There’s an important question Blazer fans should be asking themselves right about now. That question is, what do you want from the 2012-13 season?
The run that Portland made to get five games over .500 and to the seventh spot in the Western Conference brought about an earnest conversation about the Playoffs. The Blazers came down to earth in the last two weeks, and once again, we’re talking about how this team can best position itself for the 2013 Draft.
So, the question is, if Portland plays .500 ball the rest of the way and misses the Playoffs but gets a decent pick, does that make 2012-13 a better (or more successful) season than if the Blazers pick up a few extra wins to get up to about the 45 needed to get pasted in the first round of the Playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder?
I still haven’t decided where I fall on that question. For me, the Playoffs should always be the ultimate goal. The future is not guaranteed when it comes to draft choices. Winning now trumps losing now for the possibility of winning at some point in the future.
Of course winning now to have the privilege of being the doormat for the best team in the Western Conference doesn’t hold a candle to missing the post season to pull a lottery pick that could get the Blazers one step closer to the conference finals in 2013-14.
Either way you spin it, it’s a tough call.
So, why am I asking this kind of rhetorical question with as many right answers as wrong answers after probably one of Portland’s better wins of the season?
Because by beating the Clippers 101-100, getting back to one game over .500, and staying within a half-game of the Playoffs, the future (both in the near and short term) is something we’re going to have to think about, and the future might very well dictate whether or not we, as fans, get to be happy about what has turned into one of the most exciting Blazer seasons in at least the last two or three.
Saturday’s game was basically a microcosm of what has made 2012-13 both exciting and excruciating. It was excruciating because Portland’s bench wasn’t able to put together two solid shifts (they got another really good first shift from their reserves but not a second), and they couldn’t use their defense to sustain a lead and finish a game.
It was exciting because for the second game in a row the Blazers started quickly (taking a lead into halftime), got some decent scoring for their bench, and made just enough plays down the stretch to come out with yet another close victory over a very very good team. That, and Nicolas Batum.
As SportsCenter mentioned, played almost 300 games as a professional (294 to be exact) without a single triple-double. He now has two triple-doubles in his last three games. Following Monday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, Nicolas told the media he wasn’t going to count his 12 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds as his first official triple-double since it came in a loss to a team with a pretty bad record. Saturday Nicolas’s triple-double clinching 10th rebound came right before the horn (after Jamal Crawford missed his third straight field goal attempt), and secured the win for Portland against one of the top teams in the Western Conference. He counted this one. In fact, he left Saturday night with the game ball (as captured in this picture by Blazer media inter Erik Gunderson).
Batum’s season has already been pretty fantastic. I wasn’t the only person to select Nic as Portland’s best player through 41 games. If he continues to fill up the stat sheet the way he has the last week or so, there’s almost no reason why he shouldn’t be an early favorite to be an All-Star in 2014 and on the short list for this season or next season’s Most Improved Player.
January has been an interesting month for the Blazers. They so far have beaten three teams with more than 25 wins (the Heat, the Knicks, and the Grizzlies) and one with more than 30 (the Clippers). They’ve also lost to one team with less than 12 wins (the Wizards) and one with less than 15 (the Cavaliers).
Saturday was a microcosm of Portland’s season; January has been the epitome of the struggle Blazers’ fans face. We want to be excited about this team because they play exciting basketball that wins games. We’re hesitant because we know maximizing potential means suffering through a few bad losses, but six bad losses in a row can cast a shadow over piecemeal improvement.
But we also know that the window isn’t open forever. Winning, whether now or in the future, is what is going to keep the Blazers relevant. The longer they stay relevant, the more likely they are to win. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.
It’s why it’s hard to decide whether we should feel good about 2012-13 because on a Saturday in January Portland can beat the third-best team in the West by a single point, or we should feel good about 2012-13 because the first step in becoming a competitive team is winning just enough to stay out of the basement while also losing just enough to have a shot at a potential game-changing prospect.
Right now, the Blazers are managing to do both. I’m not sure about you, but I feel pretty good about that.
Portland travels to Los Angeles on Sunday for the away half of their Clippers home-and-home.
A couple of quick things.
- Arguably the play of the game Saturday came after J.J. Hickson sank what would be the game-winning free throws to put the Blazers up 101-100 with 45.2 seconds remaining in the contest. After a 20-second timeout by the Clips, Matt Barnes threw a lazy pass that was snatched by Nicolas Batum. On Portland’s offensive possession, Batum split the defense on a high pick and took a dribble into a wide open lane. As Blake Griffin slid over to protect the rim (leaving J.J. Hickson open for a lob), Nic tossed the ball out to the side-line three where he thought he saw Damian Lillard uncovered (his man Eric Bledsoe was moving to help the helper). Dame, however was moving in the wrong direction, and Nic’s pass sailed into the front row. Portland’s turnover came with 23.7 seconds left on the game clock, meaning that the Clippers would get the ball down one with a chance to win and no shoot clock to work against. If Crawford (who was on fire in the second half literally up until the final two minutes when he didn’t get a single score) had hit either of his game-winning attempts, Saturday’s game would have been yet another game lost by the Blazers at or around the last possession of the night.
- Speaking of LA’s last possession. During the Clippers final timeout, I asked resident basketball genius Ben Golliver if he thought Portland should foul LA so they could get the ball back. My thinking was that since the shot clock was off but there was still a ton of time on the game clock, an early Blazer foul would give them a chance to set up their offense for a very good look at a game-winning shot instead of having to try for a miracle heave at the buzzer if they gave up a bucket. It’s never smart to give an opponent points, but it would have been another heart-breaker if Portland gave up the lead late without giving themselves a chance to get it back. Ben said no, the Blazers should not foul, play defense, get a stop, and live with the consequences if they don’t. As always, he was right. Portland got not only one stop but two. Imagine the heat the Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts would have been under if he intentionally fouled Jamal Crawford, who would have then made both free throws to put the Clips up one, and his team would have lost.
- Three Blazer bench players played more than 10 minutes: Ronnie Price, Meyers Leonard, and Will Barton. Meyers and Will both played more than 15. All three scored. In fact, all four of Portland’s bench players who played more than one minute (Jared Jeffries played 8:13) had at least one bucket. The second half wasn’t good the Blazer reserves (Leonard’s two free throws were the only scoring that came from the bench in the final 24 minutes), but it’s an improvement.
- Luke Babbitt played 57 seconds. He’s going to have to fight to get his minutes back.
- Grant Hill played 14 and a half minutes on Saturday. Hill was taken 3rd overall in the 1994 NBA Draft (after Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd). Will Barton, Meyers Leonard, and Damian Lillard were all born in the 90s. Meyers, Portland’s youngest player (born in 1992), was two years old when Hill made his NBA debut with the Detroit Pistons. Hill is the second-oldest player in the NBA, a single day younger than Kurt Thomas.