The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets in overtime, 119-117, at the Rose Garden on Friday night, improving to 4-5 on the season.
Young teams give and they take, they give migraines and they take patience, they give racing pulses and they take some questionable shots, they give glimpses of 2015 and they take one step at a time, sometimes in the wrong direction, sometimes not, until they're grown up or it's time to give up. These young Blazers have been giving games away recently, through slow starts and folding finishes, but they took one on Friday, in exhilarating fashion.
Dave correctly called this Nicolas Batum's best game ever (I'll delete the "perhaps"); as boundless as it was on both ends, he was still in the periphery for the game-deciding offensive stretch, a series of plays by Damian Lillard that combined audacity, calm, and peeks at the heretofore unknown.
Lillard shot it, and he kept shooting it, and he kept shooting it, and, although Batum was waving frantically for the ball on at least one occasion, and a few possessions dragged out too long and wound up with bad looks, the ball kept winding up his hands, his teammates kept ceding the offense to him, and he delivered, more often than not.
"He's not scared," Batum said of Lillard to Blazersedge. "That's only the ninth game of his career. He played like this was his fifth or sixth year. He plays like a vet. I'm impressed. I'm impressed with everything by him. We know he's fast, we know he can score, but he's very, very mature."
In the final 7:45 of regulation, LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 29 points in 43 minutes, didn't attempt a single shot. In a seven minute stretch from 4:27 in the fourth to 1:22 in overtime, Lillard was the only Blazers player to score, save rookie center Meyers Leonard, who knocked down two free throws. After shooting just 4-for-10 for 11 points through three quarters, Lillard scored 16 of his career-high 27 points in the game's final 9:05.
He scored in various ways: knocking down deep jumpers, getting a call by getting into a defender's body near the rim, finishing a lay-up on the move, and nailing one from mid-range. The variety of the attack, and its quick succession, made it clear that coach Terry Stotts was getting out of his rookie point guard's way. "He made good reads with his decisions," Stotts said. "They switched some pick-and-rolls, he shot it, drove it and passed it. Made big shots, made big drives."
"He'll draw up a play and let us make reads," Lillard said of his late-game orders. "I kind of got rolling around that time and I felt comfortable taking those shots."
The shift in Lillard's reads when this game went from push to shove was noticeable. Batum scored 14 points in the third quarter and added nine in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. Aldridge had 20 of his first 26 points in the first three quarters, then mostly watched until the very end, when he scored the final three points in overtime to seal the win. The make-or-break sequences, then, were in Lillard's hands.
"Throughout the entire game I'm in position in pick-and-rolls and transition to call my own number," Lillard told Blazersedge. "But I wouldn't really say it's calling my own number, I think it's just decision-making."
Lillard called his own number on the final play of regulation, and just missed sending his hype train to warp speed when his three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out. "I had a scored a few times in a row. I was going to try to get to the rim, every time I moved the ball I saw him jumping back," he said. "I was feeling good so I rose up and shot it."
The shot rimmed off, or a Rose Garden crowd that was seated and docile for much of the game would have been headed for a little Roydemonium. Unlike with Batum's quick three-pointer against the San Antonio Spurs recently, Stotts said that he didn't have a problem with Lillard's decision to shoot a three rather than attack the hoop, even though driving on previous possessions had proven fruitful.
"If it goes in, everybody loves it," Stotts said. "He had made one, he was on a roll. He's in that spot, he has to make that decision and choice. If it doesn't go in, everybody says you should have drove it. It's too easy to try and criticize after the fact."
That last sentence was a particularly nice touch, given that he had done that exact thing with regards to Batum's shot just a few days earlier, but his apparent contradiction made a degree of sense. Here, the game was tied and Portland seemed to have better control of the endgame. Against the Spurs, Portland was down two and wasn't necessarily at last resort time. Both shots probably should have been drives, but neither was awful. The biggest message was one of trust: Stotts, as he had demonstrated in the game's final four minutes, was fine with Lillard having a non-rookie amount of authority in the situation. He gave him the "no second-guessing" superstar treatment that he hadn't given Batum.
"I knew that he would get a look, whether it was a drive or a jump shot," Stotts said. "Worst case, we were going to overtime. I like the ball in his hands as a good way to dictate the time, they couldn't get it out of his hands."
The "I like the ball in his hands" part likely rings true for everyone at this game. The line is very fine between anticipation and dread in those situations, and it goes without saying what side of the line last season played out on. The 2011-12 sensation was particularly jarring after years of living on the bright side with Brandon Roy.
"I didn't even realize I had 16 out of 18 [Blazers points]," Lillard said of the key stretch. "In my mind, I felt like I was a part of the run because I could remember Nic making shots, L.A. getting fouled."
He said that, fully believably and without lip service, and that "in the moment" focus is what's inspiring the confidence from Stotts, from Batum, and from everyone else in attendance. A possession or two could have been better used by more actively involving Aldridge. Importantly, though, none were outright squandered. The Blazers committed just two turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime; the Rockets committed six. The ball was primarily in Lillard's hands, he gets the bulk share of the credit for that care.
He also gets credit, or at least shares it with Stotts, for realizing, with the game tied at 116 and 1:21 left in overtime, that it was time to go back to Aldridge. Portland had just missed two jumpers, back-to-back, and it was closing time. A loss here, after three recent home losses, to a lottery-bound team, would have been heartbreaking given the effort expended in pulling back from a 16-point deficit. Stotts said that feeding Aldridge on back-to-back possessions, one that resulted in free throws and Omer Asik fouling out, the other with an Aldridge jumper, was "by design."
"I don't know if [Lillard] was tired, but when Asik fouled out we wanted to go to LaMarcus [again]," he said. "It's hard for one guy to carry it. Nic had his spurt, Damian had his spurt, and we needed LaMarcus, just to change it up, rather than have a steady diet of the same thing."
It was a seamless shift, the right call at the right moment, even if perhaps a little late coming. Lillard didn't fall in love with the hero ball. He didn't overcompensate after the buzzer-beating miss. He didn't force entry passes or lose possession off the dribble, or any of the other things that could go wrong, and did go wrong in recent Blazers history. Instead, he got out of the way and surrendered control to his No. 1 option, an expressed goal for this team since training camp but one that hasn't been realized much to date.
"We all wanted to go to LaMarcus at the end of the game," Lillard told Blazersedge. "It was a tie game. He's our All-Star so there's no reason we don't go to him for the last minute and a half of the game. Let them have to guard him. Let him make decisions... I thought he did well. He always does. We want him to score the ball. We throw it to him, he's going to score. He never forces it."
There was another whole layer of unselfishness at play here, running concurrently on a parallel plane. That would be Batum, who was scorching hot throughout, tying his career-high with 35 points (more on that in the notes below) on 13-for-19 shooting. He hit 5-for-6 during a high-energy third quarter run, something that's becoming a specialty of his, and then took a step back on offense down the stretch without checking out of the game on the other end. Let me rephrase: he stepped back on offense while making game-impacting play after game-impacting play on defense, including a pair of late blocks that he doesn't conceive of making in previous seasons. The confidence and the understanding that he needs to be the player to push the game his way during late moments is developing. He finished with six rebounds, four assists, five blocks and a steal.
"I feel great because the last two times I got a career-high we lost the game," Batum said. "Now I got a career-high and we win the game. That feels good."
After Monday's loss, Batum gave one-word answers and hustled out of the locker room; on Friday, he took his time, explaining how to execute a chasedown block and laughing about how his teammates were egging him on to score 40 points during the game. The give and the take.
"This was a hell of a game," a grinning Stotts said. "When it mattered, we played pretty well." He'll take that.
Random Game Notes
- This was a quiet and sparse crowd until the fourth quarter and overtime, when it picked up noticeably. It's absolutely not my job to sell tickets in any way, shape or form but I can't imagine anyone went home feeling swindled after this one. They called this a sellout somehow.
- Blazers president and CEO Chris McGowan sat next to owner Paul Allen in Larry Miller's old seat. GM Neil Olshey was on Allen's other flank. Adviser Bert Kolde has been pushed out away from Allen. McGowan randomly started cheering really, really intensely when Omer Asik was called for being out of bounds on a fairly meaningless loose ball sequence early in the game. Allen and Olshey sat next to him and did not visibly react. Maybe McGowan's still learning how to do this "attending basketball game" thing. (Kidding. Kidding.)
- Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard connected on a highlight lob. The video is here via YouTube user MsJonaVideo. Leonard was jokey- about it, glancing over at Lillard to make sure he was listening before saying, "Finally after Summer League, Damian and I are starting to get more of a connection with lobs. It's good. We've always had a pretty good pick and roll game, this one was in transition."
- I mentioned to Leonard that Jared Jeffries was screaming at him to get back on defense after the dunk but that he was already running back down the court. Big grin. He has apparently learned from the hard time they gave him for the incredible hulk celebration earlier this year.
- Even better, Leonard finally made his first shot outside of the paint, a left baseline jumper that Omer Asik dared him to shoot. I had cracked on Leonard a few times in these posts and on Twitter for talking up his mid-range game and then going weeks into the season without a single make outside two feet. Getting this particularly monkey off of his back brought a big smile to his face: "I keep talking about it. I've been quoted saying I can make so many in a row and everything. Just haven't been able to knock one down in a game. Finally, everyone was yelling, 'SHOOT IT!' Obviously Asik wasn't going to come out so it was good to finally knock one down. You've got to just continue to shoot them when I'm open in the game."
- Leonard is an extremely engaging person to be around when he's happy. Way down the line, there is leadership potential there. He's got a joy to life that will be infectious once he is a locker room's top dog and has seen more of the league.
- Leonard on his two big free throws to tie the game with less than two minutes in regulation. "I try to shake away the nerves and just do my thing."
- Leonard playing late looked like it could become an excellent option going forward and a good way to phase him into starter's minutes. If Portland ever finds itself protecting, say, a six or eight point lead, Jared Jeffries, who took two charges, could be an option over J.J. Hickson down the stretch too.
- Lillard on Batum: "He was great. It's not the first time I've seen him get hot like that. I've seen it in practice and in games. Tonight we needed it. It lasted a long time, usually if Nic gets hot it's in a short spurt, but he was hot for a few quarters."
- The last player to have 35 points and five blocks in a game, prior to Batum, was Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade on March 25, 2011, per Blazers stats.
- Lillard assessed the Rockets this way: "There are one of those teams that we're going to be in the same distance with, the same situation probably. It's important for us to win these games. Western Conference team, probably be around the same range we will be by the end of the season."
- Rockets acting coach Kelvin Sampson: "Batum was making shots with us in his grill. Other than foul him, I don't know what else we could have done there... We guarded him the way we would want to guard him. Sometimes you have to tip your hat and say, 'Batum, those are great shots. Lillard, those are great shots.'"
- The Blazers said Friday that Batum was credited by the NBA with an extra basket during Portland's recent game against San Antonio. Originally he had finished with 33 points, tying his career-high. The extra basket gave him 35 points, a new career-high. He then matched that on Friday against the Rockets.
- I asked Batum whether you could teach someone to execute a chasedown block. His response: "Just get back on defense." Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com wasn't buying that, so Batum continued. "OK, I've got long arms. I'm fast too. I'm fast too, come on, I'm fast. Sometimes, somebody goes on a fast break, I try to make sure I don't let that guy score an easy basket. Come from behind, make them think about it next time. Make them think about me after every time. I got three I think in the first half."
- The Blazers received a delay of game warning for taking too long with their pre-game rituals.
- The early transition defense was just awful. Portland conceded 17 fast break points in the first half. Chandler Parsons was a leakout master and James Harden did very well to find him with a nice zip pass. A better team would have put Portland away for good here.
- A child in the crowd had a "Brandon who? We've got Lillard" sign, which prompted some thumbs down on Twitter.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
This was a hell of a game. Had to make it interesting. One thing that's evident with our team this year is that we compete until the end. For a long stretch of the game, it wasn't the way we wanted it, but when it mattered we played pretty well.
He made good reads with his decisions. They switched some pick-and-rolls, he shot it, drove it and passed it. Made big shots, made big drives.
Nic had a roll going. The stretch where everything was going in and he came back in and he stayed hot. The plays he made, the shots he made were not easy, but he did it and he made it look easy. When you win a game you look at all the positives, we had a lot of good effort offensively and defensively. Jared Jeffries comes in and takes two charges and changes the dynamics of the game with his defense, just like he did in Sacramento. Meyers Leonard added energy and rim protection. All the offensive players did what they did. Wes Matthews took the challenge of guarding Harden, actually the whole team did, we blitzed him and tried to make his pick-and-rolls difficult on him. There's a lot of praise to go around.
Meyers Leonard down the stretch
Meyers is a good shooter. People haven't gotten to see him shoot that much. He's a good free throw shooter, a good mid-range shooter. He was extremely active on his pick-and-roll defense, showing on multiple pick-and-rolls on the same possession, changed some shots around the rim, it was a good performance.
Lots of Damian Lillard's shots and then you came back to LaMarcus Aldridge at the end
That was by design. I don't know if [Lillard] was tired, but when Asik fouled out we wanted to go to LaMarcus. It's hard for one guy to carry it. Nic had his spurt, Damian had his spurt, and we needed LaMarcus, just to change it up, rather than have a steady diet of the same thing.
Win for young team to build off of
I hope so. To me it was very similar to our game down in Houston. The first half, we were out of sorts at both ends of the court in both these games. We came out in the second half with more determination, we trusted the pass more, and it went into overtime like it did down in Houston. I thought the two games were very similar. That being said, in Houston I was hoping that would be a defining game for us, the way we won it, and this game was very similar.
Damian Lillard's final shot of regulation
If it goes in everybody loves it. He had made one, he was on a roll. He's in that spot, he has to make that decision and choice. If it doesn't go in, everybody says you should have drove it. It's too easy to try and criticize after the fact.
Just a clear out for Damian Lillard
Tie game, I just wanted to make sure we got the last shot. He had hit some shots, I knew that he would get a look, whether it was a drive or a jump shot. Worst case, we were going to overtime. I like the ball in his hands as a good way to dictate the time, they couldn't get it out of his hands.
Nicolas Batum's blocks
Our biggest challenge as a team is protecting the rim and protecting the paint. Whether it's J.J., Meyers, or Nic. Nic has that ability to come out of nowhere and block shots with his length and athleticism. It was a big play.
What's driving third quarter runs
Our poor first halves.
I saw a lot of resolve in both of those games. Clippers, we were down 20 and we come back and make it a game. Same thing in San Antonio, we had a last second shot. Atlanta we battled back, it was down to the last 30 seconds. I thought we showed resolve in those games as well, we just didn't win. Our guys compete. From Day One, that's been our mantra. We've got to compete.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter