I’ve been sitting on my couch staring at my computer screen for the last half hour or so trying to think how to best begin my final recap of 2012.
I could start with what’s important: The Blazers committed to four quarters of effective defense, made plays on both ends of the court when they needed to be made, and beat a pretty decent Philadelphia 76ers team to finish the month of December 9-4 and get back to one game above .500.
I could start with what’s sensational: While going for a rebound early in the game’s fourth quarter, Portland’s rookie center Meyers Leonard landed awkwardly, turned his ankle, inverted his knee, and crumpled to the hardwood. The super slow-motion replay, as it is wont to do, made it look like Meyers might need to put out a Craiglist ad for a new leg. Twitter had a mini-explosion, as it is wont to do. And though his post-game X-rays were negative, Meyers didn’t speak to media, and per the team will not travel with the team when they leave tomorrow for their next big road trip.
Not traveling is not a good sign, but there’s a chance Meyers will meet up with the team later on in the week if his injury turns out to be not as bad as it looked. The positive here is that Leonard, as he is, is not a major element of this team. Losing him for an extended period is bad for his development. If his injury turns out to be serious, well we all know how that goes. But let’s see how this progresses before we all fall over ourselves talking about the “next Blazer center to succumb to injury.”
Or, I could start with the strange: Damian Lillard made it through his first NBA game without an assist, and for the first time this season his team won without reaching 90 points.
How does a guy averaging just over six and a half assists a game go 48 minutes without getting one? That Portland shot 45% from field is at least partially responsible. Equal responsibility for Dame’s O-fer should be given to the fact that Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Ronnie Price combined for 16 assists. With 34 made baskets as a team, that’s three players not named Damian Lillard delivering almost half of Portland’s dimes.
Other guys getting assists, especially Ronnie Price, is not a bad thing. The Lakers dominated the Blazers by defending Lillard as if he were Kobe Bryant. Although most teams aren’t going to commit to the type of defense the Lakers played, teams around the league are going to game-plan for a way to keep the ball out of Lillard’s hands. When that happens, some other guys are going to have to step up to make the offense work. Try not to think of Damian’s goose-egg in the assists column as a bad thing. Think of it as a good thing that other guys can make passes that lead to buckets. Sure Dame doesn’t want to become a point guard who doesn’t get assists, but as he was saying after the game, he was making the same plays he always makes, some of the shots just weren’t falling.
And what about 89 points being enough to get a win? The win is a positive; Portland’s scoring slowly stalling out is. The Blazers won on Saturday because when Philly stepped up their defense, they responded with defense. The Sixers only scored less than 20 in one of Saturday’s four quarters. It was the fourth and deciding quarter, and it happened in part because Portland’s back court players, again Ronnie Price specifically, were active in the lane, getting deflections, and generally disrupting Philly’s offensive flow. On top of that, the Blazers were finishing defensive possessions with rebounds.
The Sixers went scoreless for almost the entire final minute of Saturday’s game. In that time, Philly missed two three-point attempts, with Portland securing the rebound both times. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but eight of the Sixers’ 14 offensive rebounds came in the game’s final 12 minutes. Philly was crashing the offensive glass hard to close the game, a good strategy when trying to drum up the extra possessions needed to complete a comeback.
When plays fall apart, and possessions become scrambles late in games, teams can become vulnerable. Vets like Jason Richardson and shooters like Nick Young and Dorrell Wright can make a team pay when they lose sight of them after an offensive rebound. Ensuring that those offensive rebounds didn’t happen, and avoiding those extra possessions, helped Portland lock down the win.
And so 2012 ends on a high note for the Blazers. 2013 starts in a difficult place, with the Blazers on the road where their record is basically inverse of their home record. The true story Saturday, and where I really should have started this recap, is that this young Portland team showed pretty outstanding poise by not letting a big loss against the Lakers in LA keep them from getting a tough win the next night.
In his post game remarks, Damian Lillard used words like “confidence,” and “something to play for” when asked about how his team has grown since heading out on the road at the end of November. He also said his Blazers were getting better by continually bouncing back every time the lose to fall below .500.
Improvement is important. There’s almost no way to deny that Portland showed tangible improvement from Friday night in Los Angeles to Saturday night in the Rose City. The Blazers might fall on their faces in January. But they can at least be proud that through December they managed to establish themselves squarely in the middle of the Western Conference.
The Blazers fly on Sunday, and play their first of four tough games against the New York Knicks on Monday.
Couple of quick notes:
- I spoke to Damian briefly about playing in Madison Square Garden on Monday. He said when he faces the Knicks it will be his first time playing in MSG, but don’t hold your breath thinking he’s going to make a big deal out of it. Lillard has shown on almost every front that he isn’t about being an awe shucks kind of rookie who’s just happy to be in the league. He hasn’t been starry eyed about anything. Not his numbers, not his opponents, and certainly not where his games are played. Friday was his first time playing in the Staples Center in Los Angeles too. Just like getting his first professional double-double and getting his first league-wide award, running in the NBA’s most historic gyms is just another thing for Lillard.
- Speaking of league-wide recognition for Damian, Mike Tokito of The Oregonian has this tweet about the possibility of Lillard winning his second consecutive Rookie of the Month award.
- If you’re looking to buy Meyers Leonard a book to read to pass the time while he rehabs his ankle (if he is going to miss time to rehab that is) maybe think of grabbing him the latest from Lee Child. He had at least one of Child’s novels sitting in his stall in the Blazers’ locker room. For those who don’t know, Lee Child is the author of the Jack Reacher novels.