Luke Babbitt helped lead Portland to victory over the Charlotte Bobcats in November, one of the best wins of the first half of the season. Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

41 Down (Part Two): Best, Worst, Surprises, and Disappointments


The Blazers have had their fair share of ups and downs through 41 games. In this second of a two-part mid-season recap, I’ll break down Portland’s best games and their worst, and also expound some on what I think are both the biggest surprises and the biggest disappointments of first half of 2012-13.

Best Games (In Chronological Order)

Wednesday October 31st 2012 vs. the Los Angeles Lakers

Opening Night of 2012-13 pitted the most hyped team in the league (the Los Angeles Lakers) against a young team with no depth and not much of a chance (the Portland Trail Blazers). It also featured a match-up between a sure-fire Hall of Famer (Steve Nash) and a virtually untested rookie point guard who was bringing a certain level of serious hype with him into the NBA (Damian Lillard).

Though that first win has lost some luster just a bit given how badly the Lakers have played this season, I can’t think of a better way to start 2012-13 than a very solid 116-106 victory in front of a frothing home crowd desperately in need of something to cheer about.

The Game One victory was about more than just the score, though. Damian Lillard’s 23 points and 11 assists in his debut put him on lists that include the debuts of LeBron James (at least 21 points and at least nine assists) and Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas (at least 20 points and at least 10 assists). Some people around the league guessed that Lillard was going to be good; nobody thought he was going to be historically good.

Here’s what I wrote about Portland’s first win at the time.

Monday December 3rd 2012 at the Charlotte Bobcats (OT)

Portland’s win over the Bobcats in overtime stands alone. It’s also a stand in for the Blazers’ first four overtime victories. To the OT wins first. Portland won their first overtime game on their third night of the season, beating the Rockets in Houston 95-85. The Rockets were 2-0 at the time, and with the James Harden trade they were the hottest thing on ESPN this side of Tim Tebow.

The Blazers won again in overtime against the Rockets, this time at home on the 16th of November. Portland’s second OT win came after a furious comeback, and showed that although this team will get down, they’re going to fight for 48 minutes. The Blazers’ third OT win was one of their best wins of the season and helped them get off the schneid on their first extended road trip of the season. I’m talking of course about Portland’s thriller in Cleveland that took two extra periods and was capped by a do or die game-winning three from Nicolas Batum. Which brings me to the game in question.

There have been a lot of very remarkable comebacks in Blazer history. Coming back from down 18 against one of the worst teams in the league, probably doesn’t crack the all-time top 10, but it was still a thing of beauty. The Houston overtime games were against a better team; beating Cleveland in double overtime was the manifestation of not giving up. The Charlotte comeback, though, showed that if and when this Blazer team puts their mind to it, they can accomplish quite a lot.

Also this:

Here’s my recap.

Thursday December 13th 2012 vs. the San Antonio Spurs

The two spots on ABC on Christmas Day are the marquee games of any NBA season. Those afternoons are reserved for the biggest names in the league. This season those games went to two of the most financially successful franchises, the Lakers and the Knicks, and the participants in last season’s NBA Finals, the Heat and the Thunder.

For most teams, national TV games are few and far between. ESPN games are nice, but a mid-week TNT game is the mother lode for a small market team like the Blazers. In 2012-13, Portland has five TNT games, or basically one every month. They lost their first TNT game of the season to the LA Clippers, so they were out for redemption the second time the Blazers were included in TNT’s Thursday-night double header. That evening, more than any before it, Damian Lillard was introduced to the national audience. Dame finished with  29 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, and helped his team t0 their biggest win of the season. Here’s the proof TNT learned to love Damian Lillard on this night.

Here’s what I wrote.

Tuesday January 1st 2013 at the New York Knicks

Winning in Madison Square Garden. Not much more you can say about that. Just watch.

 Here’s what I had to say about it.

Thursday January 10th 2013 vs. the Miami Heat

Biggest win of the season. Biggest win at home since probably Game 4 of the first round of the Playoffs against Dallas.

