Dec. 22, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) brings the ball up the court during the fourth quarter of the game against the Phoenix Suns at the Rose Garden. Lillard scored 25 points as the Blazers won the game 96-93. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Game 25 Recap: Blazers 96, Suns 93

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The point guard of the future is like a mythical creature. Teams are always looking for one, and very rarely is there one to found. Prior to Saturday’s tip-off, Ben Golliver from Blazersedge and I had a short conversation about Kendall Marshall, the Phoenix Suns’ rookie point guard from the University of North Carolina. Taken with the 13th overall pick (two spots after Meyers Leonard and seven after Damian Lillard), Marshall was the second point guard selected.

A pick that high would usually be used on a guy likely to be a contributor. Austin Rivers, taken 10th is the second head of a two-headed rookie comeback for the New Orleans Hornets. Jeremy Lamb, the number 12 pick, hasn’t contributed much yet, but he was thought highly enough of by the Oklahoma City Thunder that he was made part of the deal with Houston for James Harden.

Kendall Marshall, a potential point guard of the future, however has been relegated to the D-League already once this season where he played poorly to say the least, and Saturday night collected a DNP-CD. Not the stat line of a future franchise player.

So why do I start a game recap by talking about a guy that didn’t see a single second of action? For two reasons. Damian Lillard and Sebastian Telfair. Sebastian Telfair is Portland’s point guard of the future who didn’t work out; Damian Lillard is (as of right now) the one who did. Saturday they squared off, and Blazer fans got a chance to see just how important a good point guard of the future can be.

After a rough first half in which Lillard shot a rather paltry 1-of-4 from the field and 0-of-2 from deep and his team trailed 53-44, Damian was instrumental in leading a third quarter comeback that didn’t just get the Blazers back into Saturday’s game, it put them in a position to win it. Not only that, once again, it was Damian with the ball in his hands with the game on the line and the clock winding down.

Look at Saturday’s play-by-play report (here‘s ESPN.com’s). With 6:49 left to play in the fourth quarter, Ronnie Price hit a driving lay-up to give Portland back the lead 84-83, a lead they wouldn’t surrender. Though Phoenix didn’t get their lead back, they didn’t go away either. To put Saturday on ice, the Blazers scored five more times.

Those scoring possessions break down as follows: 5:13 Lillard two free throws 86-83 Portland, 4:31 Sasha Pavlovic three-point field goal 89-85 Portland, 4:02 Lillard three-point field goal 92-85 Portland, 3:24 Lillard driving lay-up 94-87 Portland, 41.9 Lillard 19-foot step-back jumper 96-91 Portland.

Take a look at that. Five scoring possessions, including a trip to the free throw line, four of them coming from Damian Lillard. The topic of Damian playing “hero ball” has been discussed, and although I agree that tagging a young player, or a player of any age for that matter, as the guy who needs the ball at the end of games can have it’s downsides, I choose to think of Damian’s late game play (heroics maybe?) in a slightly different way.

The Blazers are a young team, and even if you agree with the infinitely wise Scott Leedy that winning right now isn’t in their best interests, it’s nights like Saturday that really point to a brighter future, not next year’s number one pick, or the top pick in the year after that. Because of that, I like to say that getting the ball late and making plays at the end of games is Damian’s way of leading by example. He wants his team to win games, and Saturday the best way for his team to win games was for him to have and then score the ball. Maybe that’s “hero ball,” and maybe that puts too much pressure on Lillard or limits Portland’s options, but it also shows that he’s not afraid of big moments and that when needed he can thrive in crunch time.

Following Saturday’s game, Lillard went as far as to say he’s not worried about making mistakes because he wants to show his teammates that he’s willing to take the responsibility of making things happen. Taking that responsibility means having offensive possessions like the one Damian had to try and close the game for the Blazers. With Portland going flat, Lillard attacked the basket basically one on five. Phoenix collapsed on him, he went up into a crowd, and Marcin Gortat came down with the ball for the Suns.

Portland was up three with the ball at the start of the possession, so worst case scenario the Blazers would get a final look with the game tied, but it was still a gutsy move, and something of a gamble. With shooters on the floor, Damian could have tired to work the ball around the perimeter. With LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson both in the game and having great nights, Damian could have thrown the ball into the post and let one of the vets try to win the game. Instead he decided to go it alone. “Hero ball,” certainly, and if Phoenix had converted a three instead of running out the clock without getting a solid look and then done something insane like won in overtime this would be a very different conversation. But Portland won, and Damian excelled, and maybe next time when he’s got the ball on the final possession to try and put a game away he converts. Damian will never built the confidence or the skills needed to make that kind of thing happen if he doesn’t try and fail.

Which brings me back to the whole point guard of the future, Sebastian Telfair, Kendall Marshall thing. Sebastian Telfair had a chance to be Portland’s point guard of the future and failed. Kendall Marshall hasn’t been given the chance to be Phoenix’s point guard of the future. Whether or not Marshall is ever given the chance to become an NBA player or lead his team in the way Damian Lillard has been given the chance to lead the Blazers is up for debate.

What isn’t up for debate, and what becomes more and more obvious with each passing night, is that with Lillard at the helm, a lot of things are possible for these Blazers.

With Portland now a game over .500 and in 9th in the Western Conference, some things are being brought up. One of those things, of course, is the Playoffs. Post game, Damian Lillard was asked about playing in the post season. He believes that his squad has that kind of potential.

I tend to agree that the potential is high with this team. It’s way too early to even think about the Playoffs though. Portland still has a lot of holes to fill, and a lot of things to figure out rotation-wise. Sean Highkin’s assessment via Twitter of the Blazers’ schedule thus far is also pretty right on. Portland has beaten teams they should be beating. They’re winning games they should win. It’s a positive step, but it’s just the first step. There are many more to come.

The Blazers travel to Sacramento for their first of a home-and-home to finish out the Kings-Blazers December To Remember.

Just a couple of quick things:

  • J.J. Hickson scored 13 points and collected 8 rebounds in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. Hickson finshed with 19 points and 15 rebounds for his seventh straight double-double. The last Blazer to collect seven double-doubles in a row was Arvydas Sabonis. Not bad company. For at least the four game in a row, Hickson has also been one of the first guys mentioned by head coach Terry Stotts in his post game press conference. We’ve reached a point now with J.J. where his numbers look legit. My guess is he maintains this level of play for at least a little while longer. And that’s where the trouble starts. Hickson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, meaning he will go to the highest bidder. Maybe that bidder will be Portland. However, the Blazers have a short-term window to get good before they have to do everything in their power to re-sign LaMarcus Aldridge, shelling out big bucks to Hickson following an outstanding contract year, only to then see him revert, is not conducive to the long-term LaMarcus Aldridge plan. The flip side, of course, is that if somebody goes big on Hickson and the Blazers let him walk (or if that somebody is a team J.J. thinks he’s better suited to or he’d rather play for than Portland) he leaves for nothing. The smart move is to trade him. Portland bought low on Hickson, and they have the chance to sell high. A trade isn’t a simple solution either, though. Imagine the Blazers trade Hickson, and then instead of falling back to where he was when he got waived out of Sacramento he continues to blossom and becomes and All-Star. J.J. is 24. He’s got a lot of NBA basketball left to play. Trading a guy at what you think is his best, then not reaping the benefits when he gets better, is not a smart move regardless of who comes back in the deal. My feeling is this. Blazer fans, enjoy what Hickson is doing right now, which isn’t hard to do, and then be prepared for the stress fest that will be his trade bait/FA period.
  • Luke Babbitt’s streak of consecutive games scoring in double figures ends at three.
  • I know I said it’s a bit early, and doing the Standings Watch last season might have been a jinx, but here goes. Standings Watch: Portland is currently number nine in the West, a half a game behind Denver, and a half a game ahead of Utah.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Jermaine O’Neal courtesy of The Oregonian‘s Mike Tokito. O’Neal has a special place in the heart of many Blazer fans. It’s nice to see him still hanging in there and contributing.

Box Score

Standings

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Dec. 22, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Phoenix Suns power forward Luis Scola (14) and Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat (4) go up to try and block the shot of Portland Trail Blazers center J.J. Hickson (21) during the first quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

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Tags: Blazers Damian Lillard JJ Hickson Suns

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