Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard Make Impressive Debuts versus the Lakers

Stephen Dunn - Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers' new crop of rookies shine against the Los Angeles Lakers in Portland's first pre-season outing of 2012-13.

The Portland Trail Blazers used first-half energy and a strong third quarter from their starters to pull away from the Los Angeles Lakers (pre-season version) for a 93-75 victory. You can read the details of game flow in our Post-Game Recap here.

Were this a regular-season game we'd be talking about the intricacies and significance of the win. That's fool's gold in pre-season. However we did witness several significant developments tonight, individual and team.

Team Developments--Offense

Portland provided a laser-sharp look at their new offense during the first half of this game, good and bad alike. The very first play of the game saw LaMarcus Aldridge convert a shot from the left post, almost an admission that the Blazers know where their bread and butter lies. After that, though, Portland spread the court wide with shooters and concentrated on moving the ball. We saw a couple of nice attacks at the rim, one on a give and go from Nicolas Batum to Wesley Matthews and back, the second on a pretty pick and roll dunk for Meyers Leonard that's sure to be repeated in highlights all night. That kind of spread-motion play, coupled with some nice offensive rebounding, created the only consistent inside looks the Blazers got in the halfcourt.

Running was another story. Portland made a concerted effort to run their bigs, catching the Lakers napping on a few occasions. Whenever a tall guy ran the break the result was a dunk...the rest of the 30 paint points that the Blazers would score on the evening. Guards relied on the kick-three to finish their running opportunities, for the most part successfully.

In the second period we also saw the shadow side of Portland's halfcourt offense. The Blazers initiated fewer passes in their sets and almost all floated around the perimeter instead of going inside-out as they had earlier in the game. At this point the offense folded, a victim of long and covered jumpers.

Fortunately that didn't last long, in part thanks to the heroics of a couple individuals to be mentioned soon.

It's also worth noting that the bench contributed to much of Portland's offensive woes. Most of the starters knew and followed the game plan to much success.

Team Developments--Defense

Absent Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, with L.A. playing guys who won't see the light of day in the regular season, you hesitate to talk too much about defensive results. The minute Kobe steps on the floor the Blazers have to key on him, changing up several critical factors. However we can speak in generalities, saying that the Blazers are long on mobility and effort even if they're short on experience and skill. The lineup of Damian Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, and either J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard at center can move. We saw some nice weak-side help tonight, occasional good scrambling. We also saw the Blazers keep most non-Nash opponents contained off of screens...a definite rarity in recent years. In general the 2-3-4 spots were solid defensively. The huge question marks, as expected, came at point guard and center. Though everybody settled down as the game wore on, the opening quarters provided plenty of loopholes at the 1 and 5 spots for the Lakers to sneak through. Ronnie Price helped shore up the 1. Center remained an issue when anybody but Jarred Jeffries manned the position, and this was against a largely center-less team. Had this been a regular season game the Lakers would have posted up any number of players and beat down the Blazers inside. Portland had a couple of nice individual stops deep but as a whole they were giving up decent shots, fouls, or both inside.

Summing up: In motion Portland's defense looked good. At a standstill forced to guard somebody straight up they had enough holes to cause worries.

Individual Developments

This is the section everyone will be hyper-concerned about. With the caveat that one pre-season game is a shaky basis for judgment, you can relax. Almost all the Blazers acquitted themselves well and even those who didn't gave some reason for hope.

Damian Lillard: The night belonged to Portland's rookie point guard. When the Blazers were suffering from crippled outside offense in that fateful second period, Lillard took over and bailed them out. With the Blazers down 4 (after having led the entire game) Lillard drew the defense then dished for an open Matthews three, dished again to Leonard at the rim, made a layup of his own, then hit a sweet three-pointer. At no point did he look flustered on offense, At no point did he hesitate on his shot. At no point did he appear down on himself or his team. But at no point was he taking stupid, "panic and default to my own offense" dribbles either. He didn't waste motion. He didn't waste shots. He didn't press or commit silly turnovers. He was everything desired with the ball in his hands.

LINE: 24 minutes, 6-11 shooting, 2-5 3PT, 14 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 TO's, 3 PF's.

Meyers Leonard: In their haste to accentuate the positive, commentators may have gone a wee bit overboard in describing Leonard's game tonight...but not by much. Truth be told, he started the game looking lost. He ended up in passive positions on both ends of the floor. His resurrection came courtesy of a couple of impressive buckets off the break and high screen. The commonality there, and really to most of his game, was familiar: outrunning and out-moving opponents he looked great, otherwise hit and miss. The farther away from the bucket he started his attack run the better the outcome. The same held true on defense for the most part. He moved fast, though not always to best effect. When defending the low paint early on he alternated between not engaging in enough contact/motion and making too much...the result being buckets for the opponent or fouls for Leonard. When he calmed down in the second half Leonard did more things right and ended up registering a great game, especially for a rookie. The trick for Portland's rookie center will be not letting older, stronger, bigger, wiser, and meaner opponents take him out of his game and back into that deer-in-the-headlights phase.

Oh...he set a couple of nice screens too.

LINE: 18 minutes, 4-4 shooting, 10 points, 5 rebounds (2 OREB), 2 TO's, 4 PF's

LaMarcus Aldridge: Aldridge looked like this game was a warm up. He launched shots quickly and decisively, missing most. His defense looked as effective as anyone's, the focus on mobility helping. The impression so far, though, is that Aldridge is the comfort-food, meatloaf offense while the rest of the Blazers are trying some new haute cuisine. This game was a little bit Aldridge or Everybody instead of Aldridge and Everybody. The moments of and came when LaMarcus' teammates moved around, which they occasionally stopped doing when he caught the ball a bunch. It's a development to watch as the Blazers continue to grow together. Aldridge rebounded well in this game. He's not near the bucket much on offense so his rebound attempts on that side of the floor were sparse. He took his defensive rebounding assignment seriously, which the Blazers will need this year.

LINE: 24 minutes, 4-12 shooting, 6-7 FT's, 14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists

Nicolas Batum: Outside of the aforementioned give-and-go, Batum's most memorable contributions tonight came from the arc. He went 2-3 from distance. Even with the motion this looked like the Batum we're used to: moments of excitement bracketed by decent-enough play and mostly good defense. He neither shied away from nor dominated the offense, blending in with his fellow starters. He played well...enough.

LINE: 22 minutes, 5-12 shooting, 2-3 3PT, 0-0 FT, 1 rebound, 2 assists, 2 steals

Wesley Matthews: Matthews tried to take over the ball a couple times during this game. Those were the shots he missed. He also caught and shot in the flow of the offense. Those are the shots he made. His dribble looks about the same, as does his stroke. That's not-so-good and plenty good respectively. Otherwise, like Batum, he was competent as a starter and played well.

LINE: 24 minutes, 6-11 shooting, 2-5 3PT, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal

J.J. Hickson: Starting at center in this game, Hickson looked like he'd just been introduced to the game of basketball. His only comfortable moments came on a couple of open face-up jumpers at the edge of his range. Anything he did inside--post moves, catching the ball, defending, setting screens--looked strained. Coach Terry Stotts opted for Jarred Jeffries in the middle at the start of the second half. Coming off the bench with the pressure off, Hickson looked far more composed and aggressive. Since his big strength at center is precisely low-block scoring to complement the rest of the starters, he'll have to show more in the next few pre-season games if this experiment is going to succeed.

LINE: 18 minutes, 3-6 shooting, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks.

Joel Freeland: Freeland got 12 minutes, mostly at power forward, and like much of the rest of the lineup looked more mobile than effective. He showed one sweet turn-around move from the low right side. He covered ground on defense. Otherwise his night was unremarkable, except that he looked far more savvy in his first few minutes than Leonard did in his. We need to see more before we know what Freeland can do.

LINE: 12 minutes, 1-4 shooting, 2 points, 3 rebounds.