Again, just watch.

My take.

Worst Games (Also in Chronological Order)

Wednesday November 28th 2012 at the Washington Wizards

Whenever you lose to a team that hasn’t won a game, that game usually ends up on the list of worst games of the season. Washington is probably a better team than their nine-win record, but they still aren’t any better than the very bottom rung of the NBA. The Wizards didn’t quite run the Blazers out of their gym this Wednesday night in November (the final score was 84-82 in favor of the home team), but losing to Washington is probably not a great idea, regardless of the final score.

A couple things jump out from this game. One, Portland’s bench contributed a grand total of four points compared to the 46 points that came off the Wizard’s bench. And two, Sasha Pavlovic, in just under eight and a half minutes clocked a +/- of +11 to lead BOTH teams.

My recap.

Friday November 30th 2012 at the Boston Celtics

Say what you will about losing games, as Portland has been doing this month, the Blazers have showed up every night. Scratch that, the Blazers have showed up every night except for November 30th in Boston.

Outclassed is something that gets thrown a lot around sports writing and shouting. It usually means that one team played like professionals and the other didn’t, not that one team is a bunch of classy dudes and the other is a group of classless ingrates. Portland has been severely outclassed probably only once, and it was this night in Boston.

At the time of this game, I took some solace in watching the Blazers’ deep bench unit get some run and make some things happen. I thought, naively, that getting into a game in Boston, despite it being a wire-to-wire blowout, might kick start the slow going careers of Joel Freeland and Victor Claver. I was wrong, so add that to the heap of things that made this loss one of the worst.

This is my short game report.

Nothing went well for Portland in Boston in mid November. Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday December 8th 2012 vs. the Sacramento Kings

They say that often the most difficult game of an extended road trip is the first game back at home.  December 8th was Portland’s first home game of the month. They were looking for some rest and relaxation and a get-right night against an over-matched opponent. What they got was a blowout loss. What followed was speculation about how bad everything was going to get in 2012-13 for the Blazers.

In a crude twist of fate, Portland reeled off 10 wins in their next 13 games. All was forgotten about their early December loss to the Kings. Maybe if they’d won this game, then lost a few more in December, we would be a little happier right now about a 20-21 record through 41 games.

This is what I wrote.

Wednesday January 2nd 2013 at the Toronto Raptors

The first week in January might very well be the best week of 2012-13. That week, Portland won three of four road games, a major improvement in road play over the month of November, beating the Knicks, the Timberwolves, and the Grizzlies. But on Wednesday January 2nd, the Raptors ruined what could have been a great little undefeated roadie.

Toronto shot the Blazers out of the Air Canada Centre and had Blazer fans in two countries wailing through tears with their heads in their hands “but, but we beat the Knicks.” At least one Portland-based dude loved it though. Jefferson High School graduate Terrance Ross hung 26 points on his hometown team, hitting six of his nine three-point attempts. Some son of the Rose City that is.

I said this about it.

Wednesday January 16th 2013 vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers

Another game Portland probably should have won. Another comeback ending just a little too early. Another indication that the Blazers’ lack of depth is a killer.

Also this happened, and made the rounds the next day.

Overall, not the best night for the home team.

The opinions express herein (especially with regards to what is and isn’t a travel) are apparently mine only.

Biggest Surprise

Portland’s top four

After the house cleaning of 2011-12, the Blazers were down to five players on the roster (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, and Elliot Williams). Big changes needed to be made, not just at the front office/coaching level, but with the roster as a whole.

When big changes weren’t made (no Roy Hibbert and only third and fourth tier off-season signings) Blazer fans could have been forgiven if they thought 2012-13 was going to be a year-long tank fest. Given that Portland is right now on a serious slide, tanking might still be in the future, but as of right now, 20-21 puts the Blazers right in the hunt. The reason for that is clear, Portland has one of the better starting line-ups in the league. Omit J.J. Hickson, and you’re looking at a very excellent core of four big-time players.

Here’s the breakdown of how well the Blazers’ top core (consisting of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews) are playing.

Lillard: 4th in the league in minutes played, 12th in field goals attempted, tied for 5th in made three-point field goals, 4th in three-point attempts, 11th in assists, tied for 16th in total points, 6th in minutes per game, 17th in points per game, 14th in assists per game

Aldridge: 19th in the league in minutes played, tied for 7th in total field goals made, 14th in free throws, 17th in free throw attempts, 20th in defensive rebounds, 8th in total points, 12th in minutes per game, 9th in points per game, 19th in rebounds per game

Batum: 6th in the league in minutes played, 4th in made three-point field goals, 3rd in three-point attempts, 3rd in minutes per game

Matthews: 19th in made three-point field goals

Lillard is leading the charge in making the top-20 in various statistical categories, but each of Portland’s main four guys appears at least once in a pretty exhaustive list of top-20s on basketball-reference.com. More than that, the distribution is pretty nice. Lillard is ahead of Batum in one category, but then behind LaMarcus in another, who is ahead of Nic in a third. Portland is thin at the top, but all four members of the Blazers’ core are carrying their individual weight.

The one other thing to think about when it comes to Portland’s starting line-up is that there are no redundancies. There is no question who starts at point guard, shooting guard, small forward, or power forward. The depth chart is set. Although internal competition can be good, limiting redundancies helps keep people happy and makes the off-season list of wants and needs that much more clear.

All things considered, Portland’s top four trumps the emergence of Damian Lillard, the continued growth of Wesley Matthews, the star-turn of Nicolas Batum, and the stalwart-ness of LaMarcus Aldridge. Mainly because it’s the easiest way to combine all those surprising elements into one big surprise.

Biggest Disappointment

Meyers Leonard

I’ve gotten a little flack already for being too hard on Meyers Leonard for giving him a D in my mid-season grades. I stand by it though. For my money, Portland’s second lottery pick has been pretty disappointing. Does that mean I think he’s a bust? No. Does that mean that I think he can’t be a big-time player? Absolutely not, not for even a second.

What it means is that I think Meyers is a long-term project, and the long-term plan for this team might not include a lot of time to teach a freak athlete how to play professional basketball. At his best this season, Meyers has showed that he can finish around the rim and that he has a nice little shooting touch. At his worst, though, he has looked lost on defense and in over his head on offense.

Portland isn’t running plays for him right now, I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, and even though Meyers has shown signs of improving, I can see very little difference between his play in Game One and his play in Game 41.

For my money, Leonard struggles the most in one-on-one defensive scenarios, he very rarely is in position to get a contested rebound, and his situational awareness is almost nil. Case in point, Wednesday night in the first game back for Meyers in which he actually played (he missed time for an injury and that could have stalled his development some, but I’m not really buying it), he collected an offensive rebound off a shot that hadn’t draw iron to reset the shot clock. Meyers came down with the ball, but had his back to the basket. The final three seconds were clicking off the shot clock, and Meyers had no idea. He held the ball for a second, then tossed it to Damian Lillard who had to heave a contested 25-footer that missed.

The potential is there for Meyers, there’s no doubt about that. He’s shooting touch, especially from the line, is great to see. He’s HUGE and going to bulk up. He’s as athletic as they come. I’m just not sure, with the way things are going with the Blazers, if Meyers wouldn’t be better served playing on a team that was a little worse so he could get more consistent minutes.

Adding a center has been stated as one of Neil Olshey’s off-season tasks. LaMarcus Aldridge has talked openly about wanting to play with an elite center. Following Saturday’s loss to Milwaukee (the first game with Meyers back on the active roster), Terry Stotts said rather bluntly, when asked if Leonard wasn’t healthy enough to play or if he had been held out for match-up reasons, that there just weren’t any minutes for Meyers. Blazer fans might worry about that going forward. I know I do.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | mike.acker1@gmail.com

Portland’s core, led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, have been a big surprise in the first half of 2012-13. Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

 

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