The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 137-97, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, closing the pre-All-Star break portion of the season with a record of 18-16.
Shortly before the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters that he was electing to rest starters Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. That news came on top of a team announcement from earlier in the week that Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter were both going to be out for roughly two weeks. In other words, the Spurs would be without four key performers, including all of their "Big 3."
Informed of the news, Blazers coach Nate McMillan smiled. He then said, "I hadn't heard that," before rocking back and forth in his chair with the look of a man who just received a real life version of the Monopoly card, "Bank error in your favor."
At this stage of the season, after scoring seven points in the first quarter of a Monday night loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, after benching starting point guard Raymond Felton due to poor play and/or poor attitude, and linging to a slightly above-.500 record, McMillan wasn't going to complain. Something to make life a little bit easier? Please, bring it on. Bring it all the way on.
The result of Popovich's decision was predictable: the Blazers demolished the Spurs, scoring a season-high 137 points, opening up a 48-point lead. Portland opened with 41 points in the first quarter, more than five times their total against the Lakers just 24 hours before. This wasn't a real basketball game so I'm going to give you the pertinent quotes and then we'll talk to Elliot Williams about life and his garbage time dunks.
"We need to rest players," Popovich said, explaining his decision. "With this schedule, everybody rests players at some point. It would be great if I was still able to play Manu and Tiago tonight and rest Tony and Tim, but that's not the case. Those guys are out, and I can't run our guys into the ground. When it's time for them to rest based on the schedule and the time they've been playing, that's what has to happen if you want to put somebody in the bank for later."
"Sometimes that type of game can be a challenge," McMillan said. "Sometimes you can be a letdown. For our guys, as I told them, it's not about the team or who is out we need to play the game. I thought they did. They went out and focused. They played the game the right way."
The Blazers started Jamal Crawford, who finished with 20 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 turnover, in place of Felton. Crawford was hot early, not hesitating to pull from deep while doing a fine job of getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, who was towering over Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. Felton also did well in his reserve role, coming off the bench for the first time all season to provide immediate scoring: He hit a season-high four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points, 4 assists, 1 rebound and 1 turnover. Thanks mostly to the guard duo, the Blazers hit eight first-quarter 3-pointers and this game was pretty much a wrap.
The big rotation question now is whether Felton's demotion was a short-term thing or a longer-term switch. The timing of the move, one game before the All-Star break, is enough to raise some eyebrows.
"I believe in Raymond," McMillan said before the game. "Raymond is going to be fine. He will still be in the rotation and we're going to need him to play well... I made the decision after last night's game, looking at our rhythm and our start that I was going to change the rotation... This is a decision made for tonight."
The words were delivered as if future lineup decisions had potentially not yet been made.
Afterwards, Felton said he hasn't gotten a clear indication of what his role will be after the All-Star break or if he will return to the starting lineup. "Who knows? I don't know nowadays," he said. "If it happens, it happens, if it don't, it don't. I'm going to be professional and play basketball."
Crawford, for his part, tried to say all the right things about stepping in as the starting point guard, but his tone didn't make the lineup change sound like a particularly permanent thing.
"That's a tough question," Crawford said before the game, when asked what McMillan hoped to see from him that Felton hadn't provided. "I honestly don't know. I pride myself on being a professional. I'm probably more of a 2/1 combo guard but I pride myself on being a professional either way, no matter what it is."
For those concerned about Crawford's ability to run a team full-time, he offered this humorous historical perspective, plus some statistical evidence. "I actually won a state championship in high school as a point guard," he said. "[I averaged] 23 [points]. I could have scored more. I dumbed down my scoring so I could average more assists. I averaged 11 assists actually."
The post-game feel was like the day before Christmas vacation at your local elementary school. Gerald Wallace was the first out the door, headed for his home in Alabama. "I'm going to sleep in, eat some bad food, and drink some sodas," he quipped.
Felton, meanwhile, is headed for the City of Sin. "I'm going to go work out, stay on top of everything but at the same time I'm going to have some fun and enjoy myself," he said. "I'm going to Vegas, work out with my trainer there, have some fun and enjoy myself."
What happens in Raymond Time, stays in Raymond Time.
One of the last to leave the locker room was Williams, whose story has been terribly overlooked by me this season. Good thing I can explain that oversight by just blaming McMillan for not playing him enough. (Talk about the easiest crowd-pandering set-up of all time.)
Anyway, as you might imagine, I have knees on the brain this week. Williams, of course, underwent right knee surgery in Nov. 2010 and left knee surgery in Jan, 2011, procedures that forced him to miss his entire rookie season.
