This was a game for the truest of true fans. If you slogged your way through to the end of a sloppy, ice-cold night for the Blazers, you were rewarded with a thrilling finish, which ultimately saw the Portland Blazers miss three shots in the last 10 seconds and lose to the Los Angeles Clippers 72-71 in their third Summer League contest. The loss dropped Portland to 2-1 on the week.
There's no need to persecute the Blazers tonight, who started slow (getting down 10-0), make mistakes (22 turnovers) and missed shots (just 23 of 65 from the field, including 3 of 15 from distance) but responded very well. Portland continued to compete despite being down double digits; folding it up early wouldn't have had any serious repercussions.
Although the gym was mostly empty after a packed house for John Wall cleared out with the Blazers down 20 at one point, those who stayed felt some rare tense moments, spurred on by some nice hustle plays by Patty Mills and Dante Cunningham down the stretch. The final sequence epitomized the night: missed shot, hustle play, missed shot, offensive rebound, missed shot. Mills, Cunningham and Luke Babbitt each had a chance to be an improbable hero but none could get their shots to fall.
Coach Kaleb Canales looked a little discouraged while speaking to a small media group after the game but said he wouldn't change a thing about the final sequence, which included an inbounds play that found Cunningham a clean look from 18 feet that rimmed out. "We'd run that play again 10 times out of 10," Canales told me. So what was sticking in his craw? "Ten missed free throws," he said looking down at the box score in his hands.
A late Babbitt missed free throw sticks out more than the others, given the time/score situation and the fact that Babbitt is as close to automatic as it gets from the line. If Canales was discouraged by the loss, Babbitt was practically mortified. As his last second putback potential game-winner rimmed off, Babbitt clutched his head in disbelief, not the first time we've seen seen that this week. There's no middle ground for him: it's either smile or scowl, and his cold shooting lately has left him so visually mad at himself that he borders on losing composure.
After the game, behind the curtain that functions as a locker room door, Babbitt spent a few minutes talking with scouts Mike Born and Chad Buchanan, who stepped in to offer lengthy encouragement and motivation. "They were just supportive, it's game 3, a bad game obviously for me," Babbitt admitted. As for their advice, he said it came down to continuing to get familiar with his surroundings. "It's just more learning. Just trying to learn everyday. Even in summer league there are highs and lows. Just keep learning and keep learning the system."
Lost in Babbitt's cold shooting night and some trouble handling the ball (5 turnovers) was perhaps his most effective defensive performance of the week. Matched up against lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu, a raw but explosive athlete who represents a potential mismatch on paper, Babbitt did a nice job of limiting Aminu's effectiveness, especially in the halfcourt. Aminu had just 13 points on 12 shots roughly cancelling out Babbitt's 12 points on 10 shots.
Those numbers provide perspective to the situation for just about everyone... except Babbitt. Asked for his self-assessment of his match-up against Aminu, Babbitt was pretty candid. "I would say he won the match-up. One, they won. Two, he played a good game, he's a good player. I didn't play my best game."
And that's the Babbitt who is starting to reveal himself: perfectionistic, competitive, intense. If Babbitt and Jerryd Bayless played a game of table tennis I'm not sure who would win but the ping pong ball would lose no matter what. There's also some Joel Przybilla to his personality, a pride in his craft and work ethic, and some homicide eyes when things don't go as planned.
Things didn't really go as planned for anyone tonight but here are brief looks at each of the other Blazers.
Jeff Pendergraph couldn't have asked for a better test in Summer League than DeAndre Jordan, a very long and athletic shot-blocking specialist with a fair bit of professional experience. I can't say that he passed tonight, going 4-15 from the field, drawing a technical foul out of frustration, getting his shots blocked numerous times and finishing the night with 3 turnovers. It was a game-long struggle and it wasn't particularly pretty. If there was a positive it was that he kept going back for more, undeterred. His 14 rebounds were impressive too.
Offensively, things weren't much better for Cunningham but his tireless aggressiveness paid off with nine trips to the free throw line. It's difficult to tell whether this is a product of the Summer League environment or of improved conditioning but his relative quickness to loose balls has improved and he's mixing it up in all sorts of new and exciting ways. I also caught myself thinking back to media day last year when he described with wide eyes meeting Brandon Roy for the first time. That freshness has been replaced by a seasoned, toughened shell.
Like everyone, his shot wasn't falling and he missed a few chippies in traffic that he normally would finish. Even on a less-than-peak night look at the rest of the story: 8 free throws attempted, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 turnovers, 1 foul committed. Those are Blazer backup point guard numbers.
Boy, somewhere along the line Mills really learned how to take a charge. He took one in the first half -- hard -- that was straight out of a Shane Battier basketball training video. he continues to struggle with his ball control (4 turnovers, all in the first half) but did a better job finding guys than he did Tuesday. The tough part for Mills is that unless his outside shot is really falling his offensive efficiency is pedestrian.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter