The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 97-77, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving their record to 17-15.
Average (or slightly above) never looked so good.
Back in January, the joke was that fans should bring signs to the Rose Garden to support Blazers guard Raymond Felton that read "Strive For Average!" Those imagined signs became even more necessary after Felton turned in a Bret Easton Ellis novel of a game on Thursday -- Less Than Zero: no points and five turnovers -- against the Clippers.
Felton averages 13.4 points and 6.7 assists per game for his career. On Saturday night, Felton got to those numbers, scoring 14 points and dishing 8 assists while shooting 6-for-11 from the field in 33 minutes.
His bounce back -- after a truly bizarre 48 hours of reported unhappiness, a meeting with coach Nate McMillan, a confounding clarification and calls for his starting job -- was far from a career night. Instead, he barely exceeded his established standard as a professional. But his wide smile and the throng of reporters surrounding his locker afterwards underscored how rare and refreshing the accomplishment was in a season full of disappointment.
"It's exciting, it's a relief. But at the same time, that's me," Felton said. "That's me that was on the court tonight. I'm just going to continue that."
He's correct. 14 points, 8 assists and 2 turnovers is essentially who he is. That's not who he has been this season, not even close, but that's who he has been as a professional and who the Blazers have needed him to be.
You might say that the thing about average is that it's all relative. The perception of improvement compared to recent performance at the poles is going to be skewed, whether you're coming down from a career night or turning the page from an abomination. And producing average once is not nearly as important as maintaining average. But it's better than the alternative, and it's a start.
"He just needs a slump-buster," said one member of the Blazers organization, as Felton warmed up before the game.
"He needed this game," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said afterwards.
In turn, the Blazers have desperately needed competent point guard play. They finally got it on Saturday night against the Hawks, and they rolled because of it.
Saturday marked the first full look at the new starting lineup -- Felton, Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby -- and it was an unqualified success. In the first quarter, the Blazers shot 65.2 percent from the field, had nine assists on 15 baskets, had nine assists compared to just two turnovers, were +9 before a substitute entered the game, enjoyed excellent balance in scoring, kept Aldridge as the No. 1 scoring option, got nine points from Batum, and had 14 points in the paint. Even with the Hawks coming out of the gate shooting well, Portland held firm control through 12 minutes.
"I think with that lineup, with Raymond pushing the ball, Nicolas being able to run, Gerald being able to run, it gives us a little bit more length to defend and rebound tonight," McMillan said. "Tonight we slid Gerald over to [defend] Joe [Johnson] and we still had size with Nicolas at the small forward position. If we can rebound, we should still be able to run. I thought Nic was aggressive tonight. Attacking the basket. I thought the length out there was really good."
The length of that lineup has stood out since very early in the season, when McMillan began going to the combination late in games, and it had a similar effect early. Atlanta's coach and players agreed that it gave them trouble.
"Moving Batum to the two and Wallace at the three, that gave them a lot of length in that starting lineup," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "We talked about it before we went out, to make sure we get out and get bodies on people, and tonight we didn't do that."
Even Hawks forward Josh Smith, an All-Star snub who defines length and athleticism, left tasting a bit of his own medicine.
"This team is a long basketball team, long and athletic, just like us but they're a bit longer. You have Marcus Camby, who can still contest shots at a very high rate. You have LaMarcus Aldridge at 6-foor-11, Gerald Wallace, Batum flies around."
Portland's length, Smith said, discouraged Atlanta's guards from making the necessary forays into the paint as the game wore on. "In the first match-up we were able to move the basketball around and get easy looks for each other. After that first quarter, it was kind of non-existent."
There were a few legitimate risk factors in replacing Wesley Matthews with Batum at the starting two guard position. First, it would mean running Batum and Wallace together for most of the game. Would they both be able to produce effectively playing together so frequently? Second, it meant having both Matthews and Jamal Crawford in the second unit together. Would Portland's offense stagnate once it hit the second unit and would the individual effectiveness of those two score-first guards be compromised by playing as a pair?
Saturday's debut provided intrigue regarding both questions.
First, with regard to Batum and Wallace, the results were better than could have reasonably been expected.
Continuing to showcase offensive production, efficiency and confidence, Batum finished with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, plus eight rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. Batum said after Tuesday's loss that he didn't really want to discuss his move into the starting lineup, because the team had been drilled so badly. That situation repeated itself after Thursday's loss to the Clippers. Finally, on Saturday, Batum could open up a bit about the transition into the starting role, a move he clearly desired and has embraced.
"Now I feel like, Coach Nate believes in me more, when I start," Batum said.
More important than that trust factor, Batum explained, was the fact that he is now just one of a number of offensive options rather than being forced into a go-to role as a reserve, a spot that saw defenses more likely to key on stopping him.
