The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 116-106, in their regular season opener at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night.
Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard doesn't belong in the NBA. Oh, he can play. He made that clear in his first professional game. He just doesn't fit in a league where LeBron James celebrated his title 23 months before he won it, where Kobe Bryant used a foot injury to drive traffic to his Facebook page and plug his shoe sponsor, and where Dwight Howard turned to a Lakers staffer, after a double-digit loss, to ask if he can have his candy for making his free throws. Lillard, after becoming the first rookie since James to score 23 points and dish at least nine assists in his debut and just the third rookie ever to debut with at least 20 points and at least 10 assists, deflected the credit, held himself accountable for his six turnovers, and worried out loud about the fact that he wasn't sure what to pack for his first real road trip.
Lillard is Barry Sanders on morphine; before handing the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown, he gets down into a yoga position and then paints an empty lake. Untouched bodies of water come to mind because he is simply placid, so serene after defeating the Lakers that he made you hope that when the cameras are off and the room clears out, he breaks character, throwing a fist into the air and hurdling in place while squealing. That mental image is funny to think about but also impossible to imagine. There's not much artifice here; he doesn't break character because he's not a caricature.
"I think the world of him," Kobe Bryant told Dwight Jaynes of CSNNW.com after the game, in which he scored 30 points and had six rebounds and three assists. "This was my first time really watching him play outside of the preseason. He has a great deal of talent. He seems to be fearless. I think he has a bright future."
"He was huge," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who finished with 26 points, six rebounds and three steals, said. "He did a good job. The way he can score, pass, defense, shoot threes, penetrate. He balances the game."
"He played great," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who added 22 points, two rebounds, two assists and four steals, said. "He was the engine, he pushed the tempo and we all fed off of that. There was times where he fed off of us, that's just how this team is going to go."
"I felt real comfortable," Lillard said, enunciating clearly while keeping a flat tone, as if imitating a more masculine Siri. "It's a lot easier when [Aldridge] is making shots, Wes is making shots, Nic is making shots. I've got to give credit to them, they made shots and everything came easier for me."
Lillard knocked down his shots, picked his spots, threw a lob and dished a behind-the-back pass to Aldridge with a flourish. He ran clock when appropriate and had a gorgeous, Roy-esque herky-jerk drive that finished with a banker to close the third quarter, a play that brought the Rose Garden to its feet. Even more remarkably, after the game, he restrained himself from giving out his home address and inviting people to come fight him. I'm telling you. The focus of this guy is astonishing.
Stotts is the truest believer in his young team, as he should be, although Matthews offers some stiff competition for that title.
"There's a lot of doubters against us, a lot of people writing us off. This isn't going to silence them, but it's just going to certify our belief in ourselves," he said.
"We was flying around," Lillard said. "Our activity and how hard we tried kind of wore on them. They had a game last night, a tough loss last night, and they had to come here and we came out with a lot of energy. We made things hard for them."
"We had to [jump them]," Matthews said. "It's their second game on a back-to-back early in the season. They're older than us. Dwight [Howard] is still not healthy. That was our edge. Our edge is going to be the fact that we can run on almost everybody... There were parts in the first quarter where we were controlling the game but we were only up one... We just stayed with what we were doing, believed in ourselves and didn't let up.... We didn't panic [when the Lakers tried to come back]. We stayed poised, we stayed together. We kept doing what we've been doing."
Doing what they've been doing, in this case, also means beating the Lakers in the Rose Garden. Portland is now 17-4 against L.A. in the last 21 games between the two teams in Portland.
"Everybody wants to say the Blazers have a rivalry with the Lakers," Brown said before the game. "Shoot, I think the Lakers have a rivalry with everybody."
The game was probably over as soon as he said those words, but Lillard and the Blazers didn't leave anything to chance. Even with a few late turnovers and miscues, the Blazers defeated one of the favorites to win the Western Conference by double-digits.
"I was happy," Lillard said, finally. "We really flowed tonight. Everybody got to spots where they like to get [to]. Everybody was comfortable. There was a lot of flow in our offense. Everything went smooth."
"If you asked me about anybody who played, I'm going to tell you they played great," Stotts said.
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden was announced as a sell out and just about every seat was full. Very loud, excellent crowd throughout. Multiple standing ovations, "Beat L.A." chants and tons of Halloween costumes. Exactly the type of festive atmosphere you would expect on opening night. The ticket office will be busy on Thursday.The Blazers' performance surely sold thousands of future tickets. Not exaggerating or being flip. (I shouldn't have to add that disclaimer but you guys know how I can get.)
- I told you I'm getting obsessed with the iPhone 5's panorama. Here's what the Rose Garden looked like early in the first quarter. Click on the image there to get a huge version.
- Some audio of recent radio interviews can be found here. Posted this pre-game; re-running here.
- Luke Babbitt got a DNP-CD. Did anyone else notice? Just me? OK, cool. He was the only non-rookie who was available and didn't play. Will Barton, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver all sat too. Ronnie Price (ankle) went through some pre-game shooting and such but wasn't cleared to play.
- Stotts' rotation was interesting. He went just nine deep and used Nolan Smith in the middle of quarters to stagger some of Lillard's minutes. Sasha Pavlovic was also a surprise as an early sub and he had an intriguing second-half streak where he rebounded his own missed free throw for a basket. Stotts praised Pavlovic a bit below. Otherwise, Stotts rode his starters, hard. Batum played 40 minutes. Could he be in for the type of playing time treatment that Tom Thibodeau gives Luol Deng?
- The Blazers had their starting lineup introductions unfold with the players coming down from the crowd. So there was at least one tradition carried over from last season.
- Batum was cheered loudly during introductions.
- Kevin Pelton made the trip down tonight and even wore a pocket square in his suit, poking fun at recent criticism he received from Reggie Miller, who called Basketball Prospectus a bunch of "lab geek rats" during a TNT broadcast. Yes, that happened.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 19 points and three rebounds, addressed the crowd at center court before the game. He kept it extraordinarily short and sweet. "I just want to say thank you for your support. I'm looking forward to a real fun season."
- The highlight of the night from the Lakers' perspective was a fabulous block on Lillard by Howard.LakersNation.com has video here.
- Signs in the crowd: "NBA Sellouts Unite in LA" and "Dwight, the real Superman wears red, not purple."
- Lillard's touch pass alley-oop to Meyers Leonard for a one-hand flush was special. It was Leonard's only basket in 23 minutes but they don't get much prettier.
- Batum's two-hand baseline drive and dunk over Howard might have Leonard's beat though.
- Batum on the win: "The energy was there. Dwight got his number, Kobe got his number, Pau got his number, but we still got a win. We still won this game. That's a good team win."
- Lillard said that he didn't keep the game ball because he wasn't aware of protocol: "I gave it up. I don't know how that works. I just had the ball when time ran out, I was just walking, getting the crowd up, someone came and took it from me."
- Lillard's response when asked about how well the team took care of the ball given just 12 turnovers: "I probably had a lot of them. I've been trying to take care of the ball. I'm happy we won the game, I'll go back and try to fix myself to see what I can do better."
- Lillard on the main difference between the preseason and the regular season: "Guys weren't as friendly as the preseason. When they come out to tip the ball up, everybody was shaking hands and conversing. Today, it was silent. It was just like, let's play. I immediately saw the difference between preseason and regular season."
- Dwight Howard after the loss: "L.A. wasn't built in a day."
- Portland sent Howard to the free throw line 19 times, and he connected on 15. He led all scorers with 33 points and added 14 rebounds, five assists, one block and one steal. All of that, and it wasn't nearly enough.
- Before the game, Mike Brown suggested that Charles Barkley and other critics of his offensive system call Steve Nash, who would verify that he has the freedom to run as many pick-and-rolls as he wants. "Steve Nash has the right to play pick-and-roll if he wants to. Steve Nash has said it himself. They can call him if they want, he's said it himself. He doesn't feel like he's as burdened because he doesn't have to make every play for everybody all the time, with what we are trying to do. He can give it up and get it back. He says he's felt as fresh as he's ever felt in his career because he doesn't feel the pressure of making every single play."
- Maybe win at least one game before you start managing pressure?
- The Lakers are now 0-2. They are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs but it sure feels like it. Not really, but it's fun to joke about. Someone actually asked Howard if the Lakers have the chemistry to make the playoffs. His response: "Do we have the chemistry to make it to the playoffs? We actually met with one of the best chemists in the world. The other day, he mixed up a couple potions for us."
- One very sad note to conclude: Larry, a long-time friend of Blazersedge and someone with whom I've spent dozens of hours talking hoops, both in Portland and at Summer Leagues in Las Vegas over the years, passed away on Wednesday. Deepest condolences and best wishes to Georgia.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Obviously it was a good win for us. We played the style of game we wanted to play offensively. We probably could have done a better job defensively. We didn't defend the free throw line very well. It was a good win. Everybody contributed. We got stops when we needed them. I liked the tempo of the game.
Damian played well. We still have to work on his turnovers but a couple possessions where I felt like he tried to do a little too much, but really on the whole, for his outing, to have 23 and 11 in a game like this, it was pretty impressive.
Dwight Howard 15-for-19 from free throw line
Stats are a funny thing. They shot more free throws, they out-rebounded us by a ton and we win the game. There are a lot of ways to win games. Dallas beat them last night and they didn't make free throws. They made their free throws tonight and we won. That's just part of basketball.
Surprised how quickly offense has been picked up
We have a lot of good basketball players who have a good sense for the game. They pick up the sets pretty well. They play off of each other pretty well. We are concerned about our turnovers after our first two preseason games and then we have 12 turnovers in a game like this, that's pretty good. All our guys have a good sense for playing basketball together. Even though we do have sets, a lot of it is that we ask them to make basketball plays rather than have plays run. They did a nice job of that.
First game in the Rose Garden
It was everything I expected. It was great. I've said from day one that this is one of the best homecourts, if not the best, in the league. Portland fans are terrific opening night, they were into the game from the tip. They had a big part in getting the win. We're a relatively young team and we fed off their energy.
Did Dwight Howard earn all of his fouls?
He earned every foul he got. It wasn't Hack-a-Dwight or anything like that. He got the ball in the paint, he may have had one and-one, maybe two. He got the ball deep and we fouled him. That was kind of the gameplan. If he gets the ball that deep, it's better to foul him. He made his free throws. My hat's off to him.
Wesley Matthews' defense
I thought Wes was into his defense all game. His one-on-one defense on Kobe, he took the challenge every possession. Kobe is going to score and he made some tough shots, but I thought Wes took a lot of pride in that match-up and made Kobe work.
Meyers Leonard on Dwight Howard
Same thing with Meyers. I think he relished the physical nature of the match-up. He held his ground. Dwight is an All-Star. He made some good moves but Meyers didn't back down. He didn't quit, he didn't throw his arms up, he just kept playing next play. For him to come out against a guy like Dwight and have that much competition, it was good to see.
Sasha Pavlovic in third quarter
That little stretch that he had was really kind of opened it up. Our bench was solid. Guys coming off the bench were all solid and had a solid role. That little stretch that Sasha had, getting the steal was big, getting the rebound on his free throw was big. That sequence energized our team when we were kind of wobbly. It could have gone either way. It turned the game at that point.
Nic scored well. Seemed like he made timely shots. When we needed a little run, when we needed some energy. He plays a game that kind of flows, certainly I run some plays for him but he's a great flow player. He finds open shots. We played him a lot of minutes and he had some tough defensive assignments as well. If you asked me about anybody who played, I'm going to tell you they played great.
I can't say I'm surprised. Especially from our starters. That group has played a lot of minutes together. Last year, they played very well. They are a competitive group. They are very good basketball players. Killer instinct? I think it was just the way we finished the third quarter. They had their bench in and we were able to take advantage of that. I would have liked to finish the last three or four minutes a little better but it was a solid win from start to finish. I don't know if you would say killer instinct or just being professional in going about your business, making one good play upon another.
Limiting turnovers after lots of turnovers in preseason
Everybody was aware of it. Both of those high turnover games were against Utah, maybe that had something to do with it, different type of defense. Maybe it was because preseason, I don't know. It was something that after the preseason games we said that it's an area of concern. We've got to keep it under 13, 14, 12 turnovers, to be competitive in this league, you can't consistently have high turnovers.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter