Invariably every season there comes a game when I feel like the thesis of my recap will be the pros and cons of moral victories. I know it’s early still for 2012-13, and I might not want to pull the trigger so soon since there will be plenty of chances down the line, but Wednesday’s blow-out loss to the Suns in Phoenix might just be the prefect time for this season’s treatise on victories considered to be moral.
The dictionary on my laptop defines a moral victory as the following: “a defeat that can be interpreted as a victory on moral terms, for example because the defeated party defended their principles.” In the parlance of sports, “moral victory” is a catchall term used for any loss with enough positive takeaways so as to basically negate if not all then most of the losing team’s hard feelings.
I’m not sure how everybody out there feels about moral victories. My initial feeling is thus: sometimes it doesn’t hurt to look for the good in a bad loss, and if there is some good there or enough good to build on, why not be satisfied with it? My competing feeling is, though, when one, be it coach, player, or fan tries to turn every loss into a win of sorts they tend to lose sight of the fact that losing, no matter how close the loss or how brilliantly the team played that lost, will never be winning.
I’m sure a lot of Blazer fans saw Portland’s loss to Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City as a perfect moral victory; a close game against a top team right at the beginning of the season. Allow me to politely disagree with that. In fact, it’s the close losses in OKC that shouldn’t be viewed as moral victories, because celebrating those types of losses are what can make an up-and-coming team like Portland complacent. Losing a lot of close games to good teams might make a struggling squad feel like they don’t need to do a whole lot to improve.
For me, Wednesday’s silver linings weren’t plentiful, but it was enough for me to think Portland will make it out of this onslaught alive and end up actually a little better off.
First off was the play of Meyers Leonard. Sure he’s still pretty bad on his defensive rotations, and he got taken to the cleaners more than once by Marcin Gortat, but he shot the ball (pretty well), he actually contributed, and he started. The start came because J.J. Hickson sat out with a sore shoulder, so that couldn’t really be credited to Meyers, but it was on him to make the most of it. A 27-point loss notwithstanding, 6-of-9 from the field for 12 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals, and an assist is a pretty decent line.
Meyers needs the rebounding numbers to come up, and he needs to be competent enough to be actually integrated into the offense instead of scoring mostly on busted plays, but the simple fact that he didn’t fall to pieces in his first stint as a starter has to make head coach Terry Stotts feel pretty good. The move here is to start Meyers and have Hickson come off the bench. That’s what the franchise needs, and it’s what Meyers needs for the sake of his improvement. If Wednesday was any indication, Meyers looks comfortable enough in a starting role to have Stotts and his crew thinking long and hard about making it a permanent gig.
Moving on with the moral victory elements of Portland’s loss. Damian Lillard. I don’t really have to say much more, but I will. Look, we know this kid is a stud, what we don’t know right now is what his ceiling really is. Wednesday he wasn’t good. He turned the ball over six times (which seems to be his opposite of magic number), he didn’t take that many threes, his assist numbers were low (partially because his turnovers were high), and he didn’t get a single rebound. However, after all that bad stuff, Dame still finished with 24 points to lead all scorers, and if LaMarcus Aldridge (who I’ll get to in a minute) would have knocked down an open jumper or two Lillard’s assist total would have been higher and there would have been a chance for some last second heroics following a terrible game a la Houston Rockets Overtime Extravaganza Part The First.
The win in Houston doesn’t count as a moral victory for Damian simply because it was a real victory. If a moral victory is by definition a loss, a win is automatically excluded. Wednesday was a moral victory for Damian because it proved to him that even when things are tough, he can get his. At some point in the future, a Blazer season might hinge on Damian Lillard taking the team on his back and leading them all by himself to a win. Getting practice at that early in his career is enough to outweigh a big-time loss.
And finally, Wednesday’s game can be read as a moral victory almost solely on all the extenuating circumstances at play. To begin, Portland was without J.J. Hickson. I don’t personally think of J.J. as being that important to the franchise as a whole going forward, but we’ve all been saying that if even one of the Blazers’ starters goes down for any significant amount of time these could get really ugly in a hurry. That line of thinking was manifested Wednesday night. Seeing that yes, this team cannot expect to survive without it’s starters will hopefully be a wakeup call to the Blazer bench.
The second extenuating circumstance that effected Wednesday’s game was the sickness of Nicolas Batum. Nic was reported to be suffering from a head cold Wednesday evening, and was a game-time decision. Nic looked out of sorts and struggled to get into the rhythm he’s had the last few games. Why should this element of the loss be excused? Because Nic isn’t going to be sick every night. Why can we consider it part of the whole moral victory thing? Because he still played, proving to his teammates that an added responsibility of a player getting paid with a capital P is to lead by example.
And finally, LaMarcus Aldridge had an absolutely atrocious night. LA shot 5-of-15 from the field, turned it over five times (which is crazy for him since for his career he averages 1.7 turnovers a game), and set the standard for futility with a +/- of -28. Of course the question is why does a terrible game from LA count as a moral victory when a 22 and 13 night in Oklahoma City doesn’t? Two reasons. First, Wednesday’s line is an outlier line for LA. Just look at his turnovers. Per Basketball-Reference, for his career LaMarcus averages 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes, and his turnover percentage (estimated turnovers per 100 plays) is 8.4. LA might have another night this season when he gives up the rock five times, but it’s not likely.
Secondly, and much more important than the unique nature of his stat line, Wednesday was the kind of horrible night LaMarcus needed to wake him from his recent funk. LA has started slowly this season, who knows why. But even in that slow start he’s had some nice games. Again, nice games among a stretch of stinkers can be the kind of thing that keeps a lesser talent from working harder to improve. LA should be a little embarrassed about how Wednesday went down. Of the front court players that played, LA was outscored by Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, and Jermaine O’Neal, and his scoring total matched that of Meyers Leonard and it took LaMarcus six more shots and two more free throws to get there.
Friday is a big night for Portland. The Timberwolves were the offseason NBA darling. They’ve had a rough start due to injuries, but Kevin Love came back with a vengeance Monday night. Love will play Friday. The Blazers need to win at home before heading out to play seven road games in 12 nights. If Portland wants to have a shot at beating Minny, LaMarcus needs to at least match Kevin Love’s scoring output. In his return, Love had 34 points and 14 rebounds, playing 35 minutes in Minnesota’s loss to the Denver Nuggets.
I sincerely believe LaMarcus’s exceptionally poor play in Phoenix could be a motivator for a big night Friday and a big road trip. If that in fact turns out to be true, then I think Wednesday will have more than proved it’s self to be a valuable loss, and a certain moral victory.
Portland and Minnesota tip at 7 PM in the Rose Garden. Brandon Roy will not be there. Have a happy Thanksgiving.