Blazers bench was the difference tonight they outplayed the Jazz.Surprising.Barton with 7 pts, Smith with 13 pts and Babbitt 8 pts
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) February 3, 2013
I’ve said it before, when recapping games this season, but I’ll say it again: there is absolutely no formula for success for the 2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers. We’ve seen this team lose the same way every night (missed too many jumpers and getting shot out of the gym), but almost every time this team wins, it’s done in a completely unique way.
Saturday’s 105-99 win over the Utah Jazz, for another home hold in their second and final home-and-home back-to-back, was arguably the Blazers’ most unique win of the season. How can one make that distinction? Well, look no further than Portland’s locker room post game Saturday evening.
It’s pretty easy to tell how a game went based on the attitude of the Blazers’ locker room. Led by the team’s emotional core (one Wesley Matthews), Portland’s locker room after a loss can a pretty quiet place. After a win, it’s just streamers and a keg short of a party. Saturday was a happy locker room. And it was a unique kind of happy considering that a big crowd of media had gathered in front of the locker of Nolan Smith. That’s right, Nolan Smith.
Nolan’s been in the news a little bit lately, and it hasn’t been for positive reasons. Following a horrific three-minute stretch on January 19th against the Milwaukee Bucks, what has been a pretty down season for the second-year man out of Duke, was beginning to take on the look of a career-ender. But even in those down times, the media has basically left Nolan to himself.
That’s pretty indicative of his standing on Portland’s roster. If a guy like Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Damian Lillard falls into an extensive slump, there would be questions to be asked and answered. For Nolan, he’s left alone by local scribes when he doesn’t play, which is often, and equally ignored when he plays but struggles. There is a story there when it comes to Nolan Smith, but even the most ego-driven hack journalists have the sense enough to not kick an also-ran, bottom-tier, professional basketball player (who by every account ever, even mine, is basically the nicest guy in the league) when he’s down.
So seeing a gathering of cameras and writers waiting for Nolan Smith, as they were Saturday night, was quite rare, to say the least. The Blazers got all they could handle from the Jazz on Friday. If they were going to get a much-needed win on Saturday, help was going to have to come from somewhere. Without Wesley Matthews (scratched right before tip with an ankle injury) and Ronnie Price (also out with an ankle), Nolan Smith was going to have to play some minutes, a scary proposition considering that Nolan’s last few outings had not been either long or productive.
Nolan checked into Saturday night’s game with 3:10 to play in the first quarter, and it went basically as well as we’ve come to expect.
took 21 seconds for Nolan Smith’s first turnover
— Ben Golliver (@blazersedge) February 3, 2013
But then things changed for Nolan. He handed out a nice dime to Nicolas Batum with a minute and a half left in the first to cut Utah’s lead to one, and then finished the quarter with an eight-footer to give Portland a one-point lead. But that wasn’t it from Nolan. Before the end of his first shift, he’d added another score, equaling his highest point total in just under six minutes of play since scoring five points in garbage time minutes in the Blazers’ loss to the Lakers on the 28th of December.
One good shift wasn’t all Portland would get from Nolan on Saturday night, though, even if five and a half minutes, four points, an assist, and only a single turnover constituted a major improvement over how things have been going for the Blazers’ third-string point guard. And it was the timing of Nolan’s second shift that really took everybody by surprise.
Saturday night, Nolan played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. Twelve minutes that decided the game’s outcome. And Nolan wasn’t just a bystander in final frame Saturday, taking up the space vacated by Wesley Matthews. Nolan nailed a corner three at the start of the fourth to put Portland up eight, and then contributed a lay-up with five minutes left to put the Blazers up five, then a second corner three (from almost the same spot right in front of Portland’s bench) with three and half minutes to play to extend the home team’s lead to six, and he finished his evening splitting a pair from the line to keep the Blazers up six.
All told, Nolan finished with 13 points (nine in the fourth quarter) and a +7 for the game, leading Portland’s bench unit that scored a very impressive 28 points and was the clear X-factor in the Blazers’ latest big-time win.
And being the unsung hero of another important win was why Nolan stood down a big group of reporters after the fact, happily talking about his exploits.
Success from Nolan Smith, and from the bench as a whole, has to be a welcome sight for Terry Stotts and his staff. Portland has gotten very little from its reserves in 2012-13. Injuries have yet to be a major issue, but losing one or two major pieces could have a serious impact on how this season shakes out in the end. Getting steady contributions from Luke Babbitt (eight points) and Will Barton (seven points), added to the potential re-birth of Nolan Smith might give the Blazers the cushion they need to make and maybe even sustain a Playoff push.
I know it’s one game from Nolan. The test will be to see if he can sustain it or even build off of it. But the confidence his coach has showed in him to give him minutes at all (instead of figuring out a way to play around Nolan) and the enthusiasm and support his teammates have exhibited, has to make Nolan feel like maybe it was the run of bad games that was the fluke and not his selection in the NBA Draft two years ago.
Either way, Nolan Smith showed on Saturday night that in the NBA all a player needs is an opportunity. That should be motivation enough for Nolan, not to mention the other guys on his roster looking for a chance to make a splash in the second half of 2012-13.
As they say, a high tide lifts all ships. A good game from Nolan Smith improves everybody on Portland’s bench.
The Blazers start a six-game road trip in Minnesota on Monday that will lead right into the All-Star Break. LaMarcus Aldridge has called it a “make-or-break trip.” He’s probably right considering the Lakers, the Mavericks, and the Timberwolves are four, five, and five and a half games behind Portland in the West and two of those three teams are on this trip (Minny and Dallas). The Rockets are on this trip too, and they are a game ahead of the Blazers.
A couple of wins will go a long way to improve Portland’s long-term outlook, especially if one of those wins comes against the Rockets. A slide could put the Blazers out of the Playoffs for sure. An 0-fer and it’s time to get Meyers Leonard into the starting lineup.
Couple of quick things:
- Speaking of Meyers Leonard, he was the outlier on Portland’s bench Saturday night. Leonard logged six minutes and 22 seconds, picked up two fouls, turned it over once, and grabbed two rebounds. As has become the trend, Meyers played zero minutes in the second half.
- Nicolas Batum fell a single assist short of yet another triple-double.
- Post game Chris Haynes of Comcast asked both Damian Lillard and Will Barton about their picks for Sunday’s Super Bowl. Barton is from Baltimore, and naturally picked the Ravens. Lillard is going with the 49ers, even if he’s from Oakland and not San Francisco. When asked if picking the Niners might upset Raider fans, he said he’d rather the team across the bridge wins the Super Bowl and not the team on the other side of the country. Damian Lillard, unknowingly, proved my sister’s point that a person can be a fan of a team from Oakland and a team from San Francisco at the same time. The Bay Area certainly is a weird place.