Right now, he stands an amazing contrast with Greg Oden because he self-reports as 100 percent recovered from the surgeries. He seems to have lost no explosion or leaping ability, he remains absolutely fearless, driving actively into contact and looking to jump over people seemingly whenever possible, and his knees require no extra icing or out of the ordinary treatment. It's as if that year of his life, physically speaking, never happened.
On Tuesday, Williams threw down two more sensational dunks. His highlight reel for the season is already exceptionally long, even though he's played in barely more than 100 total minutes in 2011-2012.
Williams has told me multiple times that he simply doesn't think about his knees this season. But that doesn't mean he's forgotten the rigors of rehabilitation.
"A year ago, at this time, I couldn't even walk," he told me after the game. "I was in the bed. It was tough. I had surgery on both my knees. I worked hard to get back on the court. It's a blessing."
Often, the thought of future on-court glory will inspire or motivate injured players through that mental minefield. They can escape from mental and physical pain, or seemingly endless boredom, by closing their eyes to picture hitting a winning shot, or crossing someone over, or being introduced to the crowd. The fantasy can be a good way to finish a repetition, or a run, or simply to help get up and out of bed.
For Williams, that was not the case. During second half action against the Spurs, he spread out his arms like wings after throwing down an alley-oop dunk at full speed, his head nearly hitting the backboard. It was an iconic moment, a picture that will likely be the most memorable of his 2011-2012 season.
But it wasn't an image that he had in his mind last year.
"It's hard to see that when you can't walk," he said. "But I'm a guy who works very hard. I knew I would get back going."
Williams, 22, is a showman on the court but still extremely shy off of it. Asked about the airplane dunk celebration, he looked immediately at his feet and starting laughing, as if embarrassed by his expression.
"Just a little something something," he said. "I was feeling myself a little bit. Probably got to cut that out. Just in the heat of the moment."
He then attempted to hand off the credit. "Wesley, he could have probably scored the lay-up, but being the great teammate he is, looked for me on the break," Williams said. "He threw it up. I tried to get the dunk in there quick because I saw [Danny] Green coming."
That one wasn't Williams' only highlight. Later, he rose high to throw a left-handed dunk down with his head near rim level.
It wasn't just dunks though, no matter how captivating the high-flying can be for everyone, basketball purists included. Williams continues to play assertively off the dribble, hitting from a variety of spots as he compiled a career-high 17 points.
"The thing about the NBA is you have to be aggressive and confident," Williams said. "These players are great. That's one thing I try to always be, stay aggressive and confident."
His play earned repeated cheers from the Rose Garden crowd, who have been clamoring for him to play more minutes. "I hear a little bit of it," Williams admitted. "I'm not worried about that. I appreciate the fans seeing talent but the one thing I've got to do is be prepared for when I get my opportunity."
The career night also caused Wallace to razz Williams during his post-game television interview (video here). Later, Wallace called across the locker room to tell Williams that he needed to watch SportsCenter, because he was going to make the top play.
"G, that's my big bro," Williams said. "He's always looking out for me and joking with me. Just making sure I stay on top of things. He's a good dude."
Williams remains in that magical, temporary state of life as a professional basketball player where he is happy with the limited minutes he's being given while able to succeed in those minutes. He's neither overwhelmed or underwhelmed, and he appears to have made some meaningful developmental progress over the course of this season. As mentioned in previous write-ups, he's usually the last player off the practice court, where he goes hard in one-on-one drills with player development assistant coach Dan Dickau. Before games, he's often working on dribbling and passing with his off (right) hand, getting in dozens of repetitions in hopes of improving his two-way feel.
As you might expect, all the attention given to his offense is the opposite of the message he's hearing from McMillan. "I talk with Nate a lot," he said. "The one thing he always tells me about is defense, pressure the ball. Your offense will come. Coach Nate is big on defense."
Williams said he is glad to have left the first half of the season on a high note, and he is headed home to spend time with his family during the All-Star break. The Slam Dunk Contest, it goes without saying, will be appointment viewing. "I've got some friends in there. Iman [Shumpert] is a good friend, Paul George," he said.
The obvious question came next: Will he be there next year?
"If they call me, I'll go," he said, smiling.
Asked if he had a series of dunks in the cut, ready to break out once he receives an invite, Williams broke down laughing again.
"I can come up with stuff," he promised. "But I don't have any ready to go. I'm just trying to get on the court."
Random Game Notes
- Thank you to all of those who donated to Blazersedge Night, helping the site reach its goal of sending 600 kids to a Blazers game.
- I hate to plug this again but many missed it in the deluge of Greg Oden posts: my CBSSports.com feature on Oden pulling together all the key quotes and news bits from Blazers Acting GM Chad Buchanan.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports that the Blazers may not be done pursuing free agent center Joel Przybilla. As mentioned on Tuesday morning, it's possible the Blazers release center Greg Oden to open up a roster spot to facilitate a move like signing Przybilla.
- Blazers guard Wesley Matthews rolled his left ankle during garbage time. He said he was fine and that it will not affect his status.
Matt Calkins of The Columbian asked McMillan whether Matthews should have still been in the game at that point. "We were about to rotate there," McMillan said. "Things like that can happen any time." McMillan was not happy to be answering that question again. Matthews was not the only rotation player still on the court in the fourth quarter of a ridiculous blowout.
- The Jumbotron Marriage Proposal Chronicles continued on Tuesday night, with a man proposing to his lady. She said, "yes," immediately, and looked very excited, although not totally shocked. Then, after a brief kiss, the man pulled out his phone and held it up in front of his face, apparently taking a camera phone photograph of the image of himself and his future life partner that was being shown on the jumbotron. "Will you marry me? ... Cool... Hold on, which button zooms out? God we look so big!"
- If the Blazersedge community can send 600 kids to a Blazers game, surely it can produce the camera phone image of this couple, right? I feel like that photo will wind up in my inbox by noon Wednesday.
- As the game turned into a serious blowout, an older British (?) lady, seated with a male companion directly behind me in the "Party Suite," decided it would be a good idea to lightly caress my head with a giant foam finger without asking permission. I guess that's just how she rolls. "Bold." "Awkward." Some might say, "illegal." Obviously, she's getting a divorce right now and we're getting engaged on the jumbotron next week. But seriously I reacted like Chris Paul when Pau Gasol tried to rub his head. I probably scared her sober.
- Things got a little awkward with the Blazers up 57-37 in the second quarter. Blazers forward Luke Babbitt, apparently preparing for his fourth quarter duties, began grating cheese, shredding lettuce and pre-heating his oven on the bench. At halftime, he could be heard through the locker room wall shouting, "Get Money!" and teammates later reported that he interrupted McMillan's halftime speech by making it rain Taco Bell coupons.*
- Unfortunately for Babbitt, the Blazers hit 100 points before the fourth quarter and he was not able to be the Chalupa Man again.
- * This didn't happen. (To my knowledge.)
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Thoughts on that game
Sometimes that type of game can be a challenge. When Coach Popovich, about the same time last year he rested some of his guys, they played well, you know they are going to scrap. Sometimes you can be a letdown. For our guys, as I told them, it's not about the team or who is out we need to play the game. I thought they did. They went out and focused. They played the game the right way. We got off to a good start. Pretty much continued that.
How did Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton play?
I thought both of them did a nice job of running the team. Taking the shots that were there. We haven't seen this type of shooting all season long. It's good to see those guys take good shots and make shots.
Why only 14 minutes for Marcus Camby?
We went with our rotation, they were playing small ball, it was a good match-up for us.
Hard to evaluate lineup change against a team that doesn't play starters?
I'm not going to worry about it. We got this win tonight. I'm going on break tomorrow. I'll start thinking about that when we return next week.
Assessment of the first half of the season?
It was OK. We weren't consistent. As I told the guys, go and enjoy the break. Get away because we need to refocus. We've got some making up to do. This second half, we've got to lock in and play much better basketball to get ourselves back in this race. The first half, we know there are a number of games we felt like we could have won. We are where we are. We have to lock in and play a better second half.
Message to LaMarcus Aldridge for All-Star selection?
Enjoy it. Enjoy it. Opportunities like that, they are hard to come by. He deserves it. He's earned the right to be an All-Star. Enjoy it. Congratulations on that.
Should Wesley Matthews have been in the game late when he sprained his ankle?
We were about to rotate there. Things like that can happen any time.
Don't play the scoreboard. Play the game. I thought our guys did that.
A chance to get young players minutes
We rarely get into a game like that. You are able to get those guys some minutes. They work hard, it was good to see them out on the floor. They did a good job of running [their sets]. They work on their sets every day, they ran their sets, I thought they did a solid job. They didn't, as I say, mess with the game. They stayed solid, executed defensively. Were pretty aggressive. It wasn't sloppy towards the end.
Where are you going on the break?
I'm going to get away. I think I'm going to go back to Carolina for a few days.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter