As far as free intra-squad exhibitions games go, it doesn't get much better than tonight's Fan Fest: 16,000+ fans attended, there were zero injuries, every single player scored, Greg Oden registered a double double against an elite defensive center and didn't commit a foul until more than halfway through the third quarter, and the incumbent starting point guard, Steve Blake, rose to the occasion, leading his Black squad of starters to a 79-70 over the White squad of reserves.
Here's a look at some of the story lines we saw tonight.
Despite all of that good news, and that's a lot of good news, the dark cloud that's been hovering over the franchise for the last month or so -- the ongoing contract extension negotiations with LaMarcus Aldridge -- erupted during the pregame meet and greet.
With the entire roster seated at midcourt, Blazers Broadcaster Mike Barrett introduced each player one-by-one to a cheering Rose Garden crowd. When he got to Aldridge, the cheers gave way to a shouted chant, "Sign him! Sign him! Sign Him!" Aldridge and some of his teammates smiled and wiggled in their seats while General Manager Kevin Pritchard sat courtside, giving no visible reaction. Barrett moved quickly on to the next player, Steve Blake, deftly joking that the crowd must be hoping that the team would sign Blake, whose contract happens to be up at the end of the season.
Barrett defused an awkward situation efficiently but neither he nor anyone else not named Kevin Pritchard is capable of preventing that kind of fan outburst from happening again. Pritchard appeared calm and loose before the game but couldn't have missed hearing the shouts.
Asked after the game about whether he heard the crowd's reaction, Brandon Roy stated, "Yeah, I heard it. I thought it was cool. The fans supporting LaMarcus. He's a big part of this organization. I expected them to want LaMarcus to be here." Asked if the coordinated shouts caught him off guard, Roy continued, " I didn't know what they were going to say. When they started saying that, I was like 'they got on the same page kinda quick.'"
Greg Oden said he heard the shouts too, noting, "LaMarcus is a great player but that's none of my business." Asked jokingly if he had his own deal to worry about, Greg responded with a smile and a nod, "Yessir." Oden, of course, is up for an extension at the end of the season as well.
Pritchard wants the Aldridge deal done. Aldridge wants the Aldridge deal done. The fans tonight reminded both parties that the entire city wants the Aldridge deal done. All that's left now is to get the deal done. Today is October 5. The sides have exactly 26 days to come to an agreement or Aldridge will enter restricted free agency at the end of this season.
But there's another deadline: Tuesday night. That's the night of the Blazers' first preseason game, and the next time Pritchard is likely to hear a large group of people chanting "Sign Him!" again.
Greg Oden had a few wayward shots that will no doubt draw the ire of his haters, but overall he had an impressive outing. He pounded the glass consistently, pulling down a total of 12 rebounds while contending with the first string front line, no easy draw. Oden also had a number of dunks and displayed nearly all of the moves that he's been working on during the offseason: a shimmy, a step throw, and a drop step, among others. Some worked, some didn't. Asked after the game if it was his intention to mix things up as much as he did, Greg said, "It was just whatever I had [available] in the game." That's the exact answer to the question that you want to hear from a developing center: he wasn't forcing anything, he was reading the defense and he was trusting himself to use a variety of moves based on what the defense was showing him.
The most amusing aspect of Oden's night was his surprising playmaker: Power Forward Juwan Howard. Twice Howard stopped plays and motioned for Oden to establish post position, then fed him the ball so he could go one on one against Przybilla. Both times Oden converted.
Asked after the game if Howard might be the best point guard on the team, Oden smiled and said, "I like playing with him. Juwan gives me some nice passes, he's definitely a great passer. All the years in the league, he's definitely fun to play with." I asked Oden whether their dynamic duo relationship has been in place since the team first brought Howard aboard. Oden laughed and said, "Actually it was." He laughed again, "Whenever I'm on his team, I get a couple more extra passes." Oden did tack this on to the end of the conversation with a smile: "Steve [Blake] does some good things too."
The ease of the conversation, the lightness of his demeanor, how casual the encounter was, how deferential and thoughtful, albeit brief, his answers were: I couldn't have asked for a more impressive overall performance under the lights from Greg Oden.
Nic Batum vs. Martell Webster
With Brandon Roy on cruise control for most of the night, Batum often looked like the best player on the court. Nate McMillan attributed the quality of Nic's play to his summer of basketball with the French National Team. There's no question that he's already in game shape. But tonight we also saw more evidence that Batum is a player with improved skills from last year: he knocked down a 3 with ease, he led a transition effort dribbling all the way with his left hand, he played heavy minutes without acting as an offensive liability (on the contrary, he finished with 18 points) and he brought his standard toughness and intelligence on the defensive end.
Webster was also impressive, drawing more wows during the game than any other player for his attempted dunk on Joel Przybilla's head that ended up going awry. Webster was way up in the air without fear; he certainly has his nerve back, a major stumbling block for players recovering from a long-term injury like he suffered last year. He also hit a nice 3 pointer that he took confidently and he was regularly looking to attack his man off the dribble. All good signs.
But if we are playing the game, "It's Batum's starting spot to lose," the only conclusion one could draw tonight is that he ain't losing it. That's his to stay. At this point, both parties seem comfortable with that.
Steve Blake vs. Andre Miller
Blake walked home with the night's MVP honors thanks to a prodigious night from beyond the arc: 5 of 8 from downtown for a total of 17 points. Couple that with 11 assists (a generous total if we're being honest) and it's hard to argue that he was a deserving winner.
On the other hand, many fans seemed to leave the arena with a less-than-satisfied opinion of Andre Miller. Miller was unspectacular and a little erratic and errant on some of his passes.
It's important to remember that Blake had the big time benefit of playing with the starters while Miller played with the subs. If a play stood out from Miller it was another gem of a pass from a sticky situation: he found himself sprawled out on his back near the three point line and found a cutting Martell Webster with a thumping pass for an uncontested dunk. From lemons to lemonade in under two seconds. Asked about the play, Nate McMillan stated simply, "he knows how to play."
Ime Udoka vs. Jarron Collins
I'm not sure either player made any plays that will tip the scale one way or the other in the race for the team's 15th roster spot, but one box score comparison does jump out: Udoka played 28 minutes to Collins's 12. Clearly the Blazers' coaching staff was looking to give fans a full taste of the new and improved Greg Oden, which adversely affected Collins' playing time. But it was still curious that Collins, the man with the most to prove on the roster, was the one garnering the least playing time.
Whispers from those around the team this week seem to strongly favor Udoka for the last starting spot, citing Udoka's relationship with Nate McMillan as a potential deciding factor. But after watching Batum, Webster, Cunningham, Fernandez and Outlaw all produce tonight, I feel even more strongly that the last spot should go to Collins. In a way, this debate boils down to best player available versus need. I think Ime is, without question, the best player available here. But he's so redundant it hurts. Not to mention that Greg Oden is back to dunking on people's heads. It might be a good idea to have an extra head (Collins') handy. If not, the training staff better get Joel Przybilla some helmets.
This management staff has shown a strong propensity for taking the Best Player Available when filling spots: Shavlik Randolph over Steven Hill is the most recent example. For that reason I tend to agree with the whispers that the final spot is Udoka's to lose entering the second week of training camp.
Random Game Notes
- I caught up with Chris Bowles before the game to chat about his new position within the organization. Bowles, you remember, was the team's Director of Player Programs before Hersey Hawkins came aboard this summer. Bowles is now working with the team's Community Relations department, a testament to the versatility of his skills as he is transitioning from the basketball side to the business side, something you don't see all that often. Bowles spoke glowingly about working closely with a man that he considers a mentor -- Larry Miller -- and is looking foward to putting his educational background in urban planning to work with regard to the organization's ongoing plans to redevelop the Rose Quarter. On the basketball side, Bowles is most excited about the addition of Andre Miller, a player he is convinced will make a big difference on the court and in the locker room. Bowles should know, as he helped oversee this young group's maturation process.
- I totally understand the team's desire to get the ball in Rudy's hands in the halfcourt offense. His great vision, ability to hit the outside shot and his understanding of court spacing combine to demand that he gets more touches. But I'd be very wary of letting him act as a true 1 and bring the ball up the court. Even in a scrimmage, Rudy simply doesn't trust his left hand while dribbling on the move and his right hand -- under duress in the open court -- isn't all that reliable either. I'd hate to see how he would react if double-teamed in the backcourt. Just another thing for Nate to think about as he tries to find more minutes for Rudy.
- Martell Webster's right hand was covered in ice after the game and my imagination got the best of me: I thought he was icing it because he had struck the rim so violently when trying to follow through on his dunk attempt over Joel Przybilla. I was wrong: he banged it in practice and reported that his palm and a finger or two had swollen slightly. No big deal.
- Prior to the game, Kevin Pritchard was chatting with a group of media members. During casual conversation, Pritchard dropped a joke about Twitter -- something to the effect of, "Don't go tweeting that" -- which was awesome because he is the absolutely last person you would expect to reference Twitter. Excellent! We're one step closer to getting KP onto twitter. That could change the course of world history.
- I can't tell you much about Andre Miller but I can tell you this: on the right side of his back he has a tattoo with an outline of the state of California and the words "ES Watts" written in Old English script.
- Prior to starting his press conference, Nate McMillan surveyed the room to find only 5 reporters instead of the usual 20+. With a big smile he joked, "This is my type of press conference!"
- More than an hour before the game, a Rose Garden Usher sidled up to Rudy Fernandez and asked, "We're getting a championship this year, right?" Rudy smiled as if he's heard the question 1,000 times in the past week, which he probably has.
- If I was Dante Cunningham, I'd be worried that Juwan Howard is looking good enough to take all my minutes. I'd also be proud of my vertical leap, which is truly phenomenal; Cunningham impressed the crowd with several huge dunks during pregame warmups.
- Training Camp resumes tomorrow morning. Look for a full report tomorrow afternoon.
Nate's Postgame Thoughts
Here's a transcript of Nate McMillan's postgame press conference. Questions are paraphrased. Answers are transcribed in full and in blockquote.
I liked what I saw. We wanted to just get some work in. We didn't want to be sloppy out there today. I thought our games came out -- and this was a practice for us -- we wanted to have fun at the same time. They worked on some execution and I thought it was a good game, a good competitive game.
Who stood out?
A couple guys shot the ball well. Nic shot the ball well. Blake had his stroke going. Greg was on the boards and running the floor. Martell was knocking down shots. We had a lot of our guys who can shoot the ball, knock down some shots. We saw it, the guys get out, get in transition some, so that is what we want to see from the defensive end of the floor. Allow the defense to create some easy opportunities for us. You saw Miller throw the ball over the top. Rudy was handling the ball a lot in the scrimmage. We want to move him around and give him more possessions with the ball.
Can you learn something from an exhibition?
To sit and watch our guys in a scrimmage in front of the crowd. Once they get in front of a crowd, they play. You can tell them to take it easy and we want to be careful out there. But once the fans are in the building and the lights go on, these guys compete. I thought they did. Both groups did some good things on both ends of the floor. We were able to score a lot of points. Defensively we'll see that tighten up as we get into the preseason.
Thoughts about the crowd?
It shows what type of fans we have. We have fans that are very supportive. They love the Blazers. They like what we've been doing the last few years. We've got an exciting team. Everybody is looking forward to seeing this team play. Our fans as well as me and the rest of the guys. Four years ago when I came here, we may have had 1,000 or 2,000 people in the stands at that time and to see this grow and to see this fan support come back it's a great thing.
Batum vs. Martell?
Both guys played well. I thought Nic shot the ball well, he was moving, he looked like he's been playing all summer long. Martell didn't seem to miss a beat out there. He was knocking down some shots when he had open looks. That one penetration he had to the basket with Joel there, he missed the dunk, I'm just sitting there like, the lane is open and he tried to take it. I thought the guys competed tonight and they looked good for a first scrimmage.
Was it fun?
Yeah, it was fun. The best part was at the end when I looked at all the guys and they walking off the court (without injury). That's the big thing.
He's going to make guys better. He knows how to play. He'll get the ball to you when you're open. If you can shoot the ball, you can score, you'll be able to score with him on the floor because he sees the entire floor. As soon as guys pop open, the defense makes a mistake, he's going to take advantage of that.
What does this game mean?
It was a practice for us. We wanted to get something out of it and not waste that hour we had on the floor. We wanted to be careful not to hurt anyone, and I thought we did that but we wanted to get some work out there. Work on execution, work on your timing, rhythm, build a rhythm with each other. You're looking at your guys play and I thought they did a good job. It was a competitive game, it wasn't sloppy, sometimes you can get sloppy, when you do that you set yourself up for an injury. I thought our guys played, they played hard, it was a good game to watch.
Where does the team stand now?
I think training camp is going good. We've had a good camp. We need to see somebody in a different jersey. We'll see Sacramento on Tuesday. That is an opportunity for us to really measure where we are. I thought today was to get into a scrimmage, we've been doing something similar to this, more of a controlled scrimmage during practice but it was nice to them [play] without so many whistles today. The first preseason game is the opportunity for us to really look, to get a measuring of where we are.
Thoughts on Blake as MVP?
They passed out slips and I gave mine to one of the fans behind me to vote on MVP. And Blake shot the ball well, he knocked down some big 3s, he shot the ball well.
Andre as an improvisational player?
He just knows how to play. I think that's just he's an old vet, very experienced.
-- Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org)