets. That being said, he looked less lost Monday than he did Saturday, and less lost Saturday than he did Friday, etc. The kid is showing that he can improve on defense. And regardless of how bad he looked Monday on defense, he looked actually passable to good on offense. Meyers scored six points in his 23 minutes of action, putting down two very nice dunks. He also dished out a nice give-and-go assist to Nicolas Batum, and collected nine rebounds. We’ll qualify Leonard’s “long way to go” with “but he’ll get there,” for now. I have a feeling, though, he will get there.
Positive Number Two: Portland’s starting five
I started this recap by saying that the Blazers’ starting five is good, and it’s the bench that has been a problem so far. I’ll add on to that by saying that Portland’s starters are really coming together, regardless of how you feel about J.J. Hickson as a person, a basketball player, or otherwise. Monday was really the first night a coach keyed-in on Damian Lillard. The Mavs’ game plan was to get Dame out of the game early, and disrupt his rhythm. It worked, but it didn’t stop Portland’s first five from competing when Lillard got back into the contest for his second shift. I remember way back in the day when LaMarcus Aldridge was first seeing double teams, and how long it took him to adjust. LA doesn’t have the handle of Lillard, not by a long shot, so hopefully Lillard will learn to deal with two defenders at a faster pace. However, the way the Blazers have played with it’s main roster, most teams are not going to be able to get away with double teaming Damian while LaMarcus, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews are on the floor.
Positive Number Three: J.J. Hickson
I’m sure some may disagree with me, but I really like what Hickson has given Portland so far this season. His defense is still a bit shaky, but he’s attack the boards on both sides of the floor with reckless abandon, and he’s making a difference. Whether or not Hickson should be part of the Blazers’ future going forward is up for significant debate. At the present moment, if J.J. finishes the season the way he has started, and if Portland can re-sign him to an inexpensive contract that doesn’t eat up a lot of years, I would be all for it. Those are a couple of big ifs, though.
Positive Number Four: Ronnie Price is a big step up from Nolan Smith
Ronnie Price is back after missing most of the preseason and all but a few minutes of the first week of the regular season. I know Price is no Blazer fan’s idea of a strong back up PG, and his situation with regards to the long-term future is much the same as J.J. Hickson’s, but I for one would much rather have Ronnie Price handling the back-up duties at the point for the time being. Hopefully, when Ronnie’s ankle is fully healed and Damian is no-longer getting called for cheap second fouls early in the first quarter, he’ll be able to take on at least some of the second unit scoring duties.
And finally Positive Number Five: Joel Freeland got a bit of time
Freeland is my pick to be Portland’s off-the-bench surprise, he just needs to play a little more to figure out the speed of play in the NBA. I don’t have the stat sheets and stuff in front of me, but I don’t think Freeland and LaMarcus Aldridge were on the court together. Giving Joel a few minutes with LA might allow him to get set up in the post where he belongs. Monday he was playing a bit like a stretch four with Meyers at the five. That’s not Freeland’s best look. He needs to be inside, and he needs to bang. He did have a jumper go down, though, that has to feel good.
So there you have it. Portland drops one in Dallas after winning one in Houston (just as I predicted in my November preview) and finishes a tough rough bounce 1-2. After four games the Blazers are an even 2-2, with a few tough games still to come. My guess is Portland will get a bounce-back win in this next home stand. Hopefully they can find a way to string a few wins together sometime soon.
Portland will take on the Los Angeles Clippers in Portland on Thursday.
One quick thing:
- Of the four games of his professional career, Monday was Damian Lillard’s worst statistically. Lillard finished with 13 points, but he shot only 2-of-13 from the field and 1-of-8 from three. That Damian can get points from the line is encouraging. That he had a rough game is actually also encouraging, at least somewhat. Teams are seeing the hype around him, and they are going to start trying to stop him. I know it’s an incredibly weak comparison considering the undeniable facts, but think back to Armon Johnson. He had a great run at the beginning of his rookie season (really only a couple of games but whatever), and then advance scouts got a lock on how to stop him and his professional career fell apart. I AM NOT SAYING THAT ANYTHING LIKE THAT WILL HAPPEN TO DAMIAN LILLARD (caps lock so you don’t get the wrong idea). But overcoming the adjustments in defenses Damian is going to see from this point on will determine whether he has an amazing rookie season or just a regularly great rookie season. Chris Paul is next on the list of big-time point guards Dame will have to face. That would be as good a time as any to have another big game. Remember, he’ll be in front of the home crowd for only the second time in his career.