Jarred Jeffries: Jeffries played within himself and showed some veteran know-how, though he did collect 4 fouls pressed into service as a center. He was in the right spots, made the right plays, and was more of a positive on the floor than his stats would indicate. You held your breath when all of the other big guys took the floor, but Jeffries calmed you down immediately. If he can play at a comfortable position you can see why this guy would endear himself to coaches.

LINE: 12 minutes, 1-1 shooting, 2 points, 2 rebounds, 4 fouls.

Nolan Smith: Smith got plenty of run tonight with 21 minutes, the bulk at shooting guard. He looked for his own shot a bunch. There's aggressive and then there's banzai. He was the latter on repeated occasions. He went 1-6, looking like he was going way too fast and trying way too hard when he set his mind to scoring. When he calmed down and let the game come to him he actually grabbed 4 rebounds and dished 3 assists. It was a mixed bag kind of night, tending towards a raised eyebrow.

LINE: 21 minutes, 1-6 shooting, 3, 4, and 3 as stated.

Ronnie Price: Price was one of the eye-openers of the night, combining the same veteran aggression and playing within himself that Jeffries demonstrated. He attacked the hoop on a couple occasions, found his friends on offense, played nice defense, held the fort while Lillard was out. You could tell he knew what he was doing while Smith was often caught guessing. Price did have 3 turnovers, marring an otherwise nifty night.

LINE: 16 minutes, 1-2 shooting, 2 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 TO's.

Sasha Pavlovic: The veteran forward did OK, playing competently enough except for his 1-5 shooting clip. Nothing to write home about yet.

LINE: 15 minutes, 1-5 shooting, 1-3 3PT, 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals

Victor Claver: What you saw in Claver's game tonight would depend on what you expected. He showed flashes of becoming more than the complete non-factor many have him penciled in as. He showed a nice dribble, good floor coverage on defense, and like many Euro-converts he was at least willing to make mistakes of commission instead of merely standing around and staying safe. But he's not an NBA player yet, nor is he really close if this game is an indication. Might he be Boise-bound?

LINE: 12 minutes, 1-3 shooting, 0-2 3PT, 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal, 1 block, 2 turnovers

Adam Morrison: The Lip was flapping tonight, providing the most definitive example of all bench players of playing to his strength. When he got the ball he didn't try to get fancy. He got to an open spot, sometimes using screens to assist, and then canned a jumper. Lots of jumpers. He looked like he knew what he was doing. You don't ask much about defense with Morrison. You just expect him to hit at this clip when inserted. If this game is any indication, Morrison wants a job here.

LINE: 12 minutes, 4-6 shooting, 1-2 3PT, 9 points, 1 rebound, 1 TO.

Luke Babbitt: Babbitt rebounded well. He tried for rebounds and he got them. Let's get that out there right away. Other than that, his night wasn't good. He shot 1-5 from the field and threw up some Masonic-level bricks from the arc. His defense was mostly Babbitt-ish. If this is a battle between scoring, shooting forwards based on scoring and shooting, Ammo won Round 1 handily.

LINE: 13 minutes, 1-5 shooting, 0-3 3PT, 3 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 TO

Again, it's hard to draw conclusions from a single game with odd minutes, odd rotations, and an incomplete opponent. But if Pre-Season Game 1 holds true, we'll see more of the following:

  • Bigs are going to run on the break and quick passes will find them.
  • Portland will have trouble in the paint on both ends and will depend on non-traditional sources for rebounding help.
  • The starters will range from solid to brilliant, save at center.
  • Damian Lillard is going to be confident and fun to watch.
  • Center will be a pick-your-advantage and pick-your-poison affair until and unless Meyers Leonard steps up to fill the role.
  • The veterans on Portland's bench will do just what they're supposed to and help the team bail water when the starters are out
  • The non-veterans on Portland's bench could be trouble for the Blazers.

None of this is particularly revolutionary but it's good to see it in action as opposed to speculating about it on paper.

Game 2 comes on Friday night versus the Suns.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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