The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 117-97, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving their record to 14-10 on the season.
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum played through a sore knee on his way to a record-setting performance on Saturday night. He gave a firm shake to nine years worth of comparisons too.
First, tally the damage. Batum made nine three-pointers, the most in Blazers history. His 9-for-15 shooting performance from deep pushed him to a career-high 33 points on 11-for-19 shooting overall. He added three steals and a block in just 24 minutes.
He did it all in his first night back after sitting out two games with a left knee contusion suffered on Monday night. Batum labored before the game, grimaced during the game and sported large ice packs on both knees in the locker room afterwards.
His reliance on the three-ball, he said, was therefore an act of expediency before anything else.
"I tried to drive, I tried to dunk it, I couldn't dunk it, I missed a wide open lay-up. All I could do today was shoot a three-pointer. I shot 15 three-pointers today. That's all I could do."
After he drained his eighth three, the Rose Garden crowd chanted "Nic Ba-Tum." The serenade honor has been reserved for the likes of former guard Brandon Roy and starting forward Gerald Wallace. He immediately responded by draining his ninth and final three.
"I heard that," Batum said with a huge smile. "It felt great, that was my first time. Now I know what G. feels like."
Blazers coach Nate McMillan said the record-setting output resulted from a cross match-up against Nuggets guard Andre Miller that Portland had hoped to exploit.
"What we wanted to do was match him up with Andre defensively, and they matched Andre on him," McMillan explained. "We wanted to run Andre and make him defend. Nic got a rhythm. Normally when sets are working we want to stick with it. He was able to make Andre work and knock down some shots."
Fatigue was a factor too. The Nuggets were on the closing night of a three games in three cities in three night stretch that included battles with the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday and the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. Nuggets center Nene Hilario finished with just 4 points and 2 rebounds on 1-for-5 shooting in 27 minutes. Considering that he spent the previous 48 hours battling the likes of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, it wasn't not surprising.
But Nuggets coach George Karl pointed to his team's perimeter rotations as perhaps the fatal flaw. Portland exploited Denver's lack of legs time and again, notching 30 assists on 46 made baskets to shoot 53.5 percent from the floor as a team, a mark topped only by the 55 percent they hit during Wednesday's blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
"Our energy in rotating and finding the open man on the defensive situations [wasn't there]," Karl lamented. "We just ran out of gas. I think we should request that any time we play three games in three nights, it should be a forty minute game. Then it would've been fine."
Nuggets wing Corey Brewer added: "[Batum] is a handful, but he was hitting wide-open threes."
If Brewer wasn't totally impressed with the performance, Wallace was.
"We all know he can shoot," Wallace said. "I have to contest those shots in practice every day so I already know what he can do... I was just impressed him [by] doing it with a banged up knee. That makes it even more impressive to me."
Batum's demonstrated ability to play through pain has been evident since his rookie year, when he hopped around for an entire game on a bum ankle. Add Saturday night to that one in the lore. When a guy nicknamed "Crash" with a medical history that includes multiple concussions and a punctured lung that required him to ride a bus across the country because he couldn't fly openly takes his hat off to you, your toughness is officially beyond reproach.
We follow sports for the highs and lows, because the concept of a "range of emotion" gets stretched to its absolute maximum here. Because a young man can sit in a corner locker halfway across the world from his birthplace, absolutely distraught because his mother is held up by authorities trying to enter the United States, and the same young man can sit in the same corner locker two weeks later, utterly satisfied, grinning from ear to ear after doing something that has never been done and doing it against a rival who has progressed step-by-step alongside him for nearly a decade.
In any game, on any night, in any gym, you walk away from this game happy as a clam. But there was an added satisfaction for Batum, as he had his career night while playing against Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari of Italy.
Batum and Gallinari are both 23. Gallinari is four months and six days older, born August 8, 1988, while Batum was born on December 14. They are both the sons of professional basketball players and play the same position. Batum was the No. 25 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft; Gallinari was taken No. 6 overall. Batum made his NBA debut on October 28, 2008; Gallinari on October 29. Gallinari inked a 4-year, $42 million contract extension with the Nuggets in January; Batum, of course, was not given an extension by the Blazers.
Through one quarter on Saturday, Gallinari had 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and looked destined for a career-high of his own. He scored inside and out and dished passes with incredible vision and court awareness, dribbling confidently in the open court, a do-everything forward who seems on the verge of becoming the NBA's next great international star.
For Batum, he's seen the development up close and personal.
"The first time I played against Gallo we were 14," Batum said. "I've known this guy since 6, 7, 8 years now. He was the best [in Europe] already."
The two players were linked through their time in juniors, on their respective national teams, in the European professional leagues and during the pre-draft process.
"We were born the same year, in Europe it was between him and me. 'Who's the best in Europe, Gallinari or Batum?'"
Batum conceded the comparison without hesitation.
"He was the best."
The compliments kept flowing at length, without any real prodding.
"He is a scorer," Batum said. "I've never seen a guy who draws so many fouls. In the next couple of years he's going to be the best at drawing fouls, maybe even better than Kevin Durant. He's aggressive, so smart, his body control, he's stronger, his back is OK now. I think he should be an All-Star this year. No. 2 in the West. Best scorer. You never know."
But you got him tonight.
All of a sudden, the flow of words stopped.
A smile and a nod and a bashful look down at his lap.
Random Game Notes
- Blazers guard Raymond Felton left the game during the third quarter with a foot sprain. Full details here.
- Blazers center Greg Oden, who underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee on Friday, was shown during a jumbotron feature regarding Super Bowl picks. His image received some scattered boos.
- Miami Heat All-Star forward LeBron James tweeted out some love to Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the game: "Man LaMarcus Aldridge aka LA got so much game!! Smooth out there."
- Blazers radio play by play man Brian Wheeler reported that Blazers coach Nate McMillan is hearing good things regarding Aldridge's All-Star candidacy: "Nate said on the radio tonight that he has heard from every other Western coach & L.A. should have enough votes 2 make the All-Star team! Of course, Nate said a lot of them said the same thing last year. But you get the sense All-Star momentum is building 4 L.A., & it should!"
- Nuggets coach George Karl before the game: "He's got my vote. I think I voted for him last year. He's an All-Star. You go from Bynum to Aldridge, even though they are different types of power players, big men that can dominate a game. I would think Aldridge has more skill and polish, he can beat you inside, he can beat you running, he can beat you making 18-foot jump shots."
- In case you missed it, here's a round-up of some of the All-Star love Aldridge is receiving around the league.
- Aldridge told Jason Quick of The Oregonian after the game that he was in a car accident while driving his Ferrari on his way to the game. He was not injured, obviously, as he played 40 minutes and finished with 29 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. Story here.
- Batum on how this game stacked up against the best games of his career: "I got no rebounds and no assists. That wasn't my best game. When I got 31 points, I got 7 assists. One of my best, maybe, but not the best."
- McMillan, though, called it Batum's "best game of his career."
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Nicolas Batum was feeling alright
We talked about him grimacing before the game. He said he felt good yesterday. He did some running this morning at shootaround. He said he was ready to go. [Trainer] Jay [Jensen] worked him out, got a good sweat before practice started. Had his best game of his career here.
His best game shooting-wise
It was shooting the ball. What we wanted to do was match him up with Andre defensively and they matched Andre on him. We wanted to run Andre and make him defend. Nic got a rhythm. Normally when sets are working we want to stick with it. He was able to make Andre work and knock down some shots.
Making shots as a team
It's always good to see the ball go in the hole. At times, even though we were making shots, we were settling. We had opportunities to go to the basket. We've seen games like this where we shoot the ball well in the first half then they don't go in the second half. We only had four free throws in the first half. We wanted to get back to the game plan which was to attack the basket, force their defense to stop the ball penetrating the basket. If you have jump shots off of that take it but don't settle for the jump shots.
Attack the basket because Nuggets had back-to-back-to-back?
No question, but that's the game plan for us every night. Win the free throw line. As far as those guys playing three games back-to-back-to-back, we wanted to run them. Even on made buckets we wanted to push the ball and force the tempo and try to get into their legs and make them defend both ends of the floor. I thought we did that for the most part. The shots were falling in the second half and we were able to stretch that lead.
Have a Felton update?
How much better is LaMarcus Aldridge when someone else has it going?
We're better as a team because teams are going to, when he's playing well, most teams try to start off guarding him single coverage. That's been hard to do so what they end up doing is start double-teaming. You've got to knock those shots down when teams are double-teaming. Tonight Nic, when they started double-teaming the second half, was the guy who knocked down some big shots. Crawford had a big shot. Wesley knocked down some shots so we are much better when the perimeter is keeping the defense honest on LaMarcus.
Jamal Crawford to start if Felton can't go?
How big was win given division standings?
It's a division game. We felt like we played bad in Sacramento. We just needed a win. We need to play a good game against a very good team. Continue to defend the homecourt with us dropping some games on the road. Continue to try to defend homecourt especially during this stretch of games. We've got some top teams coming in here, another division game coming up. All games are important and when you drop a game like we did at Sacramento it's good to get back in the win column.
Talk to Raymond?
Yes. He has an ice bag on. They are going to get X-rays. It's pretty sore. But I haven't gotten anything from Jay [Jensen] as far as timeframe.
OKC is West measuring stick?
They are the top team right now in the Western Conference and playing good basketball. It's a good team. They're not the top team until the end of the season but they are the team right now that's playing the best basketball.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter