The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 95-94, at the Rose Garden on Sunday night, improving to 11-12 on the season.
Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard, it's been said time and again already, plays with such a calm and confidence cadence that complicated plays often look easy. He's steady, on the ball and in the mind, to the point that good things are expected to happen and the possibility of great things looms on a surprisingly regular basis, given his status as a rookie.
Yet, in the big late-game moments of the first six weeks of his career, he hadn't found a way to match his skills and expectations with results. He found himself in game-deciding moments many times and yet the man whose middle name has become "poised" had come up short.
Eight times in six separate games entering Sunday, Lillard had a chance to win, tie, extend or meaningfully alter a one or two possession game in the final minute of regulation or overtime. Each time something bad happened.
- Score tied at 111 in the closing seconds against the Houston Rockets: missed three.
- Down 89-87 to the Atlanta Hawks with a minute remaining: missed jumper.
- Down 84-82 to the Washington Wizards with 28 seconds remaining: traveling.
- Game tied 91-91 in regulation against the Cleveland Cavaliers: missed a runner badly. Game tied 101-101 with 47 seconds remaining in overtime against the Cavaliers: turnover. Game tied 103-103 with one second remaining in overtime against the Cavaliers: missed three-pointer.
- Down 102-99 with 27 seconds remaining to the Charlotte Bobcats: missed three-pointer.
- Down 95-90 to the Indiana Pacers with 27 seconds remaining: missed three-pointer.
On Sunday, that record changed, as Lillard canned a deep, last-second three-pointer over Ryan Anderson to provide the winning margin against the Hornets. It was his first game-winner of the season and it prompted teammate Wesley Matthews to get in a little ribbing.
"It's about time," Matthews told Blazersedge, deadpanning for long enough to make it seem like he was serious. "It was a big time shot, it was perfect."
Lillard couldn't be on the short end of the joke because he was already thinking the same thing. As Portland broke from its huddle with four seconds remaining and the score tied at 92, Lillard talked to assistant coach and mentor David Vanterpool, and the two concluded that enough was enough.
"We both said I was due for one," Lillard recalled afterwards. "I had had a couple of chances to hit game-winners and I hadn't made any. He said, 'just believe in yourself,' and I did and I made the shot."
All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who watched the shot go in from the training room after badly spraining his left ankle late in the fourth quarter, eschewed the razzing and went straight to the compliments: "I thought he made a really big shot. The Basketball Gods were with us. We've had those opportunities in the past. The ball didn't fall for us, but tonight it did."
The sweet ending capped what was an uneven night for Lillard, who finished with 16 points, four assists, two rebounds, one steal and one turnover on five-for-14 shooting. Until the game's final moment, there hadn't been a clear winner in the showdown of Rookie of the Year candidates. Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick, finished with 15 points, five rebounds, one block and shot five-for-10 in 33 minutes off of the Hornets bench, as he continues to work back from a series of ankle sprains that sidelined him earlier this month.
The winner of the rookie match-up wasn't decided until the highlight ending, even though the game seemed to be firmly in Portland's hands throughout. The Hornets dug out from a 16-point, tying the game with a dramatic Austin Rivers three with less than a minute to play. Rivers -- who finished with eight points on three-for-eight shooting and struggled with foul trouble, couldn't seem to finish in traffic, and was bothered regularly by Nicolas Batum's length -- caused the Rose Garden some unexpected anxiety with his three. He also forced Blazers coach Terry Stotts to dust off a sideline inbounds set-up that helped decide the double overtime marathon against the Cavaliers earlier this month.
Against the Cavaliers the Blazers were working with a tighter clock, so Lillard merely inbounded to Batum, who launched a catch-and-shoot three to beat the Cavaliers, 118-117. Here, the Blazers approached their final offensive possession with four seconds on the clock after Lillard was fouled by Greivis Vasquez (with a foul to give) as he looked to milk the clock and create off the dribble.
(Sidenote: Lillard attempted to launch a three-pointer when fouled by Vasquez hoping to earn free throws. Both Stotts and Lillard initially campaigned for the foul shots. Afterwards, Stotts said the referees had made the right call in not awarding the free throws while Lillard still said that he thought he had earned them.)
Stotts went to the same inbounds play call that he used against the Cavaliers, although he made it clear to his players that there was enough time to get to the play's other options if Batum wasn't immediately available. The secondary option: an inbounds pass to Luke Babbitt, who would look to score if he was wide open or return the ball to Lillard if not.
"It was pretty much the same play but there was time for the hand back," Stotts said. "Nic comes off of it. Luke was there, if Luke didn't have anything, we had the hand back."
Lillard and Babbitt both said the play was executed almost exactly as designed.
"At the end, it was a play like we did in Cleveland," Lillard said. "If Nic wasn't open, I would throw it to Luke, get the hand back, and try to get a shot up."
Babbitt added: "We had a couple of guys coming off screens, Will and Nic. They were supposed to pass it in to me. Damian was going to come off a quick hand off. That's the way they drew it up. [It went] pretty much [according to plan], yeah. Damian made the play but we executed it well. Give coach credit."
Lillard returned the compliment. "Luke did a really good job of using his body to get open and even when I came back inbounds, he handed the ball back to me instantly, went into a screen and got Vasquez, giving me the chance to raise up over [Anderson] and I had a good look at the shot."
Babbitt indeed did well on the catch, hand off, and screen, allowing Lillard a small window to create a shot going to his right off the dribble. Still, this was a deep three, 28 feet out according to the scorer's book, a low-percentage, contested look over a taller opponent.
"I didn't see the replay of it, but when you hand it off, you're able to brush a guy," Stotts said of Babbitt's role on the play. "I'm sure that helped, but it was a hell of a shot."
"When I let it go, I got it off over the top of [Anderson's] hands," he said. "Then I was looking, I was like, 'That looks good, that's going in.' It went in and we won the game."
The shot set off the Rose Garden crowd, which hadn't had much reason to go nuts until the final moment, and brought the Blazers bench onto the court to celebrate. Lillard barked, gestured to courtside fans and even gave a high five to one.
"I have no idea who it was," he said. "He was the first person I saw and I just slapped his hand."
"I'm pretty much blank," he told Blazersedge. "In my head, I'm trying to figure out how the defense is going to play me. If there will be gaps or if I'll have to raise up and shoot a jumper. Nothing really. It's pretty much blank, but I'm always looking around the court to see where guys are... They had two guys up on the pick-and-roll that me and Luke got into late. They played it how I expected them to."
His three previous misses in the closing seconds of games this season are now all but forgotten.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced at 18,772, which is short of a sellout. As mentioned, the Rose Garden was pretty flat until the end when patience paid off.
- Security measures were ramped up at the Rose Garden and a moment of silence was held for the Newtown school shooting victims.
- Nicolas Batum finished with 11 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals and five blocks in 42 minutes. That's history, folks. Since 1985-86, a player has registered at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a game just 14 times before Sunday night. The full list is here. Hakeem Olajuwon did it six times; Andrei Kirilenko did it three times; David Robinson, Jamaal Tinsley, Vlade Divac, Derrick Coleman and Marcus Camby each did it once. The 5-5-5-5-5 hadn't been done since 2006, by Kirilenko.
- Greivis Vasquez definitely gets credited with an assist for Batum's achievement, as he finished with six turnovers and had passes intercepted by Batum multiple times.
- The game pictures from Bruce Ely of The Oregonian are great as always. I can already see the series of before, during and after shots of Lillard's game-winner blown up large and hanging on the walls of the team's practice facility.
- J.J. Hickson finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds and for the second straight night he succeeded in putting out more than he took away. Stotts pointed out that Hickson accounted for eight defensive rebounds while the rest of the Blazers managed only 14 combined. Here's Lillard on Hickson: "He was probably the best player on the floor a lot of the time he was out there, chasing rebounds like he always does, finishing around the rim, he's been in the gym a lot, shooting jumpers. It's transferring to the court, he's making them in the game."
- Wesley Matthews departed the game just four minutes in after attempting a comeback from a hip flexor strain that kept him out of the last two games. Matthews said that he didn't re-injure himself but that he could tell quickly that he wouldn't be able to play well after he tried to get over a screen at full speed.
- Here's Matthews on his status. "I wouldn't have been effective if I tried to keep playing. There's no point in me trying to keep playing. I realized that as I tried to fight over the screens, it was irritated, it hindered me the next play. It's not a setback, it's just not there yet... We've done everything right, made the right progressions, taking it day by day, step by step, stressing it a little more, seeing what it could handle. Tonight was a positive. We won and I didn't set myself back... I'm getting closer. That's the first time it was live, and there's no better way to test out where you're at than in a game setting."
- LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, badly sprained his left ankle in the fourth quarter when he came down on the foot of Ryan Anderson. Aldridge left the arena with the help of crutches but was not in a walking boot (yet). X-rays on the ankle were negative and he's scheduled to have an MRI soon. He pointed out that he sprained his right ankle, not his left, last year when he was undercut during a jumper. "It's hurting pretty bad, can't really walk on it," he said Sunday. "I'm on crutches for now until it starts feeling better."
- The Blazers have Monday off and won't play until Thursday so there would seem to be time for both Matthews and Aldridge to get right (or close to it).
- I'm not sure what to make of president Chris McGowan's recent comments. Was he looking for a second chance at making a first impression when he admitted that he was "nervous" at his first press conference and said that it was "weird" when his employees reacted with silence when he informed them of his plans to potentially cut staff? Was he looking for sympathy or awkwardly extending an olive branch? Those ships have sailed; until he has a big partnership or a large round of staff hiring to announce, it seems unlikely that words are going to get him out of the early holes he has dug for himself.
- On the plus side, McGowan's focus on increased accountability and transparency with ticket sales is a great place to start when it comes to forming a vision, at least until he has some signature accomplishments that he can claim as his own. It lends credibility to his administration that was badly lacking in the previous version.
- On the down side: Why broadcast the possibility of layoffs right before the holidays? Why pay such obvious lip service to "culture" -- something many of his employees value deeply -- when it's clear he has different priorities? It's hard to see exactly where he's going with either of those plays and the net result internally on both seems like more harm than good.
- I guess, to some degree, McGowan is, like many of his organization's players, a rookie. Perhaps from here forward the focus should be on tracking his development.
- I talked with Austin Rivers for quite awhile pre-game for a q and a that will run on SI.com. He's been off to a slow start but he had three games in a row before Sunday over double figures. I thought I had jinxed him after he never really got going and was sent to the bench early with foul trouble. Then he hit his late three and other media members started blaming me for being his good luck charm. Either way, the jury is still way out on him as a one-and-done guy; I'm not in the camp that seems ready to bail on him completely as a player. He did mention how "crazy" it is to think the Hornets are only 1/4 of the way through their schedule. A good "rookie wall" reminder.
- Luke Babbitt has played his most meaningful ball over the last week but he's not yet ready to acknowledge his progress. "I don't know," he said flatly. "I'm still not shooting it that well. I'm just trying to play solid defense and do other things. Battle defensively. Improve in other areas, try to develop other aspects of my game. Hopefully the shot will come around."
- Anthony Davis had some "superstar in the making" moments and he already has that aura of a player whose team will get circled on the calendar when the schedule comes out because of his presence alone.
- Hornets coach Monty Williams opted for a lob to the hoop when down by three with 0.3 seconds left after Lillard's winner. Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune has Williams' explanation, which doesn't make a ton of sense. Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports on Twitter that Williams also said that the referees instructed him that the Hornets needed 0.4 seconds to catch with two hands and shoot a three-pointer even though the rulebook says a shot can be attempted in 0.3 seconds.
- My thought here is that players should practice punching the ball with a closed fist into the hoop from various spots on the court. The ball should then be inbounded to that player for a punch attempt in these situations. Hey, it couldn't be worse than Williams' plan, which was guaranteed to fail unless the Blazers committed a brain-dead and-one foul on the lob, which they were surely instructed not to do.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
That was a hell of a game. We played a good game. We won each of the first three quarters. Their rebounding and three-point shooting obviously kept them in the game and put them in position to win the game. We bent but didn't break. I was pleased with that. I thought we got the lead to about 14 or 16, then we had some loose possessions, where we got loose in transition, didn't come up with the loose ball. We pushed our lead a little bit more. I think that bit us as the game went forward.
It was pretty much the same play but there was time for the hand back. Nic comes off of it. Luke was there, if Luke didn't have anything, we had the hand back.
Nice to win a late game and not need overtime?
As long as we win I don't care if it's overtime or not. It would have been disappointing to lose because I thought we played a good game, from start to finish we were pretty much in control of the game. They got hot and winning the game is ultimately the most important thing. We had some injuries, Wes went down, Sasha went down and L.A. went down. It was a good one to get.
He turned his left ankle.
He just felt something. I really don't have an update on him. He made a move, did something and it just didn't feel right. Early, first or second possession something like that.
Nicolas Batum's all-around game
I told him after the game, one of my hopes for him is to expand his role as a facilitator and a play-maker. Not just a scorer or a catch-and-shoot guy. I think he relishes that versatility. On top of that, he was pretty good on every defensive assignment he had tonight. He was guarding Rivers, he was guarding Anderson, he's kind of doing a little bit of everything which is the direction I'd like him to go.
Your view of Damian Lillard's game-winner?
Same as yours. It looked good.
Did you think Lillard got the fouls on the final shot?
We talked about it. We knew they had a foul to give. He tried to get up. I watched the replay, it was a nice try but they made the right call.
In a night where we struggled rebounding the ball, he was really important. I don't know what the final numbers, they had 16 offensive rebounds and we had 22 defensive, J.J. had most of them. His offense was terrific. I'll remember to say this: he was fantastic. Offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, passing the ball.
I thought this was our best passing game of the year. We had a lot of assists but we had even a lot of ball movement for the first three or three and a half quarters, was the best we had all year. It was fun to watch.
Can you sustain this winning streak longer than the last three-game winning streak
I don't know. You'd like to think so. Every game is a new game. The goal is to sustain whatever success we have and be consistent. Whether it's more or less than previously that's hard to say.
Luke Babbitt's screen
I didn't see the replay of it, but when you hand it off you're able to brush a guy. I'm sure that helped, but it was a hell of a shot.
How to weigh your late-game options in that situation
If we have a chance to go flat I like Damian's ability to get a shot off and dictate the clock. Nic is good at coming off of screens. L.A. is an option on the elbow or the block. A lot of it is dictated by feel for the game. I like Nic's ability to raise up and get a shot off. That's not an easy shot, like Ray Allen can come off and make that shot. That's a talent. And then obviously Damian has the ability to drive to the basket and shoot threes. A lot of it is just a feel and a hope.
Nic was first option?
On that play yeah. We've got other plays but on that particular one it was pretty much the same thing we did in Cleveland. Cleveland we didn't have a lot o time. In this we had four seconds.
He was in the ice tub. His foot was in the ice tub. It's a sprained ankle.
He's got a game where he has a good floor game, he has a good sense for the game, he's unselfish. He's a team player. I'm glad he hit a three, that was good for his confidence. I think passing is contagious and he does facilitate that.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter