This is the type of performance that wins Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard has 27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 turnovers vs Spurs
— Jason Quick (@jwquick) December 14, 2012
The above tweet came before Thursday’s final whistle. Damian Lillard finished Portland’s best win of the season over the Western Conference leading San Antonio Spurs with 29 points, six assists, seven rebounds, and only two turn overs. And yes, that is the kind of performance that wins somebody the Rookie of the Year award.
But to hear Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts tell it, that might be about the least important thing on his mind or on the minds of this team. There will be games in the future that are more meaningful than Thursday’s. There will be games in the future that are played for higher stakes than those played for on Thursday. But to the untrained eye, this win was about as good as it gets for 2012-13. And the fact that to a man these Blazers wanted it to be known that this was just another win, even if it was a big one, should tell you just what this team thinks it’s capable of.
Thursday night could have been trouble for Portland. San Antonio showed up at the Rose Garden with the best record in the league even after a last-second loss Wednesday in Salt Lake City. The stage was set for a schooling. But instead of letting that happen, the Blazers got easily their most balanced and best top to bottom performance of the season.
Ben Golliver made a pretty astute observation in the middle of Thursday’s first quarter when he mentioned to me that Portland was playing so well that it was a bit of a shock they weren’t leading by more. The Spurs are that kind of team. Even when a team plays at their very best, which Portland was doing for most of the first quarter, they aren’t going to be able to put much distance between themselves and San Antonio.
The thing, however, that was significantly different Thursday night than any other night of this season, was that their first quarter ended up not being the outlier. The Spurs are going to always play very steady basketball, and Thursday it didn’t seem to matter how well Portland played, they couldn’t extend their lead into the double digits. But that didn’t stop the Blazers from trying, and it was that trying, a trait that can be classified as effort, that kept the home team in the game.
It’s strange to talk about the Blazers hanging around in a game they commanded at times and dictated most of the way, but that’s the way Thursday felt. Portland hanging on, just waiting for the explosion of scoring from San Antonio that would deflate the home crowd and restore the natural order. That scoring spurt never came though, and as the seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter you could see a team growing before your eyes.
And that’s why Stotts wants to focus on the things his team did well in this game but doesn’t want to say that one Thursday night in December is going to push Damian over the top in the ROY chase or define his first season as Portland’s head coach. It’s why Lillard himself said Thursday was a “stepping stone,” and not a “signature win.” When a young team beats the Spurs, all the Spurs, and when you do it on a night when they shot more than twice as many free throws, seemed to get all the calls, and had a number of really good chances snuffed out by defense in the game’s final minute, it understandable for that team to begin to see their fate changing.
So what were the specific things Portland did Thursday that they haven’t done so far? And how can they build those elements into their regularly scheduled games so that they’ll continue to compete with good teams and not lose anymore to bad teams?
The start on Thursday has to be given a lot of credit. LaMarcus Aldridge had his jump shot going early (5-of-7 from the field in the first quarter). The Blazers got some contributions off the bench in the first quarter (Nolan Smith and Sasha Pavlovic did well in their early minutes). Lillard overcame a bit of a slow start, but scored 10 points in the second quarter. Portland led at halftime. Those are all big positives that contributed to the eventual outcome.
How can a fast start be replicated? It’s hard to say. The bulk of Portland’s early possessions went to LaMarcus. He knocked down his shots. His makes got him into the game. That’s what the Blazers need. When he’s engaged, LaMarcus can be deadly.
Bench contributions have been up and down. Success from the bench is self-fulfilling. If Portland’s bench plays well, they’ll get more minutes. If they get more minutes, they’ll build confidence. If they get confidence, they’ll play well. Luke Babbitt has revived his career in a few short weeks. I know it seems extreme to say that, but in a sense it’s true. Babbitt hasn’t played this much or this consistently at any other point that wasn’t last season’s closing race to the bottom. The minutes are paying off. Thursday Luke led the bench with 12 points, and he didn’t do it all from behind the three-point line. Babbitt was 5-of-10 from the field, but only 2-of-7 from deep.
Luke has said before that the deep ball is where his strength lies. I don’t disagree. He needs to play the stretch four. He needs to knock down open looks when he gets them. However, if he can build consistency with his mid-range jumper, if he can add the drive, he can become a well rounded basketball player. Sure it’s disappointing that it’s taking him this long to get close to his potential. But that he’s there at all considering how everything has gone in his career is a pleasant surprise. I guarantee not even the most devoted Blazer fan would have thought Luke Babbitt would be a key contributor in Portland’s biggest win of the season.
As for Lillard. Well, that one kind of takes care of itself. Anybody who is shocked that Damian was the difference maker Thursday night hasn’t watched the Blazers much this season. Against the Raptors on Monday, Dame wasn’t making shots, but he was able to influence the game with his smart ball handling and his pin-point passing. In that game, that was all that was needed. With the national TV spotlight shinning, and the best team in the league and not one of the worst, Lillard brought all of his tools to work. There’s a very good chance we’ll see a lot more games from Damian like Thursday’s.
I definitely agree with coach Stotts that with 60 games left nothing has been accomplished yet. I also think, though, if Portland can find a way to get Thursday to be the template for the future, that future might be brighter than some think.
The Blazers face Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday back at the Rose Garden.
One quick thing:
- Thursday Damian Lillard collected a season-high in scoring with 29. I tweeted as such, and received a few responses correcting me that it was a career high. Veteran Spurs beat writer Mike Monroe, covering the team for theSan Antonio Express-News informed me that rookies can’t have career highs. I tend to believe a guy who’s been at it almost as long as I’ve been alive.