I haven’t been around the NBA for that long, longer than some, not nearly as long as many others, but in the time I’ve spent covering the Portland Trail Blazers, I’ve learned a couple of things. First, very few players ever go off script when talking to reporters. They’re trained well, they’ve dealt with media since before they started high school, they know the drill inside and out. I’m not saying that some of the stuff NBA players tell reporters after games isn’t genuine, I’m just saying that only the very best (or sometimes luckiest) beat writers ever get that much out of a post-game interview.
The second thing I’ve learned, though, flies in the face of the first thing I’ve learned. Regardless of how many “we played well, executed our sets, made our shots, played defense, got the win,” answers or spouted, the difference between the attitude in a winning locker room and the attitude in a losing locker room is about as stark as you can get.
For the last two weeks, the Blazers just have not been able to win. Losses at Golden State when Damian Lillard pours in 37 points and at home against the Thunder can be excused, but after dropping close ones to Washington, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, Portland’s post-game locker room was quiet as a crypt.
Players addressing the media did so in hushed voices. There was no laughing or joking around. The whole affair seemed perfunctory, like neither party really wanted to be there but for the sake of duty had no choice.
The locker room Wednesday night, though, following Portland’s very impressive 100-80 over the Indiana Pacers was anything but sombre. Addressing the media on this night seemed like anything but a chore. Certainly it’s only one win in their last seven, but it’s pretty safe to say that the Blazers were happier about this win then they’ve been about any other win for quite awhile.
And they had plenty of reasons to be happy Wednesday. Head coach Terry Stotts said to open his post-game presser that he thought Wednesday might, operative word might, have been the Blazers’ best 48-minute effort. Before he finished his sentence, veteran Portland Tribune writer Kerry Eggers interrupted Stotts to say that there is no might, Wednesday was this team’s most complete game of the season.
Wednesday night, Portland won three of four quarters, losing only the third quarter by one 27-26. None of the Blazers’ starters played more than 39 minutes. Every guy on Portland’s bench finished with positives in the plus/minus column. The Blazers shot 56% from the field while holding the Pacers to 38% shooting from the field and 26% from three. There were no lead changes in the second half, and Portland’s lead never dipped below 11 in the fourth quarter. That’s about as thorough of a win as any team can hope for, let alone a team on the wrong end of a six-game losing streak and facing probably the best defensive team in the league.
With All-Star reserve ballots already in before game-time, LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t do much to further his chances of getting invited to Houston with his play on Wednesday. Too bad, since he was about as good against the Pacers as he’s been all season. LA led all scorers with 27 points, shooting a super efficient 12-of-17. There were stretches Wednesday night when LaMarcus couldn’t miss. In the second quarter, LA hit seven of his eight shots. His 14 points in the period were one less than the entire Pacer team scored over the same 12 minutes.
Wednesday wasn’t all LaMarcus though, as Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel was kind enough to mention after the game. If the second quarter belonged to LA, the second half was all Damian Lillard. Dame finished Wednesday with 20 points and eight assists, and 16 of those points and four of those assists came in the second half. Lillard didn’t make a three on the evening, and spent much of the night attacking the rim. The three is great, and it’s the weapon that separates Lillard from a few of his contemporaries, but if Dame can get to the rim on the regular basis, the way he was getting to the rim over and over and over on Wednesday, his ceiling goes way up.
There’s certainly a chance Portland won on Wednesday because they knew their backs were against the wall. With back-to-back games against the LA Clippers, a loss to the Pacers would have certainly meant a nine-game winning streak (I’d like to think Portland can take one of two off the Clips but I’m not sure it’s happening). Doubters will probably say that Wednesday win really doesn’t prove much. I don’t disagree, but if you look at how the Blazers beat the Pacers (the balanced box score, the bench contribution, and the execution on offense and defense) there are takeaways here more than just Portland getting a win when what they needed most was a win.
This might just be a win that can be built upon.
Portland starts their home-and-home against the Clippers on Saturday at the Rose Garden.
Couple of quick things about Portland’s bench.
- Will Barton racked up 20 minutes and 36 seconds of on-court time Wednesday. Will went 3-of-7 from the floor and 2-of-2 from the line for eight points. Earlier in the season, Terry Stotts said of Barton that he’s never quit sure what he’s going to do on the court. It’s true that Barton is very raw, but you have to love his confidence. He wants to shoot the ball every time he touches it, and he has impact potential. However, as Mike Tokito tweeted, after a certain point, the returns on Will Barton begin to diminish. Oh, and Will Barton’s +18 was a game high.
- Meyers Leonard played 18 minutes, matched Will’s eight points, looked OK for stretches, and finished with five fouls and five rebounds. At one point in the first half, Meyers was pulled aside and given a talking to by Terry Stotts. Portland’s head coach had no comment on what he said to his rookie center, expect to say that he was yelling at Meyers all night. The theory around the press room was that Meyers was probably getting an earful after catching the ball under the hoop and not dunking it for the second time. Meyers had a big dunk in the second half, and contributed the final bucket that made the Portland faithful who stuck around for the final horn happy about Chalupas. All things considered, a pretty nice night for young Mr. Leonard.
- Luke Babbitt played one minute and 57 seconds and didn’t collect a single stat. In the parlance of insider basketball, that’s known as the trillion (a one followed by 12 zeros). Babbitt’s almost two trillion wasn’t anywhere near Will Barton’s 11 trillion against the Wizards though. Especially considering that Barton was a +6 without really doing anything.
- Nolan Smith played one minute and 16 seconds. The only two DNP-CDs went to Victor Claver and Joel Freeland. Freeland has been jumped in the rotation by Jared Jeffries. Jeffries played 10 solid minutes, helping to set the tone defensively for Portland.