It seems very unlikely that Blazer fans will ever see another game quite like the “game” that was played Monday night in the Rose Garden. On any other night, the team that takes and misses 20 three-point field goals and shoots a hair over 40% from the field is probably the team that loses. Monday, Portland played like one of the worst teams in the NBA. Luckily the only other team that played worse than the Blazers happened to be sharing their court.
The Toronto Raptors are the kind of team Portland fans should hope the Blazers do not become. Toronto’s star, if you can call him that, is in the process of being run out of town. Their big off season acquisition hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, or at least he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. A couple of their young guys have been inconsistent. They’ve lost more than four games for each one that they’ve won. Things are not good.
Monday, things were not good for the Raptors on a pretty epic scale. Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry, the aforementioned star and acquisition respectively, played a combined 25 minutes and scored a total of three points. Mickael Pietrus, a one-time sure shooting sniper, went an abysmal 3-of-13 from the field and 1-of-7 from three. DeMar Derozan scored 20 points, but he took 16 shots to get there. Aaron Gray had to play almost nine minutes.
Also, Amir Johnson did this:
To say this was a bad game for the Raptors, is probably a bit of an understatement.
Things were far from great on Portland’s end. Damian Lillard went 2-of-14 from the field, Victor Claver (getting his first career start and seeing his longest extended run since pre-season) hit on only two of his 12 field goal attempts, Sasha Pavlovic shot 5-of-12, Nolan Smith shot 4-of-10, Luke Babbitt shot 2-of-9, and as a team the Blazers shot a historically bad 0-of-20 from three.
The difference for Portland came from LaMarcus Aldridge shooting 11-of-19 from the field for 30 points, and J.J. Hickson shooting 7-of-7 from the field for 16 points. Most nights, two guys playing decent basketball isn’t enough. Monday it was.
In my game preview, I predicted that it would be LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard who would be tasked to win Monday’s game all by themselves. I was half right. Although I’m a fan of J.J. Hicksons’ playing, and his 16 points certainly helped the Blazers achieve a much needed win, I’d like to spend some time talking about the half of my prediction that I got wrong.
Lillard regression game happening.
— Clint Peterson (@Clintonite33) December 11, 2012
The above Tweet dropped at some point in the middle of Monday’s game. At the time I chose not to respond because I didn’t really disagree, and I didn’t want to be exposed for the homer that I am. Yes Damian had a rough night Monday, and yes it’s very likely that some of his hot start will be neutralized by bumps in the road that every rookie experiences. But to call it a regression game is a bit harsh.
Without Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum in the offense, Damian was called on to do a lot more to keep the Blazers on the score board. Also, with outside shooters not on the floor, Toronto’s bigs were free to collapse to the rim on every drive. Those factors helped to explain Damian’s shooting struggles from the field. His three-point shooting struggles can’t be explained away by lack of personnel, but I will say that often shooting woes can be contagious. So that’s how I rationalize an otherwise uninspiring offensive performance from Damian Lillard.
But the real reason Monday’s was not a regression game for Portland’s big-time rookie was because he does so much more than just score points, and on Monday while he was having a rough night putting the ball in the basket, the rest of his game didn’t slip.
“Just because I’m not making shots doesn’t mean I put my head down and just clock out of the game,” Damian told me after the game. “There’s still plays to be made, I still need to defend. I still need to be there supporting my teammates. If I’m not making shots that means somebody else is.”
It’s this mentality, that he can and is the leader of this team, that separates Lillard from other rookies. And it’s his ability to stick to that mentality even when he’s having an off night that keeps him moving forward even after a game like Monday, a game that will certainly hurt his shooting percentage numbers.
One thing that is truly amazing about Lillard, is that he is still very clearly learning how to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of his game. Damian’s pull-up game is very strong. His deep ball can be deadly (not when it doesn’t go down of course). Finishing at the rim, especially in traffic, isn’t his strongest attribute, but he believes in himself and he’s willing to throw his body into the lane. The key for Dame going forward is going to be figuring out which weapons in his arsenal to deploy at what time.
Monday was not a strong example of good decision making, but he’s still working on it.
“It’s all a read for me,” Damian said when I asked him about his process of deciding when and how to attack on offense. “Depending on how they play the ball screens it’s all a read for me. In my head everything’s pretty simple, it’s just a matter of making the shots or making the right pass. I just didn’t make the shots tonight.”
It won’t be like that every night. At some point those shots will go in. At some point his defensive reads will be more proactive than reactive. And at some point, he’ll make the right call between pulling up in the lane for the jumper, or diving to the rim for the lay-up, or passing off to an open shooter in the corner. The purpose of a night like Monday is for Damian to learn and improve at game speed. That’s what he does and will continue to do.
I’ll get on board for a regression game from Lillard when he has a game that doesn’t include three assists and no turnovers in a decisive fourth quarter after having gone three quarters with only three assists and two turnovers. I’ll get on board for a regression game when Damian plays 35 and a half minutes, every offensive possession with the ball in his hands, and turns the ball over more than twice.
Games like that are coming. They have to, he is a rookie after all. But Monday wasn’t one of them.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the unquestioned highlight of the evening. With 5:42 remaining in the game’s final quarter, one Luke Babbitt caught the ball on the wing, pumped-faked Mikael Pietrus into next week, and then drove hard to hoop to dunk on Ed Davis with two hands.
I’ll leave you with the video evidence.
The Blazers face a much more formidable opponent in the San Antonio Spurs Thursday at the Rose Garden.