If you told me prior to Portland’s Sunday match up with the Brooklyn Nets in Brooklyn that the Blazers would get beaten by 13 and finish the game with Nolan Smith, Will Barton, Joel Freeland, Sasha Pavlovic, and Luke Babbitt on the floor, I would have said that sounds about right.
If you told me that Portland would be without LaMarcus Aldridge for the duration of the contest due to a stiff back, I would have said that losing by a baker’s dozen might actually be about as good as you could expect. If you told me that the Blazers would hold the Nets to 42% shooting from the field and 30% shooting from three, dictate the tempo for significant portions of the game, lead at halftime, and get 12 points from Meyers Leonard I would have said Sunday’s loss was a net positive regardless of the final score.
This road trip of Portland’s is going to be long. If LaMarcus is out for a couple games, it could be a real struggle. Because of that, the Blazers need to be able to look at a game like Sunday’s, find the positives, figure out how they can be replicated, and move on. Portland’s positives Sunday were a commitment to team defense, sharp ball movement on offense, and a willingness to keep fighting even when it became pretty clear Brooklyn is a nightmare match-up for the Blazers.
Also, Meyers Leonard. If you’re a pessimist, you’ll look at Sunday’s box score and see that Meyers didn’t shoot a free throw and managed only three rebounds and a single blocked shot. If you’re that same pessimist and you actually passed up on football and watched the Blazer game, you would have seen that Meyers didn’t score a single point in the second half, was unable to deal with the adversity of foul trouble and really did most of his damage in the first quarter, and really couldn’t hang with Brook Lopez or the former Mr. Kim Kardashian.
I’m not a pessimist, and I agree with those assessments of Meyers’ play. I just don’t think they’re relevant. Everybody who has seen Leonard play this season know that he’s a work in progress. But anybody who has really watched him play has seen that he’s willing to learn and he learns quickly. A week or so ago, head coach Terry Stotts said that he thinks Meyers needs to start shooting more. At the time Leonard was hardly looking at the hoop on offense and had yet to score a single bucket outside of two feet. Sunday Meyers was knocking down jumpers and putting in feathery hook shots in the lane.
But this isn’t just about a rookie being given the green light by his coach and using that nod to build confidence. This is actually about a player getting better. There have been a handful of games since Stotts made it known in the media that he thinks his rookie center can and should shoot the rock more often. Sunday’s game was clearly Leonard’s best. In the last few games, even in his first start at Phoenix, Meyers has still looked a little out of place on the offense, getting most of his points on plays for somebody else that fell apart and left him holding the ball with no other choice but to chuck it at the rim. Sunday, as Portland Roundball Society’s Danny Nowell pointed out, Meyers seemed to be getting his points in the rhythm of the offense. Almost as if the Blazers were starting to run sets that were designed to end with shoots for Meyers.
It’s hard to say for sure that coach Stotts is running plays for Meyers without actually asking him, but whatever the case may be, the development from offense as a last resort (where we were a few weeks ago and at times in Phoenix) to offense as a ting that can be relied on is no small step.
The next thing for Meyers is to figure out how to play a complete game. Twice now Leonard has gotten to double digits in scoring in the first half only to fade or disappear down the stretch. Sunday foul trouble kept Leonard on the bench for awhile, and by the time he came back to play his offensive mojo had deserted him. Meyers needs to watch his fellow rookie Damian Lillard. Although Lillard struggled some on Sunday, he has shown the ability to play poorly for a stretch and not let it kill his whole night. I expect that seeing some shots fall, even in losses, will make Meyers a believer in his ability to help Portland win games. Confidence is key in professional basketball. I wouldn’t be surprised that next time out Meyers will take it upon himself to play a full two-half game.
It’s a bit unusual to talk about a Blazer game this season in which one rookie looked good and the other one struggled and be talking about Meyers playing well and Damian having a tough night. Sunday wasn’t so much a bad night for Lillard, but it does speak to the disparity in development between Portland’s two lottery picks that 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, three rebounds, and a blocked shot counts as quality for Meyers and 13 points on 4-of-12 and 3-of-5 from the field and three respectively, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocked shots for Damian is seen as a disappointing night.
Mostly, though it speaks to the fact that Damian Lillard had a very difficult match-up Sunday afternoon with Deron Williams. Damian’s weakness is defense, and against a guy like Williams and a team like Brooklyn, that weakness was exploited. Lillard didn’t do anything too bad, he just was made to run through screen after screen getting lost a couple times in the process, couldn’t really deal with Williams in the post, and got the rookie treatment more than one on both turnovers and personal fouls. The working on defense and the personal fouls kept him from really getting into his offensive flow. Damian looked sharp early, but like Meyers he didn’t bring much to the table in the second half.
There’s a pretty good chance that at halftime Brooklyn’s head coach Avery Johnson got all up in his All-Star, All-NBA, and Gold Medal winning point guards ear about being out-played by a rookie from Weber State, and that gave Williams the motivation he needed to take the game to Damian. Hopefully it’s that, and not some sort of major new development that Blazer fans have to worry about. Not that a 13-point game is something anybody needs to worry about.
Game two of Portland’s seven-game trip will be a little different than game one. If the Blazers steal a game in Brooklyn that’s fantastic but unexpected. If Portland loses to the Pistons in Detroit we might be looking at a really rough two-week stretch. I imagine, though, that the Blazers did enough good stuff Sunday against a decent to very good Nets team that they’ll be likely to make a meal out of a not very good to very bad Piston squad.
That Piston’s game is the first of two back-to-backs on this trip.
Just one quick thing:
- Again Portland’s bench was awful, in terms of scoring. As Joe Freeman pointed out, the Blazers’ second unit were +18 in the first half and their play on defense was partially responsible for Portland building a lead. Two things will stand out from Sunday with regards to the bench game. First, Portland didn’t get a field goal from the bench until late in the second half. And second, Joel Freeland was a bit of a mess. Freeland could see more minutes if LA’s back injury continues to be an issue. If that happens, he needs to figure out how to be effective in any way possible. That doesn’t have to be scoring, since that seems to be an issue right now. Freeland looked lost catching the ball on offense, and he looked lost with the ball in his hands. More reps might help. Let’s hope.