Even while the rest of the world makes oh-so-clever remarks, Luke’s teammates still have confidence enough in him to feed him the ball
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) December 4, 2012
I’ve screamed a lot of obscenities at Luke Babbitt over the years he’s spent with the Blazers. Not in person, of course, and not out loud at home games. But still, there have been plenty of times in Luke’s career when for one reason or another I find myself cursing up a storm as a direct result of something he’s done.
Here’s thing the thing, though, about Babbitt. I curse him when he misses because I know he is totally capable of hitting threes at will, and I curse him when he refuses to shoot because if he’s on the court he needs to be letting it fly. Monday night in Charlotte, I was screaming at Luke Babbitt for an entirely different reason. There he was, when Portland needed him most, not just knocking down open three pointers (one to make it a two possession game and one to tie at the end of the fourth quarter, and a third to give Portland a four-point lead and basically seal the game in overtime), but rebounding, playing defense, and helping to facilitate the flow of the offense (Luke picked up a nice assist on a Nicolas Batum three at the start of overtime that helped set the tone for the extra period).
I know it sounds demeaning and mean, especially considering that I was just building this guy up, but for the closing run and the overtime, Luke Babbitt actually looked like a professional basketball player.
Does that mean he should get sole credit for Portland’s fantastic comeback and gutsy win? No. It was a team effort. But getting a guy like Luke Babbitt to show up in the clutch is the kind of thing this team is going to need to do to get wins. The Blazers have to play who they have. They have to utilize the bench whether we as fans like it or not. Guys like Luke are going to have to step up. Monday night showed that just because Luke has never been clutch in the past doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
But like I said, this comeback win belongs to more than just Luke Babbitt. The Blazers got big scores to close out Monday’s game from Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum. Even Sasha Pavlovic contributed a three. I know Sasha looked awful. He blew a defensive assignment so badly the second he checked in that for a moment Portland looked like a city league team who deserved the criticism such as this tweet that it was getting from some of he NBA’s best and brightest scribes. And I know that right after he nailed a corner three he air-balled a three from the top of the key (his second air-ball of the quarter). But when a team is coming back from almost 20 down in less than 10 minutes, every single bucket, even those scored by Sasha Pavlovic, are important.
Like the double-overtime dance in Cleveland, it’s going to be hard to really be objective about Monday night. The most important thing is that Portland won. For right now, at least in my opinion since I’m anti tanking, winning is the paramount. How it’s done is secondary as long as it’s done. Of course there are improvements to be made, even in a situation such as Monday’s that ended in a net positive outcome.
First and foremost, the Blazers can’t start as slowly at the beginning of quarters like they did Monday night. Against a team like Charlotte, Portland can come back from not scoring for four minutes to start the fourth quarter, but even facing a team like the Bobcats the Blazers needed some breaks and an extra period to make up for bumbling through the opening possessions at the beginning of each of Monday night’s quarters. Against the better teams in the league, getting behind by double digits in a game’s first 12 minutes will be a death blow. Just look at what happened in Boston.
More than just fixing slow starts, Portland really really needs to start playing defense. It seems like every night the Blazers’ opponents are getting any shot they want from anywhere on the floor. Monday night Ben Gordon not only nearly won the game by himself, before Portland picked themselves up and made their run to victory, Ben Gordon was blowing out the Blazers. Gordon’s shooting might not be the best example of how the Blazers were struggling on defense, he’s one of those NBA shooters who can get hot in seconds flat and make a dozen three-pointers in a row.
Still though, Portland’s defense is sorely lacking. I don’t blame lack of effort, not really. Monday when the Blazers needed to stop Gordon, Kemba Walker, and Ramon Sessions at the end of regulation they got some very good on the ball defense. I think Portland’s issue right now has more to do with personnel. Currently this team does not have a rim protector, meaning that a team like Charlotte, with quick ball handlers who attack the hoop, can get a lot of good looks from up close. It also means that Portland’s guards have to collapse on the ball to have a chance to make stops. It’s that collapsing by the guards that lead to kick-outs for open threes and weak-side cuts to the hoop for dunks. J.J. Hickson has shown some proficiency rebounding and is a big body inside, but LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t much of a shot blocker, even if he did block three shots Monday night.
However, getting Hickson and LA to change up their play isn’t the answer to this problem. My answer is Meyers Leonard. He’s this team’s shot blocker. He’s the kind of guy who can change the way Portland plays defense. The catch-22 with Meyers Leonard, of course, is he needs time to improve. That time probably translates into losses for the Blazers. Monday wasn’t the best of Meyers. In 17 minutes, Meyers scored four points, blocked a shot, and grabbed three rebounds. Not great numbers for a guy who’s 7’1”. The stat to look at though is that Meyers made it 17 minutes and only picked up two fouls. The more shifts Meyers goes without getting in foul trouble, the more minutes he can play. The more minutes he can play, the better he gets. The better he gets, the more significant a role he can play. Give Meyers a significant role, and Portland will have some of that rim protection they so desperately need.
So porous defense and slow starts put Portland in the position to need a furious comeback and a strong overtime period to beat the Bobcats. But in between stretches of letting Monday’s game get away from them, the Blazers actually did some pretty good stuff.
The places to look for positives in Monday’s box score are the usual spots. Damian Lillard finished with 24 points and nine assists, spearheaded Portland’s fourth quarter comeback, and guided the Blazers through overtime. Dame’s shot wasn’t falling Monday, but he made up for it by getting to the line 14 times.
LaMarcus Aldridge was also in fine form. LA converted on 12 of his 17 field goal attempts for 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. The best part of Monday for LaMarcus was that he was finishing at the rim. Only two of LA’s field goal attempts came from 19 feet out or further. LaMarcus split those two deep attempts.
The overwhelming majority of LA’s attempts, both makes and misses, came in the paint. Getting closer to the hoop is where LaMarcus does the bulk of his damage. He’s been shooting a lot more for the outside this season, games like Monday’s will probably go a long way to convince him playing in front of the rim is the way to go.
Beyond their “Big Two,” the Blazers got important contributions from Wesley Matthews (19 points, three big threes, four incredibly clutch free throws), and Nicolas Batum (17 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, and a block). For the second game in a row, Portland got balanced scoring off the bench. Babbitt’s nine points helped a lot, but every Blazer who played scored. That happened in Cleveland too. Twice in two games, it’s starting to look like a trend.
Here’s another thing to ponder. For probably the first time this season Portland won with a starter playing less than 20 minutes and not scoring at least 10 points. The odd man out was J.J. Hickson. J.J. got the short end of the stick because of match-ups, but it shows improvement that a top-five guy can have an off night and it doesn’t sink the whole ship. If that doesn’t spell progress to you, then I don’t know what would.
The Blazers have a chance to make it three in a row and try to make up for some of the bad feelings that come from losing to the Wizards and the Pistons when they close out this road trip in Indiana on Wednesday.
I’ll leave you with this:
- Portland is 4-0 in overtime games. Four OT games (five total overtime periods) in 17 games is a bit excessive and could very well catch up with this team come the end of the season, but I’ll take all four of those wins.
I’ll also leave you with this:
you know if Portland is going to come back in five minutes Luke is the guy that’s going to make it happen…
— Rip City Project (@ripcityproject) December 4, 2012