"When I come on the court I just play my game," he said. "I know the defense won't be focused on me. It'll be on L.A., Raymond, G. For me I just try to play a role like I used to in my first three years. I love it. I love to play like this."
The role suits him. Playing a full stretch with Felton and Aldridge allows for maximum clean looks from deep. Rather than being forced to create his own shots or receiving passes from Crawford, Batum is potentially able to capitalize on drive-and-dishes from Felton and the kick-out or subsequent swing passes generated by Aldridge's inside presence.
"In the first unit, I've got more space to play my game," Batum said. "That's the difference."
What might be starting to develop, Batum said, is a true inside-outside combination that has been lacking for long stretches during this season.
"Now, if I start to do some good things it will be less attention on L.A. We've got Raymond, G, they can't focus too much on L.A. because we have too many weapons around."
Meanwhile, the Matthews/Crawford conundrum was solved in an unexpected way: for the most part, Crawford simply rode the pine. McMillan instead tapped rookie Nolan Smith for major second unit, ball-handling minutes, and rode Matthews, who shot 6-for-13 on his way to 13 points. McMillan confirmed that Crawford's playing time was a function of the strong play from Felton, Batum and Matthews, and not something else. In other words, Crawford drew short straw in playing just 13 minutes and attempting just one shot, both season-lows.
Smith wasn't perfect -- 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers on 1-for-2 shooting in 15 minutes -- but he did well. Portland's offensive flow fell off a bit in the early second quarter but Atlanta hit a major drought, with just two free throws accounting for all of their points in a 7-plus minute stretch. Portland easily extended its lead to double digits during the second and cruised the rest of the way.
All in all, it was as smooth a new starting lineup product launch could go.
Most importantly, the rotation tinkering did not impact Aldridge, Portland's No. 1 option, early and otherwise. He got seven shots in the first quarter and had 19 on the game. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds even though he played just 34 minutes, with McMillan able to pull his starters in the fourth. Afterwards, he endorsed the team's play, brushing off a question that suggested that perhaps Atlanta -- who finished -13 in rebound differential, managed just 4 offensive rebounds as a team and shot 7-for-27 from deep -- didn't bring enough game to offer a real challenge.
"I can't blame it on that," Aldridge said. "We came out from the beginning, played defense great, rebounded great. We put pressure on them. If you give anybody life they can find it. We kept working."
He also offered perhaps the strongest, most confident assessment of the Blazers that has been delivered in weeks.
"[Nic] is playing great," he said. "If he keeps playing like that, and Ray plays good like that, we can beat anybody on any given night."
While Batum's play offers more long-term promise, Felton's provided the short-term reassurance, to himself and his teammates. It also changed the subject from finger-pointing comments made following Thursday night's loss.
McMillan said before the game that the situation between point guard and coach had been resolved.
"I think we all get emotional at times," he said. "We say some things, whether you believe that or not, it happens. I've talked to him about how I feel about his play and what he needs to do for the team. People are going to say things, people are going to write things, it's part of what as a coach you go through. I know we get emotional in certain situations and we say some things, and we talked about that. We talked about those comments that were made and we cleared that up."
The poor play and scrutiny got to Felton, but he said after the game that he realizes that he has to deal with both.
"I don't think I'm the only one struggling," he said. "Being a point guard on a new team, you're kind of thrown out there in a light, like a quarterback on the football field. Thrown out in that light as a point guard. Everybody sees what you do. Everybody sees your stats. It's just how it is. It's been an up and down way, but hopefully I've got it together. Well, I've got it together mentally. I just needed some time to myself."
Felton referred to that time to himself as, "Raymond Time."
What exactly does Raymond Time entail?
"Raymond Time, some time to myself. There's nothing involved. I can't tell you all that. It's some Raymond Time. Some time to Raymond."
Maybe it's best that stays a secret?
The key to his achieving average was playing quickly and moving with purpose, as he attacked Hawks guard Jeff Teague off the dribble repeatedly and kept things relatively simple once he got into the paint. The scorekeepers did him a few favors in ensuring that his turnover mark finished at just 2 but he did well to keep himself out of the ball pressure situations in which he has melted down recently. The new starting lineup offers him the opportunity to do more while doing less, too. Pure distributing looked much easier with the Batum, Wallace and Aldridge trio surrounding him. As it should.
"He did a good job," McMillan said. "I thought he got to the tempo we wanted to play. We've dropped six games [in a row] against Atlanta. I felt like part of it was that we played at their tempo. The games were in the 80s, and we needed to speed up the tempo tonight. I thought he consistently pushed the ball down the floor, kept pressure on their defense. Of course he made some shots tonight. He got us to the tempo we wanted."
Wallace tends to tease Felton after his good nights, and Saturday was no exception. He pretended to join the media horde by holding out a Gatorade bottle as if it were a microphone while Felton was taking questions. The action prompted a laugh from Felton; nothing more needed to be said between the former Charlotte Bobcat teammates.
Aldridge, meanwhile, mirrored Felton's relief.
"He showed us who he is and what he can do," he said. "Our problem earlier was that our guards weren't making shots and I wasn't passing the ball. Tonight we did better."
Indeed, average is better than awful. And what a difference that jump can make.
Random Game Notes
- Blazers coach Nate McMillan offered this quote about his job security prior to the game via CSNNW.com video: "I'm not concerned about that. I always work to win ballgames. I understand when you lose games, this is a league about winning. And when you lose games, everyone is getting questions, including the coach. I'm well aware of thoughts and concerns and questions and doubts and all of that. That's part of the business. You've got to win in this league, you're going to get questions and you're going to get looked at. No one just looks at me -- I look at myself. The pressure from the outside -- I understand that. You've got to win in this league, dropping games as we have. I understand that everybody's going to be evaluated."
Jason Quick of The Oregonian has a longer look at McMillan's reaction to calls for his job, including this line: "Sometimes if you go down, you are going down your way."
- Blazers forward Luke Babbitt entered the game with 2:33 remaining and the Blazers stuck on 89 points. An 11-point flurry to deliver Chalupas wasn't in the cards so he instead dribbled the ball 100 times on one possession in hopes of launching another Taco Bell promotion.
- Nicolas Batum had a funny exchange with Matt Calkins of The Columbian about the pre-deadline talk about his contract extension: "The contract thing, all the things are over now. I'm just having fun. You talked to me about it every game! I had to think about it. I'm free now, so I'm good."
- As soon as Aldridge went down with the ankle injury on Tuesday, the Blazers faced the very real possibility of going 0-5 into the All-Star break. Catching the Golden State Warriors without a healthy Monta Ellis was one break and catching the Hawks on an off-night was another. During both wins there was a response in the effort level. The Blazers did something big in these two wins: they staved off what could have been a damaging spiral that had a very realistic chance of taking place.
- I've received a million questions about Felton's clarification about his comments and how they were taken out of context by "another reporter." Based on multiple accounts of the conversation, it's still not clear who that other reporter supposedly was. Here's the important point: None of the accounts fingers anyone who covers the team on a regular basis.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Raymond Felton's play
He did a good job. I thought he got to the tempo we wanted to play. We've dropped six games against Atlanta. I felt like part of it was that we played at their tempo. The games were in the 80s, and we needed to speed up the tempo tonight. I thought he consistently pushed the ball down the floor, kept pressure on their defense. Of course he made some shots tonight. He got us to the tempo we wanted tonight.
New starting lineup
I think with that lineup, with Raymond pushing the ball, Nicolas being able to run, Gerald being able to run, it gives us a little bit more length to defend and rebound tonight. Tonight we slid Gerald over to Joe and we still had size with Nicolas at the small forward position. If we can rebound we should still be able to run. I thought Nic was aggressive tonight. Attacking the basket. I thought the length out there was really good. That's a really good team that we've had trouble against.
That's always a key for us. Not assume. Some nights we assume that Camby is going to get the boards and guys tend to stand around. That is a key every night, to rebound the ball. WIth that speed on the floor, I feel we can still beat teams down the floor if we secure the ball first.
What was different from Thursday?
I thought it was that we got a good rhythm, made our shots. We stopped those guys. We mixed in some zone tonight. We continued to make shots, we continued to defend. In the fourth quarter, we did the same thing, whenever they made a big shot or something like that, we responded with a basket. Whereas in some of these games, the Clippers, they made some buckets and we didn't score.
Something different from Felton?
I like the fact that he was aggressive. That's what we are looking for from him. We know he can do it. The attack was good. Push the ball, keep the pressure. I thought he played free tonight. He looked pretty loose. It was good to see his shot fall and get some confidence and hopefully he can continue from here.
LaMarcus Aldridge is back
That's a guy who establishes the paint for us. It gives us another option. It was good to have him in the lineup. To be able to play through him. Some other guys did some good things. I thought Nolan did a real nice job in his minutes off the bench. Tonight Gerald defended as well as scored. Wesley knocked down some shots. I thought it was a good team effort tonight.
Has Nicolas Batum established himself as a No. 2 guy?
He's continuing to play well. You have to play through the season. A few games doesn't determine that. I like the fact that he's been pretty consistent with his play when he was coming off the bench as well as being in the starting lineup. At this stage of his career, that's what you expect to see from players.
Jamal Crawford's minutes just a function of the starters playing well?
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter