The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, 97-93, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, improving their record to 22-25.
The Blazers just let a perfectly good loss slip away.
On the flip side, it turns out that paying customers enjoy quality wins. It's been more than a month since the Rose Garden has seen one of those so you're forgiven if you had forgotten that fact.
Still "The Chart" warned clearly against exactly this type of victory. Keep your expectations and results aligned, it said, while reminding us that "fool's gold" only exists as a concept if the gold looks authentic enough to not be exposed as worthless upon first glance. Upon reflection, a win like this is a pointless and Pyrrhic victory but that doesn't necessarily mean it can't be fun in the moment, too.
Putting aside the cynicism for the sake of documenting Thursday night's events, there were some golden moments for Portland, and they started shortly after the tip. Blazers forward Nicolas Batum scored the game's first four points, getting inside on both baskets. The early success was a sign of things to come, as Batum finished with a game-high 24 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists on 9-for-15 shooting in 35 minutes.
It was the first time Batum had broken 20 points since Mar. 3. He had shot 36.6 percent from the field over his previous five games. His tendency to disappear on offense -- and the resulting inconsistency in scoring -- has been a sore spot for years; it's deservedly receiving the magnifying glass treatment following the trade deadline. With Gerald Wallace traded and with Wesley Matthews playing the other wing, production from Batum is now an unqualified necessity.
"Now I've got to step up," Batum said. "I'm the number two option now. I've got to do a better job. I missed that the last two games. Today, I was like, 'I've got to come in and play like a go-to guy almost.' I tried to be aggressive. I'm going to make some mistakes but I was like, 'Don't worry about it.'"
There is no "almost." There are no longer any excuses. Calls for patience won't cut it either; Neither will pinning shakiness on the coaching staff. Batum has been returned to his natural position, he is now the recipient of starter's minutes, shots, plays and touches every night, and he's clearly near the top of the overall pecking order in the eyes of his teammates and the coaching staff. It's put up or shut up time with a big check dangling in the offseason as motivation.
The Blazers have played their ugliest basketball in recent weeks when their deep shots have deserted them, when their defensive focus has faltered and when the effort level has been lacking. Batum was key in reversing each of those trends on Thursday.
"He played like he was energetic, motivated," forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. "I definitely feel like he can be that guy."
Batum hit four threes, he helped hold Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay to 4-for-10 shooting and 10 points in 30 minutes, and he drew a charge on Grizzlies center Marc Gasol with eight minutes remaining in the game, a tough play that provided some sorely needed fourth quarter confidence.
"I just tried to get position inside," Batum said. "He's bigger than me. I've got to fight. I got a charge on that, maybe next time i won't. But it was at a good time."
The charge cost Memphis a possession and it would up costing Gasol, who was clearly the Grizzlies' most effective weapon with 22 points and 9 rebounds, a technical foul too. Asked if there was perhaps an exchange between the two players during the game, Batum smirked.
"Sometimes," he joked. "I'm French. He's Spanish."
Their debate concerning the relative merits of democratic and dictatorial governmental principles ended with Blazers guard Jamal Crawford cashing in the technical free throw and forward LaMarcus Aldridge converting a tip on the ensuing possession, giving Portland an 81-74 lead.
"We have a goal of trying to take five charges a game," Blazers interim coach Kaleb Canales explained. "Nic was in good position. He took a charge and it was a huge momentum play for us, got us the ball."
Indeed, the resulting 7-point buffer was just enough, as the Blazers never relinquished the lead down the stretch despite struggling with late-game meltdowns all season.
Not since a Feb. 18 against the Atlanta Hawks have the Blazers beaten a good team at home without extenuating circumstances. Since then, there was an All-Star Weekend, a lengthy road trip, a gifted win from the San Antonio Spurs, a cheap win against the lowly New Orleans Hornets and losses to the Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.
This win was delivered, in large part, at the charity stripe. Portland shot 12-for-12 from the free throw line during the final nine minutes of the game and finished a perfect 25-for-25 from the line, the most free throws without a miss the Blazers have managed in a game since 1986.
"We work on free throws," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews said, after hitting a pair with 21 seconds left to help seal the win. "We've got to make clutch free throws. Put us in positions -- that's where you want to be. On the line icing the game."
"I thought guys played big," Aldridge said, after finishing with 16 points and 5 rebounds in the type of passive performance that has generally led to a loss this season. "[Raymond Felton] played big down the stretch the whole game. Jamal [Crawford] made some big free throws. [Wesley Matthews] did too. Guys handled the moment well."
"Our resolve was where it needed to be tonight," Canales agreed.
As was the defensive effort. Gasol, a first time All-Star in 2012, is a handful for any team, much less one that just jettisoned former starting center Marcus Camby and is now left with a trio of minimum salary players in his place. But Portland managed to keep the rebounding differential close (-3) and got a season-high 9 boards from Matthews, who finished with 18 points on 5-for-12 shooting .
"We want our DNA to be on the defensive end and that's five guys committed to rebounding," Canales said. "I thought our guys did a marvelous job tonight of five guys rebounding."
"This is a big team with Z-Bo and Marc inside," Batum said. "We tried to control the rebounds. We did a good job. Everybody was involved."
The Rose Garden crowd was involved too, reaching pandemonium stage for the first time in a long time. Energy that was once taken for granted simply hasn't been there in recent weeks. For a night, it was back.
"It was nice tonight," Batum said. "We played so bad the last 20, 25 games and they're still here. Sold out every time. They still make a lot of noise. We have the best fans in the world, in the good times and the bad times. We have respect for them. We have to compete and play every game."
Batum, Matthews and Aldridge all made reference to Tuesday's poor showing in a blowout defeat to the Bucks. Matthews called it a "terrible performance" and Batum said he understood why Portland's play was booed.
"Of course I understand that. We played really bad. We didn't show like a good team. We almost gave up on them sometimes. We have to show them respect because they respect us. They are here every night, they cheer for us every night. We have to do that for them."
You hear that? It sounds like a foreign language these days but it's something called "pride." Whether that proves to be lasting or fleeting for the group as a whole isn't really a major concern over the next month or so. The story of this season was written on the trade deadline.
In Batum's case, though, consistent accountability and pride are as necessary as consistent scoring. Becoming a "go-to guy" for a winning team demands it.
Random Game Notes
- The Blazers announced this game as a sellout.
- Blazersedge Night 2012 was a smash success. Dave's thoughts are here. Getting the chance to spend a few minutes with him talking about the Blazers is a highlight of mine every year. It's also very cool to see him in his true element, spreading the love (and the love of basketball).
- This year definitely set the record for most "Thank You's" received from total strangers. I will now just ball reversal all of that gratitude to Dave for the ridiculous hours involved in managing and orchestrating the event and to the many of you who donated to the cause.
- Kaleb Canales on why he was a bit more demonstrative with the referees on Thursday: "They don't know who I am. I have to develop a relationship with them too."
- Absolutely did a double take during early warm-ups when Gilbert Arenas was in the shooting drills along with Josh Selby, Tony Allen and others. Arenas finished with 2 points and 3 assists in 12 minutes, his first action of the 2011-2012 season. Honestly thought he was gone for good.
- Annie Peterson of the Associated Press reports Arenas' post-game self-assessment: "I thought I did alright for coming off the couch.''
- Interesting to see Canales cut down his rotation a bit in a tight game. Luke Babbitt's minutes took a big hit. Nolan Smith played just 11 minutes. Jonny Flynn got a quick run-through in the first half. This "win vs. development" thing is going to linger.
- Of course Raymond Felton decided to tank the tank, scoring 13 points, dishing 9 assists and committing zero turnovers.
- I joked that someone should make a custom Jonny Flynn jersey with "Not Felton" written on the back. Here's what it would look like via @rmkinkade. You're honestly telling me you wouldn't wear that?
- This excellent and unintentionally hilarious Bruce Ely photograph made the rounds, in case you missed it.
- Ms. Oregon almost got most of the words right in the National Anthem. Just a Satriale's butcher shop job. Worst of the year.
Stick to naively hoping for world peace.(Too far. Apologies.)
- It's always nice to chat with Lindsay Mills, the funniest Blazers fan on Twitter, in person. It was kind of creepy seeing a Jamal Crawford Voodoo Doll with like 4,568 needles poking out of her backpack, but sometimes you just have to let awkward moments like that pass and pretend they didn't happen.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
We want our team identity to be on the defensive end of the floor. We thought as a staff today we came to defend for 48 minutes.
Almost got away at the end
It's an NBA basketball game. It's a game of runs. Our resolve was where it needed to be tonight. That's a good team out there. Coach Hollins and his staff do a great job. It's talented from top to bottom. It's a good team win for us tonight.
How would you describe the play down the stretch
With resolve. We executed. We wanted to get the ball to the people we got the ball to. We did a good job of executing down the stretch.
Nicolas increase his aggressiveness
We wanted Nic to play better defense. We wanted our guys to play better defense. I thought we did that for 48 minutes.
I thought we were active. I thought we played with speed. And we didn't give up a 30 point quarter. Those are goals we talked about. We came out and executed tonight.
Vibe at practice this week
We're staying in the moment. We understood that our preparation for this game -- we're not looking back at anything, we're looking forward. We know we're going to enjoy this one until 12:01 and then get ready for the Lakers tomorrow.
Nicolas Batum's game
I thought he had a great game. Any time Nicolas is active on defense, getting deflections, playing with speed on defense, his offense usually comes with that. I thought Nic, LaMarcus all had great games.
Does this team still believe?
We've always believed. We're not going to stop believing. We're staying in the moment, controlling what we can control. That's getting on a plane tonight and playing the Lakers tomorrow.
First home win as a head coach
To be honest with your, I'm just concentrating on the Lakers tomorrow. It's special. Maybe after the season is over I'll look back. But right now we're just trying to prepare for the Lakers tomorrow.
Starting to work the referees
They don't know who I am. I have to develop a relationship with them too. It's natural. I'm not going to do something I'm not comfortable doing. I've got to take it one game at a time.
You're using a different style tonight than before with the refs?
I'm really, really concentrating on the next play. What we're going to do defensively and offensively. Just focus on that.
Batum took the charge on Gasol.
Any time we take charges -- We have a goal of trying to take five charges a game. Nic was in good position. He took a charge and it was a huge momentum play for us, got us the ball.
Almost held them even on the glass
We mentioned to the guys, that's something we're committed to. We want our DNA to be on the defensive end and that's five guys committed to rebounding. I thought our guys did a marvelous job tonight of five guys rebounding.
We had a good game as a team. It was a team win. It was not about one player, it's about a team and a group.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter