Before I say anything about Thursday’s game (a lopsided loss to the Los Angeles Clippers) I would like to say something just in general about what this season is going to be like. I think it’s going to be hard to judge this team on the outcome of games. This Blazer squad needs to be judged quarter to quarter, minute to minute, possession to possession. If we start getting bogged down in wins and losses, especially early in the campaign, it might be all to easy to lose sight of some of the things that are actually happening. Yes, this is a macro re-build, but a lot of the things that will make this a successful rebuild (and I think in my heart of hearts that this will be a very successful rebuild) are going to happen at the micro level. Small improvements lead to small victories. And sadly, small victories in the NBA don’t often lead to actual wins.
Moving on. There were two NBA teams involved in Thursday’s game. One is a lock for the Playoffs, likely division champ, possible Western Conference Finals participant, and right now the best professional team in Los Angeles. The other team has an absolute ceiling of the 8th seed in the Playoffs, and on nights when shots aren’t falling, isn’t going to be able to beat a whole lot of teams. In a nutshell, Thursday say stretches of the Clippers at their best matched up with stretches of the Blazers at their worst. Put a good team playing well against a not-so good to OK team playing poorly, and you get a blow out every single time.
If you’ll let me, I will try to tie this into my macro vs. micro thesis. On a big-picture level, Thursday was a straight disappointment. The Blazers had a chance to make a statement win by holding home court against a very good but very streaky Clippers team. They came out strong, competed for a solid seven minutes, and then basically feel to pieces. Bad play got worse, and by halftime it was academic. Sure the home team made a push in the third quarter, but it was just enough of a push to make the loss respectable and nothing. Such a classic trope in the Blazers’ ongoing narrative of disappointment that this tweet:
.@ripcityproject is looking like Nate Silver right now, but smarter. :-/
— Matt (@wastro) November 9, 2012
In response to this tweet:
we all know how this goes right? Big third quarter from Portland to get back into the game, get as close as nine or eight then lose by 11
— Rip City Project (@ripcityproject) November 9, 2012
Felt less like a compliment and more like slander towards one of the smartest dudes out there. (For the record I mean Nate Silver and not me.)
But remember what I said, if we focus all our attention on the macro-level failures, we’re bound to miss out on some very important micro-successes. The comeback was chief among them, if only because it got the crowd into the game. I know saying that the home crowd is important is the homeriest homer thing for a homer to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Guys that have been around this team for longer than five games already know that. Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard are just learning it. Portland’s first home game was opening night against this team’s biggest, or at least most symbolic, rival. Thursday was only the second home game of the season; fans haven’t given up yet and probably most of them haven’t watched live professional basketball for awhile. It’s not going to take much for them to get involved. That might not be the case in the middle of February, especially if the Blazers’ record is heavy in the loss column. Post game, Leonard talked about not delivering for the fans. If these young guys and newcomers learn early what it’s like to have a screaming Rose Garden behind them, it’s very possible that in the future they won’t have to get embarrassed before they’re pride will kick in.
The pride and embarrassment thing leads very nicely into another micro-level win from Thursday night. Meyers Leonard played 24 minutes had three huge dunks, grabbed six rebounds, and only picked up three personal fouls. I’ve said it a number of times already in this short season, but it bares repeating: Leonard is improving on a nightly basis. Head coach Terry Stotts pulled Meyers early in Thursday’s game, and in his post game press conference he said it was because his rookie center failed to execute on a couple of plays in a row. In the second half, Meyers was a key part of Portland’s run to get back into the game, bringing the crowd to life with he’s dunks and post-dunk poses, and because he was rolling Stotts left him in the game when there was still a chance for Portland to win. Talk about micro. That’s a marked improvement from one half to the next. Meyers still needs to develop some post moves so he can get involved more in the half court, but like everything with Leonard, it’s coming.
As for Portland’s other first year. Damian Lillard got himself a nice little micro-win by playing Chris Paul to an almost tie. Paul got the upper hand, especially late, but CP3 is an MVP level player. Thursday was Damian’s fifth professional game. The ultimate compliment in a way was that late in the game Paul wanted to go one-on-one with Lillard and put the game away in that manner. Every NBA player is hyper competitive, but there might not be a more competitive player in the league than Chris Paul. Part of that competitive streak, though, means he isn’t going to take on a player he doesn’t think is worthy. CP3 doesn’t need to prove he’s better than most point guards in the NBA because everybody already knows who the superior player is. That Paul wanted to take on Lillard and did has to be a boost to Damian’s confidence. That Damian held his own and elicited praise from his opponent after the game won’t hurt either. The problem now, since Thursday was a TNT game, is that those who didn’t know about Lillard probably do. He’s thrived while staying under the radar, let’s see how he does when the curtain is lifted.
But the micro-level wins weren’t all limited to Portland’s rookies. The real key to the Blazers’ third quarter (probably Portland’s best stretch of the season with crazy numbers like 71% shooting from the floor, 57% shooting from three, and a point differential of +15) was the defensive pressure applied by Nicolas Batum on Chris Paul. The moment, or series of 12 minutes for the sake of accuracy, when Nicolas starting checking CP3 and helped turn the game around was big, and will be big for this season, for two reasons. First, and foremost, it was an indication that this team can identify their weaknesses in-game and make the adjustments necessary to stop those weaknesses from letting a game get away. That’s pretty huge. Adjusting on the fly is the difference between winning and losing close games against good teams. The second reason Nic’s defense on Chris Paul was/is important is because Nicolas needs (like really NEEDS) to become a leader for this team. He’s getting paid a ton of money. He has become one of the most important pieces of this franchise. And he has reached veteran status. Batum’s shot has improved exponentially since his rookie season, but it’s till not as reliable as it should be. However, Nic’s bread and butter is his defense. On nights when he can’t influence a game on offense, he absolutely has to put his stamp on it defensively. He did that in the third quarter Thursday. If he’d done it in the first quarter, this might be a totally different recap.
So it only takes Portland two games to get their first loss at home, and at five games into the season the Blazers stand at one game below .500. There are going to be plenty of chances for Portland to lose games in the fashion they lost Thursday. What is important now will be seeing if this team can get over the fact that they lost and played poorly and focus on the things they did well. Saturday’s game is against the San Antonio Spurs, if these guys thought that it was going to get any easier, they were wrong.
Just a few things:
- I’m thinking of dedicating this whole postscript section to my insights into the lives and games of Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard since that’s really going to be the through-line of this season. However, I haven’t decided to do that just yet, so for the time being I’ll just use this bullet to talk about both guys. It dawned on me this evening that beyond just their physical appearances and positions, Lillard and Leonard couldn’t be more opposite. Damian is from a small unimportant conference. Meyers is from the Big 10. Lillard is from Oakland. Leonard is from the Midwest. Meyers talks to the media like he’s running for congress. Lillard is soft spoken but about as frank as it comes. Their contrasting personalities will be an interesting thing to follow.
- Post game I had a chance to ask Damian about what it’s like for him to be the unexpected rookie sensation. He said he doesn’t think about it that much, but he wants to be the kind of guy to help pave the way for other young guys from schools that aren’t in a major conference or aren’t well known by everybody. He mentioned players like Miami’s Norris Cole (Cleveland State) and Eric Maynor from OKC (Virginia Commonwealth) as other NBA players who are helping to show that smaller colleges can produce NBA-level talent. When I asked him if proving that a guy from Weber State can be a star in the NBA is a big motivator his answer was an emphatic yes. He’ll be known as the Weber State guy probably for awhile, but if he keeps playing like he’s been playing against the best point guards on the planet, he won’t be that guy forever.
- Meyers Leonard chuckled a little when I mentioned that Ronny Turiaf (who was put on a Meyers Leonard poster in the 3rd quarter) is an NBA Champion. That kid is all business.
- Jamal Crawford returned to the Rose Garden Thursday. My question as to whether or not he would be booed was answered when he checked in to the game as was booed. Crawford lit up Portland in the fourth quarter on his way to 25 points off the bench, helping the Clippers hang on to the win. Post game Crawford acknowledged the booing, and in a super pro move that one should expect from a consummate pro like Crawford he owned up to deserving it since he was part of last season’s abomination. Crawford is a much better fit in LA than he ever was in Portland. He’ll regress a little as the season wears on, but his season in Portland will be his outlier. To be honest, he could care less. Although he was quick to remind those asking that he took less money to come to Portland, so he wanted to be here for awhile at least.
- DeAndre Jordan is the best big man on the Clippers, and if you’re being realistic it’s probably not even close. Sorry Blake Griffin.