“He’s not scared. That’s only the ninth game of his career. He played like this was his fifth or sixth year.” Batum on Lillard
— Ben Golliver (@blazersedge) November 17, 2012
“That’s just me. I don’t think it’s something I need to try to do, I’m just naturally this person,” Damian Lillard said to me after the game when I asked him if he thinks about staying calm, collected, and preternaturally cool as the Rose Garden goes ballistic all around him and he has the ball in his hands trying to put the finishing touches on a crazy comeback. “I think because I’m comfortable with myself and I’m confident in myself I don’t have a reason not to be relaxed and comfortable.”
There’s a trait that all basketball players want and that all basketball players try to cultivate. Call that trait confidence, if you’re an old guy, maybe swag if you’re younger. If you work for ESPN and you want to compare every major super star to Michael Jordan and explain why they aren’t as good as he is/was you’d probably call it killer instinct. By whatever name it goes, it’s that trait that allows a basketball player to look at his opponent, who by the simple fact they too are in the NBA is one of the best basketball players in the world, and say it doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, I am going to beat you.
Damian Lillard has been a professional for nine games. Think about that for a minute. Now think about this: with 1:37 to play in Friday’s overtime victory over the Houston Rockets Damian grabbed a steal, got fouled, and sank two free throws to give the Blazers a 107-105 lead. In all three of Portland’s previous home losses the home team had let their opponent build a lead and then they clawed and scratched to get back into the game only to let it slip away at the close. In all three of those losses, the Blazers had been close in the fourth, but they hadn’t made it over the hump. Friday was different. They made it all the way back, but even after those free throws there was more game to be played.
So Damian hits the free throws, James Harden comes down and silences the crowd with a three: 108-107 Houston. Portland’s next two offensive possessions went isolation for Lillard that ended in a driving lay-up, followed by a pull-up jumper from Lillard to push the Blazers’ lead to 111-108. Marcus Morris would hit the game-tying three, and Damian would miss his three attempt to end it in regulation, but the extra period started with, following a miss by Wesley Matthews at the shot-clock buzzer, a game-tying three from Lillard and then a second game-tying jumper.
Look at those possessions. Starting at the 1:37 mark, when Lillard hit the two free throws, and going through to the 2:33 mark of overtime, Portland had eight possessions that ended in field goal attempts. Of those eight, seven of the shot attempts belonged to Damian Lillard, Wesley was the odd man out. Of those seven shot attempts, Damian missed twice. One of those misses came at the end of regulation when, with the game tied, the very worst outcome would have been overtime.
Certainly, some of Lillard’s late-game play was dictated to him by his coach Terry Stotts. However, and equal percentage of credit for streak of play that accounted for 11 of Portland’s last 14 points has to be given to the fact that Damian Lillard believes that the best way for his team to win games is fr him to have the ball in his hands, and for him to shoot that ball. And this is a kid who nine games ago had played a grand total of zero NBA regular season minutes. Call Damian’s attitude whatever you like, Damian believes in himself, and he believes in his ability to score against anybody at any time. I, for one, don’t disagree with him.
When 2012-13 is in the books, probably even in a season or two when these Blazers are legitimate playoff contenders, we’ll look back fondly on those first few days of Damian Lillard’s career, when every night he was blowing our minds in a new way, when every day a whole new group of national basketball writers were discovering him for themselves. I doubt, though that Friday November 16th will jump out as the date that the rebuilding and the growth of this franchise actually took hold. I’m saying that because we don’t know if this victory will be the kind that sets the stage for many more like it and leads to vast improvement on all fronts. We can’t predict the future, as much as we try to. All things being equal, though, Friday might turn out to be a pretty important day in the narrative of this team.
Lost in the Damian Lillard Overtime Show was a quiet 29 and six from LaMarcus Aldridge. LA may have missed a hugely crucial free throw with 1:21 to play in overtime (is it just me or does he seem to miss a lot of free throws late in games?), but he didn’t let that stop him from making an equally crucial block a play later and then a jumper to seal the win a play after that.
Not so much lost, but certainly a little bit overshadowed, was one of the very best games of Nicolas Batum’s professional career. Nic’s stat line was an absolute beauty: 13-of-19 from the floor and 5-of-8 from three for 35 points, six rebounds, five blocks, four assists, and one steal. Nic also had seven turnovers, but his incredible block on Omer Asik with 34 seconds left in regulation and his OTHER incredible block on James Harden with 30 seconds to go in overtime more than made up for every single time he turned the ball over. Batum’s blocking ability, a known commodity among Portland fans, could very realistically be his biggest x-factor. In a game that is decided by two points, five blocked shots is a very tangible difference maker.
The performance Friday that will very likely get the least ink but deserves at least a short mention was that of one Meyers Leonard. I want to believe in Meyers. Scratch that, I DO believe in Meyers. But I also know that he is a work in progress, and though that work is being done, the progress is very slow. Friday, there were stretches when Meyers looked like he didn’t belong on the floor at all. At least twice, he rolled to the hoop after setting a pick and either wasn’t looking when the ball was thrown to him or ducked right at the last minute because he wasn’t actually expecting to catch a pass. And then there was his defense. More than once he hedged out on the ball handler when his man set a screen and then turned to find his man again and just couldn’t do it. In fact, Batum wouldn’t have had the lead-saving block (a lead that would be then un-saved so unceremoniously by Marcus Morris who is my pick to win the Three-Point Shootout on NBA All-Star Weekend) if Leonard hadn’t completely blown his rotation on Asik and let him drift to the rim completely undefended. But after all that, there was Meyers, on the floor in the overtime, waving his arms to get the crowd hyped (like the needed much help), filling the paint, grabbing rebounds, and just generally being effective. And before that, Meyers was doing his best to keep the behemoth that is Asik off the glass on defense, being active on both ends of the floor, KNOCKING DOWN A JUMP SHOT, getting a highlight dunk on a rookie-to-rookie run out lob that made me forget about the few lobs that went begging because Meyers sometimes has no idea what to do. Basically, in 27 minutes of play, Meyers Leonard showed that he may not be ready to start for Portland, but he’s ready to start contributing minutes that actually mean something. Needless to say, his eight points tied a career high. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t want to talk career-highs in scoring until he breaks double digits.
I previewed this game by saying that unlike Sacramento, Houston is the kind of rebuilding team Portland should strive to be like, compete with, and ultimately beat. They’ve so far accomplished the beating part. From start to finish, it wasn’t the prettiest of Blazer victories. Just like from start to finish this won’t be the prettiest of Blazer season. What this team can hope to do is improve on a nightly basis. They can also try to win. Friday night, they came out flat, but rebounded, and unlike the last three times that has happened at the Rose Garden so far this season, Friday’s comeback was completed with a win. There’s little more that one can ask for at this point.
The Blazers are back in action Sunday at the Rose Garden against the Derrick Rose-less but still 5-3 Chicago Bulls. Last season the Blazers beat the Bulls in Chicago in Kaleb Canales’s first game as a head coach. Just something to chew on.
A couple of quick things:
- Tonight was the first night of Linsanity at the Rose Garden. Any cheers that were coming for Lin were drowned out by the home fans down the stretch, that and Lin didn’t play a minute of the overtime period. Acting head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after the game that he liked the defensive match-up he was getting on Damian Lillard with Toney Douglas on the floor. Fine. He’s a head coach, and I’m not. Plenty of people were questioning the move to ride Douglas on Twitter. In all fairness, it’s a move that should be questioned. I’m Lin skeptic to be honest. I’m not trying to be a buzz-kill, but I think he’s Linsanity stretch in New York last season will prove to be the outlier, not the norm, for his career. There are a few things though that I really like about Jeremy Lin, and right now I have no reason to think he won’t have a very long and fruitful NBA career. First among those attributes of Lin’s game that I like is his ability to play within his limitations. He’s a very very smart dude and an incredibly savvy basketball player. Knowing what you can’t do doesn’t sound like the “NBA mentality,” but the way Lin works hard to maximize his strengths (court vision, getting out on the break, rebounding) and minimize his weaknesses (on the ball defense, shooting) is an indication that he’s cemented himself as a real talent, not just a media stunt, and that he’s here, meaning in the NBA starting for a pretty good team in a loaded conference, to stay. Lin’s line: 11 points on 3-of-8 from the floor and 0-of-1 from deep, six rebounds, 11 assists, two steals, one block, three turnovers in 36 minutes. And remember, he didn’t see a second of action during the extra period.
- Speaking of Kelvin Sampson, he coached briefly at Indiana University, leaving that program in shambles following a period of shady operations. The IU connection to Portland runs a little deep. Jared Jeffries played on their last team to make it to the NCAA Finals. Following the game Friday I spoke briefly with Jeffries about IU. The Hooisers enter the NCAA season ranked number one and bring to the table a group of skilled players including Cody Zeller, an outstanding big man who is probably on Portland’s draft radar should the Blazers fall into the very early part of the lottery. I had the chance to cover IU last season when they played in the Rose Garden in the first two rounds (second and third round for NCAA purists) of the big dance last March. I like Zeller, but I think the guy Portland should be going for is Christian Watford. Watford is best known for hitting this shot against the Kentucky Wildcats last season. He’s a power forward in the NCAA, but would be a perfect small four/big three in the NBA. He can shoot from range. He’s big. And he’s athletic. And the best part, Portland won’t have to tank to get him. Watford is a classic NBA draft bugaboo, a strong player who played four years of college basketball. Cody Zeller will be IU’s main guy. Watford will fall to the late first round, maybe even to the second. With a late first round pick or an early second round pick, he could easily land in Portland. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about IU basketball.
- Back to Jared Jeffries. Coach Stotts mentioned Jeffries’ defensive play in Friday’s game and in Tuesday’s win at Sacramento. Jeffries has been a great spark off the bench even without scoring. He was +8 in about 10 minutes of play Friday. That’s pretty good considering LaMarcus was a -9. Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum were both +10.
- Terrance Jones in his first action as a professional in Portland (he graduated from Jefferson High School in North Portland) collected a DNP-CD. There’s always next time.