If you need a case study for why the Portland Trail Blazers need to televise their preseason games, it doesn't get any better than tonight's blowout, which saw Portland run away from an undermanned Los Angeles Clippers team, 115-86, in impressive fashion.
If I were to casually run down some of the highlights it might seem like I'm taunting you. Rudy Fernandez: 5 of 6 three-pointers and a renewed Joie de vivre. Nicolas Batum: a graceful transition dunk that caused Clippers rookie Eric Bledsoe to flee from Batum's path in order to avoid getting posterized. An in-rhythm 17 and 7 from LaMarcus Aldridge in just 30 minutes. 20 points in 20 minutes from Wesley Matthews. A more-than-solid debut from Armon Johnson. Stop me when this taunting starts to feel like torture. I bet we're past that point already, aren't we?
Make no mistake: the Clippers are not good, and they are especially not good without Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. Tonight they walked face first into the shooting version of a wood chipper: thwack, thwack, thwack, Portland jumpers falling in steady, horrifying rhythm.
Tonight's game was contested for roughly 8 minutes, as long as Blake Griffin's energy and enthusiasm could singlehandedly keep them afloat. Griffin, making his return to the court after a lengthy rehabilitation from a knee injury that kept him out of action during his rookie year, looked slightly trimmed down but appeared to have much of his famed explosiveness back. "I don't feel any different [than before the injury]," Griffin told me after the game. "I definitely feel better than I did preseason last year. I don't have any nagging injuries or anything like that. My main concern is just keeping my body healthy and getting better."
Griffin said there were no mental hurdles in getting back into a game jersey in front of a live crowd. "It was good to be able to do that but I think I'm past all of that mentally. Right now it's just a matter of us getting better. We've got a young team. We've got to find a groove, find ourselves." Griffin was sullen despite scoring 9 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in 22 minutes. He refused to give himself a grade but made it clear he expects more in the near future. "It wasn't great but under the circumstances it was ok. I'm not worried about stuff right now. Offensively I didn't do a whole lot. Most of my stuff was transition and getting back into the flow, which is cool. Right now it's a work in progress."
Portland, on the other hand, looked tonight like some serious work has already been done. Despite playing Jeff Pendergraph 32 minutes at center without Marcus Camby, Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla, Portland didn't miss a beat on either end of the floor. The Blazers looked like they were ready to play short-handed, there wasn't a ton of scrambling or finger-pointing. The defense forced the Clippers into 28 turnovers and played aggressively both on the ball and helping.
Brandon Roy didn't score a point in the first half and it didn't matter whatsoever. For the night, the Blazers shot 16 for 27 from downtown, totaling 115 points on 77 field goal attempts. That's pretty, pretty, pretty good.
The most interesting lineup wrinkle tonight involved Blazers rookie Luke Babbitt, who played four, operating out of the high post on most of Portland's sets. During Las Vegas Summer League, Babbitt played much more frequently at the three position, roaming the perimeter. Although Babbitt was nervous tonight (see below) and shot just 1-5 from the field, the four spot was a very intriguing look for him. "I've been playing a lot of four [during camp], Babbitt told me after the game. "I played four in college so I can do both. I played three at Summer League. I've been playing a lot of three too. I just do whatever is asked."
As you're surely familiar with by now, Portland loves to feed a big man at the free-throw line extended, allowing perimeter players to run off that big for a hand-off or allowing the big the option to turn and face. Given Babbitt's shooting ability, the high post is an extremely dangerous spot on the court for him. By starting low and then coming back towards the ball, he almost guarantees that a big man will be checking him. Bigs are much more likely than wings to respect his driving ability, which neatly resolves a problem that I mentioned this morning: that he would be seeing extreme ball pressure as teams dared him to put the ball on the deck.
For Babbitt, though, a big man that respects his driving ability is also a big man that's back on his heels, unable to properly defend Babbitt should he take a dribble backwards to the three-point line. "That's one of the strengths of my game," Babbitt continued. "Shooting the three. If I'm playing the four I'll have a bigger guy guarding me. Even if I'm not shooting at least it will spread the defense and if the shot is there I'll take it." Babbitt can easily cover the space from the high post to the three-point line with a single dribble and he is showing a clear preference for the step back (or step to the side) motion to get into his jumper. Having trouble envisioning the possibilities? Think a more fluid, less standstill version of Channing Frye or a less athletic Travis Outlaw.
The likely adjustments defenses might make will be to leave a perimeter player on Babbitt, regardless of how deep he starts in the post. In that case, Portland will have two possible counters: run Babbitt to the high post and allow him to pass with clear sight lines over a shorter defender, or leave him down in the post and let him back his man down. One Blazers scout has told me on multiple occasions that Babbitt's post-up ability is his secret weapon: he's not sure when it will be revealed but he promises that it is worth getting excited about.
The best part about Babbitt's night wasn't the different position. It was his different disposition. For a guy that needed counseling from multiple members of the organization after a frustrating Summer League performance, Babbitt was all smiles in the locker room after the game. He chuckled when I asked him whether he was surprised Portland trucked Los Angeles so convincingly.
"I wouldn't say surprised. We worked real hard all camp. That just pays dividends right there. We have some unbelievable players on this team. I'm not surprised, but it's definitely nice."
Random Game Notes
- Let's briefly look back at each of this morning's five things to watch.
- Which rookies had spinning heads? Elliot Williams for sure. He didn't play until the fourth quarter and, on his first touch, threw a lazy perimeter pass that got returned the other way for an uncontested basket. Luke Babbitt too. Babbitt's first touch looked a little bit like the 40 Year Old Virgin lining up his first date with the grandmother. Babbitt looked around panicky, escape dribbled to the left, told himself he was supposed to shoot it, and then sailed it 3 feet past the rim. The very next possession, though, he hit a three pointer in rhythm and the Blazers bench erupted. As for Armon Johnson? He looked ready to go from the first whistle. His command of the offense was excellent and he showed a veteran touch by ignoring an urgently spotting up Rudy Fernandez to reset things and run some clock. He went right after Clippers rookie Eric Bledsoe on defense. Toe-to-toe. 2 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals in 11 minutes for AJ.
- The backcourt chemistry was excellent tonight. Matthews is a one-man chemistry machine. He fits with everyone, especially when his shot is falling. Bayless, Matthews and Fernandez had two long stretches playing together and they looked like a pretty legit second unit. Bayless on playing with Matthews: "It's great playing with him. I think we're developing a very good chemistry. I know where he's going to be at and he knows where I'm going to be at. We're just making plays for each other. I'm running the point, he comes off screens, I just have to deliver the ball to the spot."
- Jeff Pendergraph fouled out. He lasted more than 30 minutes and drew just one foul in 17 minutes of first half action. He gave up some hoops around the rim but showed a bit of improvement on contesting without fouling on a few close-in Clippers attempts. McMillan split both the first and third quarters in half for Pendergraph, playing him the first six minutes of each and then switching Aldridge over to center.
- Dante Cunningham played four and saw the court for 26 minutes. 9 points and 6 boards, 2 steals and a block. The scouts continue to rave about him. When Camby is healthy, McMillan will have the potential to play a full backup unit together -- Pendergraph, Cunningham, Matthews, Fernandez and Bayless -- that will be able to play minute-for-minute with just about any second string in the league.
- Without Baron Davis and Eric Gordon watching Portland's defensive match-ups was less instructive than I had hoped. So table that one until next time.
- Clippers rookie Al-Farouq Aminu fouled out in 17 minutes, scoring 1 point, turning the ball over 4 times, going 0 for 3 from the field, grabbing 0 rebounds and dishing out 0 assists. His night was spent one of two ways: 1) drawing player control fouls 2) floating around on the perimeter. You've heard of the "deer in the headlights" look? This was more like a "I'm standing underneath the meteor that created the Grand Canyon and both my legs are broken and uh oh it's about to hit me oowwwwwwww" look. Off the top of my head I can't think of another player who had his combination of physical potential and complete mental unpreparedness during the last four seasons. I felt genuine empathy for him. It can only get better.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I like our intensity. I felt like these guys have had good intensity all through training camp. Tonight we forced some turnovers. We did a good job of getting pressure and then the weakside coming over, we had 13 steals tonight. One area we can do better is rebound the ball. We gave up 13 offensive boards. I like our intensity. I like both groups coming in with a lot of energy throughout the game. Offensively we were able to get some easy baskets. Kind of flow into our offense off of turnovers and rebounding."
We can build off of that. We want to kind of set that tone. We want to put everything in motion as far as our goals that we committed to each other at the start of training camp. I thought tonight was good intensity. Good focus on the defensive end of the floor.
Who stood out?
As a group we stood out. There were some guys that shot the ball well. As a group I thought they were connected on both ends of the floor. You saw good ball movement. Offensively, delivering the ball. When you get good execution and you're moving the ball, guys normally knock down shots. I thought it started on the defensive end of the floor. As a team, I thought we played well.
We're trying to learn about him. Defensively he's pretty solid there. Offensively we're finding out that he shoots the ball well. That combination of Rudy and Bayless, with Wesley, I think that can be a group that can change the tempo, give us a different look. They play well together. He's shooting the three ball. He's putting the ball on the floor. He's offensive rebounding. Tonight they had pressure on the point so we switched Rudy and Wesley to the point at times. I think that lineup, we can take advantage of the fact that all of those guys can handle, all of them can score, and run plays for them. Defensively they're doing a good job.
Can Wesley play one?
These guys are interchangeable. The offense that we have, if Wesley is at the point then having Bayless and Rudy turn out off of screens, you can do that. Bledsoe was pressuring Bayless so we just moved Rudy to the point and Butler now has to guard the point which can create some problems defensively. We had Wesley and Bayless turn it out. I think you can play Wesley with Brandon and Nicolas. This is an opportunity to look at some different combinations and look at some different things that we can run or try to run.
Rudy Fernandez played well despite recent drama
I will coach what I see. What I have been seeing from Rudy is what we saw tonight. He's playing the game once he's on the floor. We do know how he feels. As long as he continues to play the game hard, we're going to try to take advantage of him. Tonight he shot the ball well.
Will this carryover into the regular season?
You play the game for a number of different reasons. To work on different things. To condition your players. To look at different combinations. Of course you want to win. But it goes back to zero in a few weeks. You always play the game to win the ballgame. Tonight we were able to get 12 guys in the game, look at some different combinations and focus on the things that we've worked on.
Second unit played together despite large second half lead
We wanted to get them some minutes. This is the first time they've played together. Try to get both groups some minutes and then we had an opportunity to get Babbitt and Williams into the game.
I like his pressure on the ball. I really do. He does a good job of staying in the ball. Offensively, pushing the ball. I thought when he came into the game, it kind of turned around in that first half. He's fiery. He's not afraid. He gets after it defensively. Offensively he's still trying to learn the game. The speed of the game. Running the team. But defensively if you're making mistakes going hard you can live with that and he goes hard.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter